Digging into the Details: Involving the Community

When it comes to the master planning phase of a project, one of the more important metrics of success is the community’s support and input for the final vision. While this is true for every project, it is especially important when it comes to our K-12 projects. No matter how well-thought-out the planning phase may be, if the community does not have faith in the final concept, the project will never be adequately funded or, worse, never be built at all.

Ultimately, we are creating these projects for the benefit of the entire community, so the entire community’s input is extremely valuable to our designers and architects. In addition, people who have lived (and will, for generations to come!) in these communities deserve a voice in this process.

With this in mind, community and stakeholder input is a powerful tool in shaping our design process. It’s one of the primary reasons we involve community members at the beginning of the master planning phase. Before the site plans, the blueprints, the technical specs and the finishes and furnishings are ever designed, our clients let their communities know: your voice is important.

“Before the site plans, the blueprints, the technical specs and the finishes and furnishings are ever designed, our clients let their communities know: your voice is important.”

Our community meetings consist of a group of individuals who are recruited by the district to join what is known as the Community Advisory Team (CAT). Each CAT, which consists of 20-70 stakeholders, is invited to listen to a short presentation, including what the new school will look like, its location and more. The floor is then opened to the group, allowing them to give their feedback in real-time.

The benefits of these meetings are two-fold. First, the residents benefit because their voices are heard. Our SHP team understands that many people in our communities have been there for generations, and the idea of “some big architecture firm coming into this town and telling us what to build” is a typical but difficult stigma to overcome. That’s why we make a concerted effort to cultivate genuine relationships with the people in the CAT.

Secondly, SHP benefits because the feedback provided during these meetings allows our architects and designers to better understand the future desires and needs of the community. We then work to include as many elements as possible that the CAT deems necessary.

Another advantage of pulling in members of the community is that they get to be front and center for the entire master planning process. While creating the best possible school is of the utmost importance, other factors can and do play a role in the master planning and design process, such as space or budget constraints. By being there for the entire process, we can help the CAT understand why certain elements need to be prioritized over others.

Building Community Advisory Teams

The process of building a community advisory team is not as simple as holding an open meeting for the community. In fact, we intentionally try to fill the room with people from different backgrounds and viewpoints, including but not limited to district staff, like teachers and administrators, former students, those who live in the neighborhoods served by the school, and even business owners and managers who have a vested interest in seeing their community thrive.

It’s vital to include people from different backgrounds because they often have insights into areas that may otherwise be overlooked. For example, former students often play a huge role in community meetings because, typically, they have gone through the entire school system. They can provide a true and honest assessment of what went well for them throughout their academic career—and what did not. SHP can then take this information to the district and determine what new elements need to be included to improve previous shortcomings or oversights.

Another important player is the dissenting voice in the room. Let’s face it: it can be hard—really hard—to express an opinion that differs from the majority. It’s human nature to be hesitant to speak up out of fear of judgment or attack. That’s why it’s so critical to encourage everyone to speak their minds and to set the expectation that all the people in the room can and should have their opinions heard.

Formalizing The Process

We at SHP have experimented with many different approaches to creating community-supported plans; some of these approaches were more successful than others. After a rigorous assessment of what worked and what didn’t, we formalized a process that includes a mandatory checklist of what we need in order for the master plan to be successful. Once a master plan is developed, we can pull outside stakeholders in to give us feedback and help us create a final design scheme.

The checklist essentially comes down to three categories:

  • Is the project educationally fantastic?
  • Is it financially responsible?
  • Is it community-supported?

We have found these three facets to be most important to nearly every stakeholder involved. Once these are accounted for, and the district and the community are in favor of the plan, the real fun—design and construction—can begin.