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Education Funding Reporter's Notebook

Expert Encourages Creative Thinking in Building Schools

By Joetta L. Sack — November 02, 2004 4 min read
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While everyone who has been involved in building a school talks about the importance of collaboration between educators and architects, veterans of such projects are just as likely to acknowledge that the two groups often don’t work together very well.

But that doesn’t stop school architect Prakash Nair from reaching out to school people for their opinions.

Prakash Nair

Knowing that most educators want to be integrally involved in designing their new schools, Mr. Nair begins the collaborative process by talking to them about issues they know well, such as curriculum and testing.

“We basically start them in areas where they are comfortable,” Mr. Nair said. “Then we pull them into areas where they are not comfortable.”

Those conversations have resulted in an increasing number of distinctive school buildings that are personalized for each community’s needs, he said.

Many of the 1,000-plus architects and school facility planners who gathered here Oct. 21-24 for the annual meeting of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International were eager to hear the internationally recognized school design expert’s strategies for the critically important task of collaboration.

Mr. Nair said he often shows slides of well-designed school and corporate office spaces when he first meets with educators to help them think more creatively. He doesn’t tell them at first, though, which of the spaces are in schools. He said that many school people are amazed at how different some of the schools look compared with what they are accustomed to seeing.

Some of the most interesting ideas come from studying schools in other countries, said Mr. Nair, whose firm, Fielding Nair International LLC, has offices in Forest Hills, N.Y., and Minneapolis.

For instance, after talking to parents and school officials at a school in Amsterdam, he found that many parents gathered around the building’s entrance each morning for friendly conversations. So when residents of the Dutch city built a new school, he designed “Cappuccino & Community,” a room for parents to gather and have coffee in the morning—a way to become more involved in the school.

Mr. Nair’s design of an Australian high school that used design elements to take advantage of the natural daylight and ventilation won the CEFPI’s top award last year. (“Building the Future: Lessons From Tasmania,” Feb. 4, 2004.)

He said he looks for ways to instill flexibility in spaces to accommodate future needs. For instance, he configures classroom spaces so that furniture can be rearranged easily, and he provides separate areas for small-group meetings.

To give students access to outdoor areas, he recently designed portable classrooms with decks, and built an outdoor amphitheater at a Connecticut elementary school.

But overall, Mr. Nair said, designing schools to meet present and future needs simply requires common sense, and the ability to focus on long-term and practical needs rather than the latest architectural theories.

From lease-purchase agreements to public-private partnerships, alternative methods of financing schools are still the exception, though they are gaining more attention as cities and towns with small property-tax bases struggle to pay for school construction.

While many publicly financed facilities, such as airports, have been built using partnerships with private companies, school development is one area where the private sector has rarely ventured, said Wendy S. Kunz, an architect and the director of an extensive facilities-construction project in the 18,500-student Camden, N.J., school district.

The main benefit of alternative forms of financing, she said, is that a district can get a new school much faster. Such approaches also allow districts to build without increasing their taxing authority, and help districts that have reached their bond limits by allowing them to raise money through other means.

But the alternatives may have downsides, Ms. Kunz said.

For instance, third-party financing can carry a higher interest rate than a municipal bond, and the administrative and legal fees of carrying out the partnership add to the costs. Most developers also want to make a profit, she added, which can interfere with schools’ missions.

Alternative methods of financing may make more sense under certain circumstances, such as when a building needs to be built much sooner than the typical three- to five-year financing and construction process would allow, she said. Alternatives can also work better if a school has an unusual site to develop, or has an unused or underused asset, such as a piece of land, that it can trade with a developer for a new school.

In her research, Ms. Kunz found that the Canadian province of Nova Scotia has had the most experience in using alternative financing. The provincial government quickly built 41 schools in the late 1990s and then contracted with private companies to manage the buildings. The district leased back the space it needed from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekdays, September to June. The developers then rented the space to other, compatible groups when school was out of session.

But the program, Ms. Kunz said, was recently stopped because it was seen as too expensive and too political, because residents felt the contracts were being awarded with favoritism.

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