Architects Point To Flaws In Standard School Designs

May 3, 2011

By Evelyn Lee
as printed in NJ Biz – Construction Spotlight
Monday, April 18, 2011

Gov. Chris Christie’s recommendation to standardize school designs isn’t getting high marks from the local architecture community, who said such a proposal not only lacks feasibility, but would fail to produce any time or cost savings.

Last February, Christie released recommendations for a new capital program for the Schools Development Authority, including a standardization approach for school projects, which would allow designs to be replicated on multiple projects and result in an estimated savings of nearly $4 million per project, compared to less-efficient project delivery methods previously used.

“Utilization of a form of standardization will allow for predictability of approval, reductions in review time, minimization of change orders and the minimization of errors, better adherence to project schedules, and overall process efficiencies,” said SDA spokeswoman Edye Maier. The agency in a report last month said it plans to pursue design standardization in three phases.

But “certain approaches to standardization can happen sooner than others,” Maier said. In the first phase, the authority is collaborating with other agencies to develop programmatic standards for all projects. In the second phase, SDA plans to develop a “kit-of-parts” prototype design, in which a set of modules could be arranged to create a fairly standardized, but still site-specific, school design, she said.

The third phase will involve advancing standardization principles in projects that will begin construction this year.
The use of so-called cookie-cutter designs, also known as stock plans, is “a sore point” for architects in New Jersey, said Michael Hanrahan, president of AIA New Jersey, a local industry organization, and associate partner at Trenton-based architecture firm Clark, Caton, Hintz.

“It in some ways takes the architect out of the equation,” Hanrahan said. Previously, three school projects would call for an architecture firm to create three separate designs; under the new approach, the firm would create — and be paid for — only one design that would be used three times.

For many firms in New Jersey, school projects are “their bread and butter,” Hanrahan said. In better economic times, schools accounted for no more than 5 percent to 10 percent of Clark, Caton, Hintz’s portfolio, but “we do much more school work now,” with projects in the sector accounting for 25 percent to 30 percent of the firm’s business.

And the use of stock plans could have legal repercussions for architects, Hanrahan said. Under the new approach, SDA, rather than the architect, would own the design — so “we don’t want to be held accountable” if issues arise when the design is reused on future projects, he said.

But aside from its impact on the architecture industry, design standardization “is not a great solution for New Jersey,” Hanrahan said. “One solution doesn’t fit well for municipalities across the state. In New Jersey, there is no typical site.”

The state’s more urban areas, for example, call for more compact, vertical schools, because of the scarcity of land, while suburban or rural towns have more space to build more sprawling buildings, he said.

A move toward standardized design was inevitable in the current economy, said Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, in Trenton. “It really becomes a balancing act between what’s desirable and what the state can afford,” he said.

Although school districts want to make sure the designs would fit the needs of their communities, the state also needs to be mindful of the potential burden on taxpayers, Yaple said.

Hanrahan also questioned the feasibility of design replication in the state. Because of changes in technology or building codes, designs will need to be updated every several years, which will prevent a design from actually being used multiple times, he said.

Feasibility “is the million-dollar question,” Yaple said. “There have been general descriptions of where the state wants to go, but no one has seen all the details yet.”

Maier declined to comment on concerns relating to the stock plans. “At this time, we are still developing the details for standardization on SDA projects,” she said.

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