Friday, July 18, 2008

Model schools: A pretty good idea

As part of his seeming effort to save money while getting his name out there, Treasurer Tim Cahill just announced an effort to establish a series of pre-designed school buildings in order to crack down on runaway school construction. On the whole, it's a smart idea provided that these plans prove sufficiently customizable.

His idea:

The designs would be based on high schools built over the last 10 years. The buildings would be between 170,000 and 240,000 square feet, depending on enrollment, and would include a gymnasium, an auditorium, science labs, and energy-efficient systems. No field houses or swimming pools would be allowed. If communities want those things, Cahill said, they would have to be built as separate buildings that would not qualify for state reimbursement.

Roughly four designs would be chosen, and the architects of the winning designs would automatically work with any school district that selects the design. That could be a financial windfall for those architects, while leaving other firms with little work.

This new push is more or less explicitly in response to the Newton High School project, a new high school whose price tag almost double from $100 to $200 million. Policymaking in the wake of a failure of planning and oversight often misses the point, including this bill -- the largest price bump came from an unexpected asbestos slab that had to be carefully and safely removed and surprisingly hard foundation stone. This was not the fault of any contractor nor architect, but was merely rotten luck, and you can't legislate luck away.

Although Cahill's effort would have done little to change Newton's fate, on the whole it's a good idea. Every school has the same essential core: plant operation, classrooms, central office, etc., etc. I agree with Ryan that "each community's needs are different," and that is why I'd want a decently customizable approach. This may simply mean ensuring a hallway that ends at an outside door bordered by electrical, plumbing, and water conduits sufficient to handle significant usage. Thus, if schools wanted to put in luxurious athletic facilities or lecture halls, they could. If necessary, a town could purchase the school and gymnasium separately, and simply knock down one wall in order to hook up the supplemental buildings.

Schools should reflect the community's wishes and needs, but education is becoming increasingly generic in our state and country due to the existing legal framework, thus physical plant needs are as well. I don't see how four different arrangements of the core facilities is an unacceptable limit of choice, particularly if designed for addition in the future. It would save a lot of money in the design and bidding phase, even if that makes architects unhappy.

Of course, given the pressure to add more days to the school year and/or day, it would be important to design these buildings for significant more wear and tear. And frankly, if this is going to be the case, we're moving to the point where air conditioning will be more or less necessary in these buildings.

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