With over 1,800 schools catering to 1.1 million students, New York City’s school system not only ranks as the largest in the United States; it also creates and maintains some of the most important civic institutions in the five boroughs. Bruce Barrett, a registered architect and the Vice President for Architecture & Engineering at the City’s School Construction Authority, manages the design process that produces new schools for a growing city and ensures that existing assets are maintained and adapted to serve students best. Here, Barrett explains the process of her unique agency that drives a massive volume of work, how education policy affects design approaches, and the importance of creating inspiring places for learning.
What do you do and how did you come to the School Construction Authority (SCA)?
I’ve been the vice president for Architecture and Engineering at the SCA for 11 years, and I’m a registered architect. Prior to coming here, I was working for the Board of Education in the Division of School Facilities, where I worked closely with the SCA. I joined the Division in 1989, the same year the SCA was created.
Growing up, I always wanted to be a teacher, a painter, and an architect. I studied painting as an undergraduate, and I spent twelve years as a teacher here in New York. While I was teaching, I went to architecture school at City College at night. I then worked in private practice before I joined the Board of Education, so I was a good match for new job opportunities that opened up at the authority in 2003.
The process of a good designer is not far from the process of a good teacher. You have to listen carefully and pay attention to your clients’ needs, recognizing that there’s a unique solution to every challenge. My process here, which was the same as when I was teaching, is to try and recognize things that could be improved and to figure out how to do that. It’s actually kind of wild how many of the architects or engineers who work at SCA have spouses who are teachers.
Why was this new authority formed?
New York City’s public school system has roughly 1,300 buildings across the five boroughs. Prior to the SCA’s creation, the bureaucratic process of designing and constructing new schools had become unacceptably bogged down. It just took too long. The state legislature formed the SCA to expedite this process and to handle capital improvement projects for existing buildings. Over half of our public school building stock is more than 60 years old, so there’s an endless need for fixing exterior envelopes and replacing building systems.
Many of the people who had worked in design and construction in the Department of School Facilities transferred to the SCA. The maintenance and operations work stayed at the Board of Education — now the Department of Education. The SCA is unusual because we have a five-year capital plan, as opposed to the annual budget that’s common with City agencies, and we are a State authority. But ever since the Bloomberg Administration took control of education for New York City, we’ve basically acted as a City agency — our president reports to a deputy chancellor, who reports to the chancellor, who then reports to the mayor.
The capital plan is based on need. On the capital improvement side, we do an assessment survey of every single building every year to identify building conditions that need attention. And on the capacity side, we identify overcrowding in existing schools and anticipate the need for future schools based on demographics.
The SCA seems to serve a role similar to the City’s Department of Design and Construction. How are they different?
We are similar in that we handle the design and construction of public buildings, but the volume and dollar value of the work we do is typically two to three times higher. DDC handles smaller client projects — libraries, firehouses, etc. — along with some very large infrastructure projects. We deal with schools and bid out somewhere around $2 billion worth of projects each year. Right now, we have $.5 billion in capital improvement work in scope and another $2.5 billion of such work in construction. We have close to $1 billion dollars in the design phase.
On the new school side, we haven’t had as much because of urgent priorities concerning Hurricane Sandy. There’s about $.5 billion of new school work in scope and design, and because the construction duration is longer, $3 billion in construction. The volume of what we design and what we have in construction, in terms of numbers of projects, is enormous.
How does education policy, at the city, state, or federal level, impact how you go about designing schools?
In the past 20 years, the educational model has shifted to focus on smaller learning communities, even within a big facility. Now even when we have a great, big site and an opportunity to house 1,500 high-schoolers, it will be broken into three small high schools. Most of the school projects that we are currently working on are between 500 and 600 seats.
Every kid should have a favorite part of the school. You’ve got to keep those in mind when you design.There was a period of years during the Bloomberg administration where the Department of Education wanted to restructure existing schools, to take, for example, a 3,000-seat high school and break it up into six 500-seat learning academies. The largest public assembly spaces would be shared among the academies, but then in the area of the building designated for each academy the objective was to have a full complement of the educational program. So whereas the big 3,000-seat high school might have been designed with half of the third floor as science labs, the program for each learning academy in that building might require its own science labs. So it was a lot of work to retrofit these schools, and it was phased over a three or four years because the original school was slowly phased out as new students joined the learning academies.
As you know, the City has started its universal Pre-K initiative, so that’s our current push and we anticipate delivering 2,000 new seats for September 2015. At this point, we’re looking at buildings that will be leased for Pre-K centers. We’ll need twenty to thirty locations, and we have roughly twenty so far after a survey of around 120 sites. These are different from our regular fare because they are small — 10–20,000 square feet including classrooms, offices, an outdoor play space, and a pantry where food will be brought in and warmed up for the kids to eat in their classrooms. We’re meeting on every one of those twenty projects each week because the accelerated schedules make it even more important to work closely together. Otherwise, potentially critical issues may fall through the cracks.
What is SCA’s process like? And how does it fulfill the mission of streamlining the school construction and improvement process?
For a new, ground-up school, we typically spend between eleven and thirteen months on design and two to three years on construction depending on the size. The whole process starts with the capital plan, which will identify needed seats in a particular school district. Our real estate department will work with brokers to find a property to lease or buy, or will partner with a developer of a building to include a school in their project.
