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designing your school


How to Pick the Best Architect

Many school programs need at some point for new construction, whether it is the simple addition to an existing classroom wing or a brand-new facility from the ground up. Directors of schools most often have limited experience with hiring an architect. But choosing the right architect is essential for designing to meets your school’s needs. This article describes the most important facts to consider and explains how to pick the best architect for you and your school.

There have been numerous studies illustrating the importance of the classroom environment in supporting child development and learning. Most importantly, the architect you select must have experience in designing educational facilities. Knowledgeable architects gain insights with every new facility, and from every new client, they work with on a project. They learn the principles of good design, and they develop ways to turn these principles into three-dimensional space that supports children’s growth and enhances the teacher’s ability to do their jobs.

For instance, it is understood that a connection to the outdoor environment supports learning. An experienced education architect will be able to design a classroom that encourages children’s connection to the outdoors without distracting them from focusing on daily tasks. The interior landscape of a school is the physical world that the children occupy for most of the day, and it will have a dramatic effect on their educational experience. The classroom should be set up so that children can participate in activities independently. Child-sized restroom facilities should be located near classrooms so that children can use them without assistance. Shared areas, like the Art and Music rooms, the Cafeteria and Gymnasium, should be centrally located to academic classrooms so that it does not take a long time to get from one area to another during the day.

The architect must understand these and a large variety of other features of good school design, to be able to help you turn the ideas that are most important to you in a supportive educational environment.

Finding the right education architect:

How do you go about finding the right architect for your school? The architects that specialize in education design and have obviously committed their careers to this specialized branch of architecture would be your best bet. They have likely taken seminars and continuing education courses relating to educational principles and design. They will be the best choice.

Architects that have committed their careers
to specializing in education design
will be your best choice.

A great way to begin is by researching architects online. Browse online portfolios of work to ensure they have experience with school buildings, but do not expect each design to be the same. A good architect is one who listens to their client’s wishes and creates an architectural style that suits the goals of the school the community in which they are located. The excellent quality experiences and unique solutions that an architect has created will most likely lead you to a good architect.

Once you have the names of one or more architects, call them and ask if they would be interested in your project. Ask them to send information on their firm, including samples of past projects similar to yours. Ask who would be working directly with you and speak to that individual. Get a feel for how you communicate with the architect that would work on your project. Working with an architect is not a quick process. Select someone who interacts well with you, who understands you and how you communicate and is enthusiastic about the project.

Costs and schedules:

Cost is a critical factor in most projects. Prices for design and construction vary widely depending on the type of project and the location, but there are some general factors to consider.

When comparing design fees for different architects, look closely at the services they are offering. One architect may be offering to merely design the architecture of the building, while another may be contributing interior design, more extensive preliminary planning, or other additional services that will add a great deal of value to the project. Make sure you are comparing apples to apples.

In most cases, paying for thorough preliminary design and master planning is a good investment. A properly planned project can be built less expensively and will save time by minimizing or eliminating the need for backtracking later in the process. Also, careful long-term planning will help to give you a school that meets your requirements in the long run, so that future remodeling will be much less likely. These long-term factors should be weighed carefully when reviewing an architect’s proposed fees.

Steps in the design process:

The following are typical steps in the design process.

Feasibility Study. In a big-picture sense, the architect reviews the appropriateness of the site in regards to the school’s goals, the budget, building, and planning code issues, and other problems that may affect the overall feasibility of the project. A Feasibility Study includes a Concept Site Plan and a Concept Building and involves the analysis of how the campus would lay out on possible land parcels. A Concept Site plan includes property boundaries, setback, and easements as well as landscape buffers, and conceptual parking, building, and playground locations. A Concept Building Plan provides an estimated building footprint and shape that could accommodate the number of students and staff needed for the initial design. If building the campus in multiple phases, Master Planning services would be necessary to plan for long-term growth and adaptability.

Master Planning. School campuses tend to grow and evolve due to funding and student growth. Whether you are starting a school from the very beginning or adding on to an existing campus, the creation of or a thorough review of the Master Plan makes sure that your campus is growing in the right direction. A Master Plan lays out the long-term series of growth steps for the campus so that construction work can be carried out in phases that occur in a logical order. It is essential that the architect understand crucial factors that affect the school’s quality, such as the potential for indoor-outdoor relationships and the real square footage required for a quality facility. For a small remodel where the client has a good idea of what they want, the architect may merely review the client’s decisions, and make recommendations if they see a potentially better approach.

Programming. All of the school’s goals and design criteria are decided and prioritized before the building design process occurs. A program is written up that will be a reference throughout the design process. Programming is a key process that helps to minimize expensive and time-consuming changes later in the process and to ensure that your school’s goals will be met.

Schematic Design. The architect works out the general design and produces sketches to review with you. The architect will refine the design and revise the plans until you have a design that you approve. It is essential that you study the design carefully and make sure that all of the criteria outlined in the Program are met. Ask any questions that are necessary to understand the design thoroughly, and communicate to the architect any changes that you want to be made. A rough cost estimate may also be completed during Schematic Design.

