Planning for Sustainable Schools

It's no secret the environment for public schools is changing. For years, California K-12 schools have experienced explosive growth. However, funding from State and local sources has not kept up with decaying infrastructure. Campuses crowded with "temporary" relocatable classrooms remaining for 20, 30 years or more have become a regrettable standard.

Recently, growth has slowed and in many cases, enrollment is declining. With easing pressure to house students, it is time to think long term. It is time to create a vision of what the built educational environment or healthy schools will look like in 20, 40, or 60 years and how they will support the academic demands of the future.

Using my experience as one of many accomplished educational facility planners here at LPA, I've outlined four key characteristics to achieving a truly sustainable Master Plan:

Arcardia Sustainable High School1. A SUSTAINABLE MASTER PLAN supports student learning

Instead of the "Factory School" with rows of restrictive, fixed desks facing the lecturer at the front of the class, education is trending toward hands-on, team-oriented projects. Multiple tasks take place within a learning environment. Individual, large and small team tasks take place simultaneously while integrating the use of various technologies. Spaces and furniture selections should support this kind of flexibility. Because learning can happen anywhere, circulation spaces, outdoor spaces, and lunch areas may all become potential learning environments and should be supported with informal furnishings and the ability to access technology. Students come in all shapes, sizes and abilities. A sustainable approach celebrates all these abilities, while helping develop all kinds of learners, which leads to a more sustainable society. 

2. A SUSTAINABLE MASTER PLAN puts schools at the center of communities

Community-centered, green schools are planned through a broad-based, collaborative process.  Take the time to include input from all stakeholders. Planning should be a process of facilitation and outreach, not of direction. The successful Master Plan is one in which the stakeholders "have a stake." Include teachers, administrators and the people who are charged with efficient operation of the buildings. Include students and their parents. Include neighbors. Not everyone has a child in the public schools, but everyone pays taxes, drives by the school, and lives with its visual and environmental impact. They have a stake too. Include naysayers. In the end, if the collaborative process is a positive, productive experience for everyone, you will have created many new friends for public education.

Healthy California High School3. A SUSTAINABLE MASTER PLAN leads to economical, high performance environments

A sustainable Master Plan must address traditional notions of sustainability such as energy efficiency, indoor air quality, and bright spaces with abundant, natural lighting. Through development of sustainable design standards, the Master Plan should establish broad values of sustainability. These broad values outlive constantly-changing, individual technologies. Specific technical standards should also be adopted and updated periodically.  One small step a School Board can make is establish that all projects be designed to meet LEED or CHPS standards of sustainability. The result is spaces that save the District money while increasing student performance and creating a better environment for people to work.

4. A SUSTAINABLE MASTER PLAN takes a long term view

While immediate short term needs can't be ignored, it is important for an effective Master Plan to have a long-term focus. We often suggest taking a 20 year view. While it usually isn't possible to plan projects with this time horizon, taking such a long term view allows the participants to envision where they hope to be in 20 years. It shifts the process from one that serves to satisfy only pressing, detailed needs to one that focuses on the long term benefit of the whole community. A key aspect of this view is the development of Long Term Guiding Principles of the Master Plan that guides future decisions and allows flexibility to address changing needs. 

It is understandable the focus of public school districts is to "just keep roofs over students' heads" and maintain old, out of date structures with whatever meager means are at hand. However, in that climate, the Facility Master Plan becomes a vehicle to steer limited funding toward wave after wave of "fix it" projects. The result is campuses being frozen in the past with "cells and bells" classroom configurations designed for rows of desks facing the front of the class, poor lighting, and noisy air conditioning with insufficient fresh air changes.

Undertaking the development of a Long Term Sustainable Master Plan takes time and commitment, but it is a necessary step in moving away from a pattern of reaction to immediate demands and moving toward proactively taking control of a District's destiny. We shouldn't miss the opportunity to engage in sustainable practices. Now is the perfect time to transform learning spaces into inviting, stimulating environments relevant to the future.

Donald Pender, AIA brings more than 27 years of experience to his role as Principal at California-based LPA Inc. He is a LEED Accredited Professional and a Recognized Educational Facility Planner (REFP).