Professional Learning

The Fine Art of Choosing an Architect: Hiring a School-Savvy Designer

Mistakes can happen, but hopefully not to you. Here’s what you need to know.

June 14, 2007
Credit: Dan Yaccarino

Architects tend to be far better dressed than the rest of us mere mortals. And they usually wear the kind of expensive eyewear that tells us right away they understand the unity of form and function. But don't be fooled -- they aren't perfect.

Here are a couple of recent examples of how things can go wrong, even when great architects are hired:

Insiders at the New York Times tell us that when the newspaper moves to its new skyscraper a couple of blocks away from its venerable 43rd Street building in Manhattan, a large part of its library will have to be given up because the very famous Italian architect who designed the new building didn't make any floor sufficiently strong enough to bear the weight of a collection of books that goes back to the nineteenth century, and didn't provide enough space below ground.

And this: Rumor has it that shortly after a major psychiatric hospital in New York City opened a new high-rise wing, a patient on a gurney was wheeled into an elevator that turned out to be too short to let the doors close; the architect explained that he had assumed mental patients don't need gurneys. Oops!

Though it's true that these anecdotal stories represent unusual, random architectural errors and shouldn't make the entire profession suspect, anyone involved with building or renovating a school knows that achieving success requires far more than finding an architect who can impress you with glamorous renderings that look like pages from Architectural Digest. There's nothing wrong with good-looking buildings, but a school's reason for being, not its appearance, should always be the primary focus.

"The photos in architectural magazines are typically devoid of people," says Daniel Cecil, of Harriman Associates, an architectural and engineering firm in Auburn, Maine. He points out that articles about school construction often take this approach. "It's as if architects and editors look at schools as beautiful settings for education but rarely consider how the school can be designed to enhance learning."

Though an eye-catching structure in an idyllic setting may also be an effective school building, creating spaces that enhance learning depends less on the "Wow!" factor and more on finding architects who know and understand the needs of those who will work and study in those schools. Unfortunately, committees charged with hiring often don't know what qualities to look for in architects -- nor what to expect from them.

"The architect is the single most important member of the building-committee team. He's the quarterback of the professionals," says real estate developer Louis P. Minicucci Jr., who leads a seven-member committee charged with overseeing school construction for North Andover, Massachusetts. "It's critical that you have a decision-making architect who coordinates the process from beginning to end. You need somebody who is consistent."

Minicucci points out that because the adage "Time is money" is especially true in planning and construction, this key individual must be given the power to quickly make necessary changes on the job. He adds that school architects also need the ability to couple aesthetics with practicality to ensure a building's functionality and durability.

"Last, in the public sector more than in the private one, you need someone who can do contract administration," says Minicucci. "You need an architect who understands clearly the rules and regulations of public construction in his or her state."

Minicucci has the track record to know what he's talking about. During the past decade, his committee shepherded the building of four schools on budget and on time in a state notorious for delays and overruns on public projects.

The Client with Many Heads

Architects always have to understand their clients, but those hired to design and build schools must be especially sensitive to unique client problems and needs.

"A school is a complex client with a complex set of relationships," says Claire Weisz, of the New York City firm weisz + yoes architecture. "You must look for an architect who is creative but also understands a multiheaded client."

Building a private residence, or even a corporate facility, typically involves considering the needs of a few -- either the prospective homeowners or top management. But public schools bring many voices to the table: teachers who have a wide spectrum of needs, from rooms large enough and properly designed to conduct a variety of learning activities to handy storage spaces for educational supplies; parents for whose kids the building will be a launch pad for the future; administrators who need efficient spaces in close contact with the school's functional areas; and even the custodians who will maintain the building.

Schools also differ from other public buildings in public focus on them. "People will be interested in the design of a city hall," says Harriman Associates's Daniel Cecil. "But they'll be far more interested in where their kids will be spending their time. A big difference between schools and other public buildings is the level of familial involvement."

This degree of emotional interest is a prime reason hiring architects who work well with a diverse array of stakeholders is imperative.

When designing a school, Cecil emphasizes, "the architect must build consensus among disparate parties. At the first meeting, I typically ask people why they're on the building committee and what their hopes are. Then, throughout the design process, we revisit those goals and views."