Interior Design and Classroom Layout. For most schools, it will be to your benefit to hire an architect who can include the design the interior layout of the classrooms. In this way the large-scale and small-scale design can be conceived together, creating an integral whole. The initial design fee may be higher if Interior Design work is included, but the result will be a school facility that is more functional for children, staff, and administrators. It would be very frustrating to have a new school classroom that is not designed for specific educational furniture. What would happen if there was no outlet provided for the Smart Board on the correct wall? Where would the student’s personal belongings go if there was not enough wall space for storage?

Design Development. The schematic floor plans and elevations are refined. Details are created, and material selections are chosen and reviewed with you. At the end of Design Development, the basic design should be set. For smaller projects, Design Development may be combined with Schematic Design or with the next phase, Construction Documents. If cost estimating did not occur during the schematic stage, it is recommended that it happens at this point. It is much less expensive to change the design to meet budget limitations before Construction Documentation begins.

Construction Documents. The architect produces drawings and written specifications to give the contractor all the information for pricing, permitting and building the project.

Bidding and Negotiation. You may already know which contractor you wish to have construct the project. In this case, you would send them the Construction Documents provided by your architect and negotiate a price for construction. Another route would be to ask for bids from several general contractors. The Construction Documents along with an invitation to bid would then sent to each contractor for proposals. After you have interviewed the contractors and made your selection, a contract is drawn up between you and the contractor. The architect can help administrate the Bidding and Negotiation process.

Construction Administration. The architect provides additional information to the contractor as needed, makes regularly scheduled visits to the project during construction, and reviews the work to see that project is built as intended. The construction process is more complicated than many people realize, and having the architect on board for Construction Administration can save you a great deal of time, money, and frustration, and ensures the best product in the end.

Architects licensed in multiple states are experienced in working long-distance. In this case, they would do most of the Construction Administration by phone and email and travel to the site regularly to monitor construction progress and assist the general contractor with interpreting the plans.

Hiring an out-of-state architect:

An experienced architect can work comfortably long-distance. Since education design is such a specialized field, you may not be able to find a local architect who has both the experience needed and communicates well with you and your team. Hiring an out-of-state architect who does have the experience can be a good option. Architects with a broader range of geographic backgrounds have a more substantial knowledge base of design ideas from best practices used throughout various regions of the country. Architects that works in multiple states will have a more in-depth breadth of knowledge and a more substantial vocabulary of design solutions and styles they can bring to your project.

What you can expect from an architect:

The design and construction process can be complicated, but it offers many opportunities to clarify your school’s goals. Partnering with your architect will help you to meet those goals. The right architect will guide and advise you on the design and construction of your facility. They can turn concepts into spaces you may not have thought of that truly support your students’ development and learning processes.

An architect with experience in education projects
will be most likely to prevent costly mistakes
and offer accurate scheduling estimates.

An architect will be able to make recommendations that you may not have thought of, to optimize the quality of the facility while keeping construction costs down. Their experience will be worth a great deal. The initial design fees will likely be minimal compared to the cost savings in construction and the avoidance of future problems with the design.

The best time to hire an architect:

When is the best time to hire an architect? As early as possible! The architect can help you define your goals, and preliminary planning work is money well spent. The architect’s experience in education design will play a crucial role at the beginning of the project. For large capital projects, the architect’s initial planning and design services can help you get funding at the start. The initial concept plans and elevations can be presented to potential funding sources.

Your role in the design process:

You will benefit the project by taking an active part in the design process. The more information you can give to the architect, the better they will be able to design a facility that will work best for you. Make your thoughts, needs, and wishes clear to the architect throughout the process.

At the same time, a good architect can also help you clarify your vision. It is their job to turn your needs into a physical building and interior spaces, so it is okay and often best if you do not have solutions already set in your mind. Make your goals clear to the architect, and let them give their professional input.

You and the architect will be working together towards a shared goal; to create the best physical environment for your school that you can, within your budget and within your time frame. Make sure you are hiring an architect that shares your vision and goals and doesn’t try to pressure you into ideas that aren’t in your best interest. Communicate openly with your design team as the process unfolds and don’t be afraid to say no to ideas that don’t fit your vision. How to pick the best architect is about selecting an architect that will allow the client’s vision to become a reality and not their own. Excellent communication will allow for the best overall results in the long run.

If you’re considering building a new school, learn more about the real estate and property development process that Rebecca teaches her clients.  Check out her blog article, How to Develop Real Estate.

Rebecca Calbert, AIA, is the Owner and Principal Architect at Calbert Design Group, LLC, a full-service architecture firm specializing in private education and child care design. Rebecca and her team have an extensive amount of experience in the education design field. To request a full listing of over 85 education projects completed by Calbert Design Group, please email Info@CalbertDesign.com or call 678-398-7744.