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Avoiding Billion-Dollar Building Mistakes

It's not your grandmother's school--so why is it being built that way?

The U.S. will spend $90 billion in the next three years to prop up a dead institution--the schoolhouse. More than half of that money will be used to fix problems like leaking roofs and broken windows to extend the life of buildings that should have gone the way of the Model T. Even worse, almost all of the remaining money will be used to create new schools that look and feel remarkably like the ones our grandparents attended.

The irrefutable fact is that the educational environment does affect student well-being and performance. Studies show the strong influence of environmental factors like daylighting, acoustics and indoor air quality on student performance. However, even as the world of business has moved toward an ever-changing "learning organization" model, the original learning organization--the school--has changed little or not at all.

Here's how large districts with billion-dollar budgets are using--and misusing--those funds:

New schools look and feel remarkably like the ones our grandparents attended.

Los Angeles administrators seem to recognize the value of new ideas. But, at least in phase one of a $3.5 billion construction program, this district missed the boat. The first group of 79 schools generally dismissed high-quality natural and artificial lighting and an ecologically sensitive water management system. They also didn't incorporate research valuing small schools.

Philadelphia now has almost $1.5 billion to invest in school construction. Like many major cities, however, it is hiring architects after important planning and programming decisions have already been made and with little community input. This leaves little room for alternative, creative solutions.

In New Jersey, which has nearly $8.5 billion to build and renovate schools, the picture is mixed. A governor's executive order calls for new schools that support 21st century teaching and learning practices and mandates the construction of "green" (sustainable) and community schools. But for the most part, the "cells and bells" design model--classrooms arrayed along a double-loaded corridor--prevails.

Seattle is perhaps the best example of a system that "gets it." While not part of the billion-dollar club, at least at the policy level, Seattle has by far the most innovative and inclusive model for planning new and renovated schools. However, there's not enough data to show that all functional areas responsible for developing schools have signed on to the new model in order to create "new paradigm" school facilities.

The New Design Paradigm

What design features do "new-paradigm" schools include? They:

Are small, or at least create a sense of smallness within a larger community.

Are designed around the idea of "personalization," which requires variety and flexibility of spatial arrangements and encourages "learning by doing."

Afford "anytime, anywhere" access to technology for students and teachers through mobile computers, wireless networks and distance learning.

Are modeled on seeing all areas within schools as learning spaces.

Respect the connection between indoors and outdoors.

Focus on the details. Window heights maximize daylight penetration into a space. Some walls that are not at right angles help soften acoustical reverberation. Furniture, fixtures and equipment are selected based upon performance since these are what people notice. The list goes on ...

For projects not yet on the drawing boards, consider revamping the way schools are developed so that the process is more collaborative. For projects already started, look to the details. For example, much can be done in the way facilities are outfitted, furnished and equipped to make them more conducive to learning both within and outside the classroom.

By incorporating the best thinking and ideas that many smaller communities and charter schools around the country have already adopted, districts will make fewer "billion-dollar mistakes" and, literally, change the shape of learning for millions.

Prakash Nair and Randall Fielding,, are architects and principals of Fielding/Nair International (, an award-winning school planning firm.