Case in point: As lead architect for Kennebunk Elementary School, a two-year-old K-3 school in Kennebunk, Maine, Cecil interviewed everyone involved with the building -- from parents, teachers, and students to community leaders, school administrators, staff, board members, and custodians -- to help determine all aspects of its design.

"The ability to listen is one of the most important skills the architect should have," he says.

Gary R. Slutzky, an educational-facilities planner for New York's Syracuse City School District, couldn't agree more. "There should be a rapport, a flow," he says. "You shouldn't feel like you've got to pull teeth to get an answer from an architect. The planning and design consultants should observe, ask questions, and listen; share their experience, ask questions, and listen; provide alternatives, ask questions, and listen. And then follow through."

The right architect will welcome this close interaction, says Richard Berliner, of Berliner and Associates Architecture, in Culver City, California. "The most successful schools we've worked on are when we've been able to work with faculty and staff to formulate the program," he adds. "We were able to understand their teaching methodology and tailor the spaces to support that."

By asking the right questions, architects can help building-committee members clarify and understand their own vision. Discussions shouldn't begin with "How many classrooms do you want?" Rather, architects should ask, "What kinds of learning activities will take place in the space? Show us how you teach. What's the purpose of this school? Why are we building it? Who is it for?"

Then architects must move beyond listening and help clients clarify their vision and see new possibilities with fresh eyes, according to Randall Fielding, a partner at Fielding Nair International and a frequent Edutopia contributor.

"Educators are not visionaries spatially," he says. "They'll describe what they want in words, and they'll have images that they're familiar with, or they'll talk in terms of lists of things. It's essential that architects help clients visualize as many different learning modalities as possible in each space. Innovation comes with being aware of options."

A Kid's-Eye View

The most spectacular school building will work only as well as it works for the students who use it, so a search committee should always use the interview process to find an architect comfortable with kids and knowledgeable about their widely varying needs.

"The developmental differences between a kindergartner and a middle school student are so huge, it's as if they're on different planets," says Daniel Cecil. He advises selection committees to quiz potential architects about their awareness of the specific group of students a school will be serving, suggesting that they specifically ask, "Tell us what you know about kids this age."

Seeing things from the students' point of view, both emotionally and literally, is imperative for designing a school that will adequately meet their needs. When Cecil was named lead architect of Kennebunk Elementary School, he recalls, "One of the first things my colleague Mark Lee and I did was walk around our office on our knees. We wanted to see things from a child's perspective." (See the Edutopia article "A Kid's-Eye View: School Redesign Where Student Needs Come First.") That strategy was rough on their trousers, no doubt, and an odd spectacle for anyone dropping by, but it is a good example of architects literally getting down to basics.

The diverse emotional needs of students of various ages also determine the direction of a school's design. Perceptive architects realize this. For instance, middle school students usually move around after every class period. They like spaces where they can briefly gather and socialize between classes, whereas elementary kids spend most of their day in one or two spaces and need to feel as if there's something special about where they are.

Selection committees have an initial task, before any interviewing begins, of clarifying for themselves what they see as an architect's role. Claire Weisz points out that some people will consider architects contractors who make sure everything works and the roof doesn't leak, while others may see them essentially as artists. In fact, one person ought to fit into both roles.

"Architects are basically your creative advocate for making something that does not exist yet," she says. "They should get involved from the micro level to the macro level." This involvement will include everything from exploring aesthetic concepts to working out zoning issues to addressing mundane problems, such as finding adequate room for winter coats.

When an architect is chosen well, the complex and arduous business of building or renovating a school can result in the creation of spaces that enhance learning and raise the sights of those who work and study in them, as well as those who helped make the process a success.

Evantheia Schibsted is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

How to Draw Out the Right Architect

To help you select the ideal design professional for your school, experts we interviewed offer the following tips:

  1. Make sure the project's principal architect can commit to staying with it from beginning to end.
  2. Hire an architect who understands state rules and regulations about public construction and can advise on the latest green innovations.
  3. Choose a professional who knows the distinct needs ofelementary school, middle school, and high school students.
  4. Ask prospective architects to take you on tours of other schools they've worked on to help establish a common vocabulary.
  5. Query insiders -- teachers, students, custodians, security staff, cafeteria workers -- about how well those schools function.
  6. Beware of architects who start off by asking, "How many classrooms do you want?"
  7. Select an architect who not only listens well but also helps the building committee imagine new possibilities.

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