K12 Studio Leader Rob Winstead shares VMDO's position that effective and safe learning environments require thoughtful, custom, and integrated design solutions – not stock prototype school designs – for the future of K12 education.
Across the nation, communities and school districts are facing a range of educational, safety, and social challenges, as well as seeking cost effective ways to build new schools. Some communities have looked to prototype school design – or reusable, stock construction documents – seeking to cut design costs when building a new facility. For years, leaders in VMDO’s K12 Studio have been addressing questions around the utility, effectiveness, and costs of prototype school designs, but recently questions resurfaced during Rob Winstead's testimony to the VA House Committee on School Safety. The Committee Chair asked Rob if he believed that prototype school designs were an appropriate solution to providing safer school facilities, especially in communities that could not afford fees for design professionals. In response, Rob stated that VMDO believes that safe and effective learning environments require thoughtful, specific, and integrated design solutions, not stock prototype designs for the future of K12 education. This blog is offered in support that position.
What is a “Prototype” in this context? Prototype School Plans are reusable construction documents that have been used to construct more than one school with minor modifications required for subsequent schools. Prototypes are also called Stock Plans, Standard Plans, Clone Plans, or Duplicate Plans and are often used for larger school systems in a growth phase, like Loudoun County School District in Northern VA (from the Council of Educational Facility Planners, CEFP 2007).
With decades of experience designing and planning K12 schools, VMDO aligns with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the well-established research base demonstrating that prototype designs rarely result in the benefits leaders and educators seek. Furthermore, for K12 school design, VMDO practices an inclusive and integrated design process that results in unique educational solutions that are specific to climate, culture, and curriculum. Moreover, prototype school designs often fail to integrate specific educational needs or inspire educational innovation. They may even undermine the good intentions of educators or leaders by using outdated off-the-shelf designs, created for another community with a different vision for learning.
Challenges with Prototypes
Based on research and experience, the following are key considerations that Owners should keep in mind when considering prototype plans for schools:
1. False savings: Prototype solutions have not been shown to significantly increase student performance or reduce costs. Although using prototype designs may result in some initial savings, the cost of revising the plans and adapting them to specific sites usually negates them. The AIA found that of the 25 states that have used standard designs, all 25 have stopped using them because they were not beneficial.
2. Simple solutions for complex issues: Both education and security are complex and constantly evolving issues that cannot be solved with a one-size-fits-all solution. These issues are best addressed with a thoughtful approach that is specific to the context and engages the community in developing solutions.
3. Locking in outdated ideas: As they are designed once and used repeatedly over many years, prototype designs lock in outdated approaches to pedagogy and security. Further, nearly every RFP is seeking the best in “21st Century learning environments” which we believe does not come from decades-old prototype schemes.
4. Equity for all learners: It seems inequitable for larger, wealthier districts to have the potential opportunity to develop unique and innovative designs while smaller districts, with perhaps more limited funding, have a standardized solution that offers little input into the quality and character of the learning environment.
5. Prototypes in practice: In practice, prototype designs are typically used by larger districts that are growing rapidly and are seeking parity across a large building portfolio. Smaller districts do not face those same issues and rarely use prototypical designs.
6. Penny wise, pound foolish: Design fees are typically less than 1% of the total cost of ownership for a facility lasting 30 years or more. Prototype designs could reduce conceptual and schematic design fees, but still require architectural services, as well as civil, structural, and FPME engineering to modify and site/adapt the design. Prototypes could be more costly to operate as the massing and orientation are not specific to the site or climate.
7. Professional ethics and liability issues: Licensed architects are not allowed to simply stamp drawings.
The AIA’s Position: “Stock Plans: Bad for Schools”
The AIA and its state chapters have issued at least a dozen position papers since the 1960’s advocating for contextual school design approaches that respond to the local environment and specific needs of children and teachers within each school system (CEFP, pg. 13). In 2005, the AIA issued a brief titled “Stock Plans: Bad for Schools” that discourages the use of prototype school design.
The AIA believes school facilities should be designed and built to fit the environment, the location and the specific needs of children and teachers using those schools. Economical school construction is possible by designing school buildings that are strategically adapted to specific locations and needs. Architects can minimize costs by determining in advance the size and equipment needs of classrooms based on the academic priorities and teaching techniques of the school. Standardized, or stock, plans, fail to incorporate individual communities’ specific educational needs. Cookie-cutter design of schools is a risky approach that may undermine the effectiveness of the learning environment.
This AIA position brief also notes a list of 25 states that have attempted state prototype plans for school designs before realizing that school districts “were losing money and receiving an inferior product.” The AIA brief is consistent with nearly every study on the topic in one important aspect: no states have found success with a statewide prototypical design program for their public schools.
Effective Prototype Applications are Few and Far Between
Additionally, a 2007 comprehensive research publication by the Council of Educational Facility Planners (CEFP) examined over 40 years of prototype applications across the US, titled “Prototype School Designs: Can Prototypes Be Used Successfully?" The publication revealed that:
- State-run prototype school design programs are not practical and will not result in cost savings.
- Prototype school design programs in large school districts with ample resources can ultimately result in savings in time and cost when a large number of school buildings are being built within a short time frame.
- There is a lack of documentation on actual cost savings achieved when a school district reuses a prototype design that requires modification.
- Web-based clearinghouses of prototype school designs are a valuable resource. However, there is a lack of research documenting cost savings from the reuse of these plans as well.
- A kit-of-parts approach to prototype school design has been used successfully when a large number of school buildings are being built within a short time frame; 24 references are cited, and seven significant state department of education studies are summarized.
Designing for the Future of Education
Ronald Bogle, President and CEO of the American Architectural Foundation, summarized in the Report on the National Summit on School Design, that “we have moved beyond the one-size fits all approach to school design to an age of greater innovation and flexibility tailored to meet the needs of individual students, schools and communities” (2006). He further stated: “The successful schools of the future need to apply the research on how students learn and how the quality of our educational facilities affects student performance, health, safety, self-esteem and well-being."
We know that questions around these off-the-shelf school prototype designs will continue to be raised. In some cases, prototype plans may be appropriate. However, it is important that we contribute our real-world experience to enliven the established research base, develop design solutions that responsibly and creatively advance the practice of architecture, and improve the future outcomes for schools in communities where we work and live.
Additional Resources: VMDO's "Learning Spaces Design" book on issuu.com.
Asa R. Eslocker contributed to this blog.