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Flexible School Facilities
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By Frank M. Locker PhD, AIA, REFP with Steven Olson, AIA

School facilities have always had changing needs. Enrollments fluctuate. New program initiatives are regularly conceived. The relationship between schools and their communities is constantly evolving. Technology has altered the potential and, in some cases, the delivery of education. It would be difficult to find any school building over five years old with every space utilized as originally intended. For buildings over forty years old, it would be impossible.

The challenge to educators and educational planners is simply this: facilities are expected to last forty years without major retrofit, but the programs they serve may change several times in that time period. Once a new building is built, nobody (not the taxpayers, not the politicians) wants to hear about revised facility needs for the life of the building. We must create school buildings poised for change.

Unfortunately, we tend to think of educational needs as cast in a single slice of time. Most taxpaying adults are “experts” on schools because they attended school once; their thoughts of school facilities are highly conditioned by their experiences as students. Most teachers, when interviewed about their vision of ideal school needs, create lists of all the things they haven’t had for the last twenty years. Most architects, and even educational planners, focus attention in their planning processes on current practices and needs. All of this is historic thinking. We need futurist thinking. The biggest challenge is to anticipate needs of the future.

Generic Functions
School planning practice has identified needs in terms of isolated functions, which we then seek to optimize in facility design. This approach tends to identify differences among old thinkingfunctions rather than similarities, and can result in buildings that become resistant to change.

Old Thinking

A futurist-oriented planning approach would identify similarities of size, location, and environmental conditioning, and seek to make them as interchangeable and reinterpretable as possible. Generic spaces would be sought rather than highly specific spaces. While a “state of the art” Home Economics lab may be needed now, the bigger issue is ” Will Home Economics be taught in thirty years, and if so, how?” The space may have more prospects for the future if it can become a science lab or art lab, as program needs change.


Planning for the long-term success of a new building requires a certain faith that current trends will endure. While we cannot believe absolutely in current trends, there are two truths that we must accept:
The long-term future will not be like it is today. Education will continue to evolve and may make facilities as we know them obsolete.
Schools will continue to be under-resourced.

The first point may be debatable, but the second is a truism in education. The combination of the two demands a search for legitimate flexibility.

The future of education will be defined by the interaction of the following factors. A well-planned building will anticipate these factors and facilitate them.

Educational Delivery
The last fifteen years have been exciting times in education and educational planning, as the traditional industrial model of education has been challenged by numerous restructuring concepts. Many of these initiatives are very provocative: small schools, schools within schools, team teaching, teacher-as-guide. They show great promise through outcomes such as increased graduation rates, greater student participation, increased staff satisfaction, more meaningful connections between staff and students, stronger relationships to neighborhoods and business communities, and more relevant modeling of the world outside school.

Yet these restructuring initiatives, as provocative and promising as they are, currently represent only a tiny percentage of our K-12 schools. If their impact lives up to their initial promise, these concepts will pervade existing school curriculums over the next several decades, placing significant stress on our stock of older, industrial-model school facilities. This stress will also apply to many buildings designed today but not yet built since many are tailor-made to serve practices that may soon change.

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March 2nd, 2006

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