Design Collaboration Can Make School a Great Teaching Tool
While collaboration is helpful in any building project, it is critical to the success of a high-performance, sustainable building. Sustainable facilities include a range of new and interconnected systems, which require buy-in and awareness for the building to perform as intended. When participating in the design process, there are some key opportunities for facility managers to partner with their counterparts on the design and construction team, ensuring that the building becomes a great environmental teaching tool.
• Pre-design and visioning. It can be rare for facility staff to be invited as active participants during this preliminary phase of the process, when design goals are being established. Participation here allows for maintenance and operations concerns to be voiced early, while also providing an opportunity for facility managers to be reminded of the school's broader institutional mission. For example, is health and wellness a particular concern in the school community? If so, could students use stairs in lieu of an elevator, thereby supporting individual health and reducing energy use? Would this behavioral outcome be more likely if there was space for them to gather and converse along the way? Similarly, do a majority of students suffer from asthma? Does that therefore require that specific materials be selected or air filtration be improved?
• Early sustainability decisions. During early design phases, the operations and maintenance team becomes a key resource about feasibility, policy, and long-term maintenance. It is during this time that options can be quickly considered, vetted, and adopted without requiring full design documentation. Opportunities for integrating teaching moments into the design can be evaluated in terms of educational value, cost, and maintainability. Nowhere is the specific insight of facility managers more important than when considering use of a new, innovative technology, which can introduce an element of risk. Advancements in building technology can only happen when owners and architects are willing to try a system or material that is new. This can and will have repercussions for operations and maintenance. A full and collaborative review of the risks and rewards during the design phase makes it more likely that administrators, teachers, and staff will understand occasional malfunctions once the building is occupied.
• Remember the basics. A successful school building will only be a good teaching tool if its occupants are comfortable and able to focus on learning. Facility managers are the best advocates for the serviceability and maintainability of their buildings. As an integral member of the design team, they can ensure that equipment will be accessible, controls will be configured in a way that supports operations, and finishes can be kept clean. Foreseeing potential obstacles and participating in the resulting coordination raises the building's potential for success, and this requires staying engaged and diligent throughout the design and construction process.
• Integrated learning opportunities. Once potential building-related lessons begin to emerge, strive to outline them in partnership with teaching staff and administration. Examining the building through the lens of an educator can reveal additional opportunities to make the building an excellent teaching tool. For example, a lesson about "less is more" could result in finishes being further minimized. Piping systems might need to become exposed to better show the path of a rain water pipe. Submeters might be added to track energy use in a particular way. Mechanical rooms might be slightly redesigned to accommodate visits by students in a way that is safe but informative.
• Design for today, but imagine tomorrow. All design and construction projects must involve thorough planning for the present, but they also provide an important opportunity to imagine the future. The lessons that are taught 10 or 20 years from now will be much different than today's. If water scarcity is a growing issue, consider the ways a building might be designed to accommodate a future gray-water system and how that system can be made visible. By considering these types of evolutions in advance, facility managers can help ensure that the building's teaching moments are flexible enough to adapt over time. This exercise can also be a rewarding opportunity to engage students, who excel at imagining the future, and who frequently enrich the design process.
A school building is a manifestation of an institution's core values, including its commitment to education and to environmental stewardship. The team that manages the facilities is more than a care-taking team; it is a teaching team. By reframing a facility not only as a building, but a lesson, a facility manager enhances its capacity to inform and inspire the next generation of environmental stewards.
Julie Nelson, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, GRP, is a partner at BKSK Architects, where she serves as a lead design partner as well as partner-in-charge of sustainability. She is a frequent lecturer on issues related to sustainable architecture and the design process.