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Innovation on a Budget

David Powell

Progressive educators are intuitively open to innovative approaches in school design. Thing is, some colleagues that these educators must collaborate with hear the word “innovation” and instinctively think of it as a “nice to have” not a “must-have.” Still, others tend to equate innovation with expense.  

The truth of the matter is that innovative school design need not be superfluous, nor costly. In fact, thoughtful innovation can often align one’s pedagogical goals with the overall look and feel of the school and reduce costs along the way. 


 

Innovation Requires a Collective Mindset 

The effective search for and deployment of cost-saving innovations require that all stakeholders—school boards and administrators, architects and designers, builders, teachers and parents, etc.—embrace a common mindset, which is the willingness, instinct and courage to accept new solutions and unique approaches. Acceptance of any new approach tends to be most fruitful if it’s led by key decision-makers and district leadership. I find it particularly helpful when these leaders, who I like to call “sprinters,” run toward innovation, ready to leap over whatever hurdles may present themselves. 

The necessary mindset also requires resisting the notion that “less expensive” is synonymous with “less than.” Yes, some design innovations can lead to more expensive solutions that are sometimes demonstrably better and, all things considered, the smart way to go if the funds are available. But this is far from always the case. When it comes to architecture and design, less costly options can and do lead to “more than,” solutions that deliver more bang for the buck, reinforce pedagogical aims and are still aesthetically pleasing. 

At the macro level, cost-reducing school innovations occur via location and program choices and in construction materials and methods. Let’s explore each. 

Cost-Saving Innovations in Location & Program 

A school’s physical location is one consequential decision where innovative thinking can save money. For instance, in more urban environments, there are sometimes unused, low-cost plots of land available that, at first glance, may seem unpleasant and unworkable. However, with some creative design thinking and careful planning, sometimes these parcels can work quite well. In addition, situating a school near urban resources, such as museums and businesses, can offer up curricular opportunities that advance a school’s pedagogical aims. 

Another popular cost-saving innovation trend in urban and semi-urban areas has been in the adaptive reuse of existing space. We tend to think that schools need to be built from the ground up or by adding onto an existing campus; but this isn’t always the case. By expanding the search to include existing, unused structures, some schools have found smart, good-looking and practical homes within environments not initially intended for education. Office buildings, shopping malls, struggling community centers, etc. can absolutely be reimagined to meet educational needs, and, usually, at a significantly lower cost. Repurposing these empty structures can resurrect existing buildings and surrounding neighborhoods into valued and purposeful contributors of community growth. 

As for program choices, there’s been another movement afoot for some time now in which schools are embracing multiple approaches to teaching and learning: team-based, peer-to-peer, project-based, etc. Rather than create multiple spaces to accommodate each function, one space can be designed with enough flexibility to adequately serve several. This leads to considerably more efficient use of space, providing an improved cost-per-square-foot value. 

Cost-Saving Innovations in Materials and Methods 

We architects and designers derive a particular satisfaction from finding thoughtful and affordable ways to use materials to meet our clients’ budget goals. I was involved with a school project in which we selected a system of corrugated metal and glass for the exterior enclosure. Through careful detailing, material placement and coordination with the installing contractor, we were able to ensure an economical exterior without sacrificing longevity or quality. Of course, this approach saved a considerable amount of money, but still gave the school a durable weather-resistant exterior with its own signature.  

Architects and educators alike want schools with lots of natural light. Besides its physical and psychological benefits, the claim that access to sunlight improves student performance is decades-long and rarely refuted. For projects with a challenging budget, adding glazing usually tips the balance sheet in the wrong direction. Besides, I suggest that it’s not necessarily about the amount of glass that makes a difference, so much as its strategic location within a building.  

Louis Kahn (1901-1974), the great American architect known for his expert molding of building forms and unparalleled use of light, reminds us that light is about more than, well, light itself. Kahn believed the potential of learning was just as great from looking out the window as from reading a book. He also contended that effective natural light requires a deep understanding of shade and shadow. Fewer but more strategically placed windows can collaborate with shade and shadow to create a sculpted space and eventful light, often with substantially more dramatic effects.  

Utilizing prefabricated materials can be another strategy to create interesting, more affordable choices. Take precast concrete wall panels as an example. Some immediately resist this idea, thinking it will lead to a school that looks like a factory or warehouse. With some creative attention to the fabrication process, however, these panels can be detailed with simple form patterns to give them a distinct, layered appearance. And with intentional site placement, the sunlight, shade and shadow can turn an institutional material into one with elevated design quality, without extra cost.

Also trending is a push for modular, offsite fabrication for systems traditionally installed by sub-trades in the field. While modular casework and partitions are typical candidates for these strategies, even MEP/FP distribution can be constructed offsite and shipped for on-premise installation. With careful coordination, large ceiling sections can be fabricated with mechanical, electrical, AV and fire protection systems already incorporated. These panels are then hoisted and secured in place ready for final connections and inspection. 

Beautiful, innovative schools that fulfill pedagogical missions and respect budget parameters, while challenging, are by no means unrealistic. With some creative thinking and open minds, innovative design solutions that respect bottom-line realities can be found and implemented. 

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