Build It Or Not, They’ll Likely Come: Planning For Future Growth

Many architects and educational planners focus attention in their planning processes on current needs and the status quo. “What changes are essential to meet our needs?” “What will our enrollment numbers be in 5 years?” Both of these are good questions, but they should be just the beginning of planning. New buildings are a long-term investment. They will likely last 50, 60 and even up to 100 years in the future.

Because of this, we cannot view educational needs as cast in a single slice of time. Populations fluctuate. A-F accountability labels, safety and security, school choice, magnet programs and economic developments regularly contribute to enrollment increases and decreases. Educational needs continually evolve as instructional design, delivery and strategies adapt to societal changes and needs. The true challenge we are faced with when approaching a new building project, then, is anticipating needs into the future.

Since predicting the future hasn’t been nailed down as a science just yet, the question that educators and educational planners must address is simply this: How do we design facilities that meet current needs while being adaptable enough that they can last 50 to 100 years without becoming obsolete? Even through the turbulence of the programs and the students they serve continually change. That is not an easy task. But it can be successfully accomplished by proactively researching, planning and designing for change.

We must create school buildings ready for change.

Let’s look at the following scenario. The community has taken action to provide the funds, many times through a bond referendum, for a new facility, for additions, renovations or both. The expectation is that the planned facility will meet enrollment needs for many years. A few years in, a new community is developed increasing enrollment by 15%. Going back to the community, explaining the need to spend more money isn’t likely to be received well by taxpayers. Situations like this don’t have to happen. They can be avoided if the details are considered in the planning process and worked into the facility the day it opens.

Even with the best planning, certain parts of the campus will be overly complicated to scale with the growth of the building. The cafeteria, kitchen, library, administrative offices, gymnasium and band hall fall into this category and pose greater challenges when enrollment growth happens. When planning and designing these areas, the spaces should be designed to accommodate the maximum population planned or expected for the campus. That doesn’t always mean the spaces need to be twice the size to eventually fit twice the population. Campus leaders can use scheduling to impact the occupancy at specific periods throughout the day. For example, instead of having 1 or 2 lunch periods, they can plan for 3 or 4 lunch periods. This allows the cafeteria and kitchen to remain the same size with just a bit of additional storage to accommodate the increased supplies needed to support more mouths to feed.

In addition to planning buildings to address needs for the foreseeable future, it is prudent to plan buildings that will meet needs 10 to 30 years in the future. Thinking about enrollment growth 30 years in the future may not seem plausible, but forward-looking design decisions can make it much easier to build additions in the future that don’t break the bank.

Planning for future expansion in the early stages will help ensure that your building can accommodate growth many years down the road.

Some concepts to consider when planning for future growth are the shape of your buildingbuilding elements and structure and site layout. Ensuring your building and site are designed in such a way to make additions as simple as possible is easy to do now, and will make adding the spaces easier and more cost effective in the future. The picture below depicts an overhead layout of a high school where we planned to construct additional classrooms onto existing wings.

Shape of Building- The wings were designed so they could be added on to easily.

Structure- The structural frame at the end of the current wings are designed to bear the load of extending the building instead of the half-load end sections are typically designed for.

Site Layout- More importantly, during planning space was allocated on the site for the additional classrooms. We pushed the drive to the back parking lot away from the building, kept the utility lines off the future expansion area, but in close proximity for future use. Lastly, we designed the grading the site to be as flat as possible to accept a new addition without changing floor levels.

These may seem like inconsequential steps, but completing them later will cost more. Much more. Putting structure new structure next to existing structure for an addition isn’t just a waste, it is also hard to do in close quarters. Moving dirt is cheap when the site is empty and a lot of dirt is being moved at once but can get expensive when quantities are smaller and large machinery has to work around existing elements. Working through these details early in the planning process and allowing for the minimal extra costs now can decrease costs of later additions far beyond the current increased costs.

Building Elements and Structure- Planned building elements and structure can make future building additions easier, but they can also add visual interest at minimal cost. Let’s look at Forever Growing High School, below. We know that in the future, we will want to expand to this:

Currently, we only need to build this to meet our needs:

There are cost effective ways to dramatically enhance both the aesthetics and future ease of adding onto this building. Adding extra gable ends to the planned additions, like this:

allows us to reduce the complexity and cost of adding to the building in the future. Also taking advantage of economy of scale to add the extra structure needed to form these elements can be done with minimal cost now. We now have nodes, structural systems, and connection points that can be easily expanded in the future, while also making the building more visually appealing.

Building Growth General Rules- If you are planning a building, and you anticipate growth beyond your current needs, some simple rules to keep in mind are:

When planning the design of a building, we cannot say enough about the intersection of a building’s infrastructure and building growth.

But that mess there, it deserves its own topic to address it fully.

Can we really know the future? Planning for long-term success of a new building requires all of us to understand that change is inevitable. Growth will happen and needs will evolve. We may not know the direction things will go, but we can plan in a way that allows that change to naturally happen within the facilities we are building. By keeping these simple planning techniques and points in mind during the planning phase, we can keep costs down when future renovations or additions are planned, resulting in satisfied students, teachers, administrators and taxpayers.