Once there is a site, the assignment comes to us, and we’ll try to match it up with one of our consultant firms best suited to the particular project. Generally, we don’t have a firm doing more than one new school design at one time. At our meetings, our Technical Standards group will make sure the designated program and standards are being fulfilled, the Real Estate group will consult on peculiar zoning issues, and Construction Management will be on hand as well. All the design submissions go through a discipline-specific design review process, during which we also take it to the public for comment for four to eight weeks.
At the end of the design phase, after eleven to thirteen months, the project goes through a final design and coordination review. Our Construction Management group will bid out the project. There’s usually a month for our Legal group to get all of their ducks in a row with the lowest bidder. Then it goes into construction, and two to three years later in September, the school opens. That is a great time of year: remembering the initial options and sketches and then seeing it built with all the final touches is fabulous.
Our technical standards really facilitate this kind of aggressive schedule. Whatever work designers are doing, there are extensive guidelines and references — standard details, standard specifications, room-planning standards — that they can draw upon to inform their design and put together their set of contract documents relatively quickly. There’s a lot of review along the way.
My department is structured as five studios, two of which are design studios. One manages consultant designs and the other is an in-house multi-discipline studio. The in-house studio not only does design, but also does design review on all of the projects. The whole process allows us to do a large volume of work quickly.
The standards also allow us to zero in on an estimated cost per square foot for new schools. It is public money, so the program can’t be whatever we want. We have standard programs with estimated square footages. Based on the anticipated cost per square foot, we know what the budget should be. Sometimes, special funding from elected officials will allow us to add special amenities.
There are a lot of controls put in place to stick to the given program and square footage, from the design reviews to our estimating group, which reviews all the cost estimates to make sure they’re in line. We always have to tell our designers, you can choose whatever materials you want for the building envelope from the following: brick, brick, or brick.
Under the legislation that created the SCA, we don’t have to follow the Wicks Law, which requires state and local government construction projects in New York City that cost more than $3 million to release separate bids for plumbing, HVAC, and electrical contracts. So we can bid out to a single general contractor, which simplifies things and reduces costs.
How much of the design work is done by consultants and how much is done in-house?
The in-house design studio typically does two capacity projects per year: a new school or the fit-out of a leased facility. The rest of those capacity projects are handled by consultants — we have between twenty and thirty firms with an on-call contract for this type of work. For capital improvement work, in-house does about a third of the projects and consultants do about two-thirds. There are some projects with special priority that our in-house team takes on to keep a tight rein on them.
For example, we are under orders from Environmental Protection Agency to replace all of the T12 lighting fixtures in 800 schools to protect against potential contamination from PCBs in the ballasts. Our team has it all figured out, with a design template and filing strategy, so we’re cranking out over 25 projects a month. That’s 300 schools a year where we are replacing all the lighting with safer and more energy efficient models.
Our Hurricane Sandy-related work was done by both our in-house team and consultants because of the urgency. We had 40-some schools impacted by the storm, 33 where we had to do boiler replacements because of significant flooding. To be eligible for potential reimbursement, FEMA requires that you do flood mitigation to prevent the reoccurrence of that same type of damage. That was a whole new area of work for us, and because we had so many schools we got very familiar with how to implement the mitigation strategies on existing buildings.
Obviously, we weren’t going to raze entire school buildings, however, in a few cases we did relocate a boiler room to a higher level. A lot of flood mitigation work was in landscaping to change the grade of the land just outside the building. We had a dozen or so schools where the storm surge scoured the yard and foundation wall, exposing the supporting pile caps. We devised a way of installing a concrete apron a couple feet below the surface that would effectively shed the water back out if a storm surge like that ever happened again. The most common mitigation approach was to install threaded sleeves or anchor channels so that we can install flood barriers to protect buildings prior to a flooding event.
You mentioned the SCA’s design standards, and those also include sustainability guidelines. Tell me about the guidelines and how they have led to a shift in approach in how schools are constructed?
Local Law 86 of 2005, which is referred to as New York City’s green building law and applies to all public buildings or other buildings that are more than half funded with public funds, requires these buildings to achieve a minimum LEED rating or equivalent. In 2005, LEED was geared toward commercial properties and certainly not toward urban schools. We worked with Dattner Architects to create our NYC Green Schools Guide and Rating System, which takes the relevant parts of LEED and introduces other green credits appropriate for schools.
Unless it’s a site-specific credit, like one for rehabilitating and building on a brownfield, you’re obligated to attempt every credit. Local Law 86 also states that you have to do 20% better in terms of energy savings than other related regulatory requirements. In the beginning, it wasn’t that hard to achieve, but as that baseline bar is being raised, eking out that 20% is harder and harder.
One very exciting school in this regard is our net-zero school on Staten Island. The design approach was pretty amazing — the one absolute goal was to achieve net zero energy. When that school opens, occupant engagement will be critical. Even with the building designed to be net-zero, if the students, teachers, and maintenance workers aren’t committed to that goal, it’s not going to happen. It’s unlike any school we’ve ever built. It’s really fun to be involved in school design: sure, all schools have classrooms, a cafeteria, and kitchens, but aside from the regular stuff, there are good opportunities for special design. It’s great to see designers find those opportunities and make them work.
As both a former teacher and an architect, what do you see as the role of architectural design in creating a positive educational environment?
I think our mission as SCA architects is to provide good classrooms and public assembly spaces, but also to create an important anchor for neighborhoods. In the outer boroughs, schools are often the civic building in the neighborhood, sited on a significant location on the block. When kids come into their school building, it should be a wonderful experience. They should love their school, and it should be inviting and safe.
We put a big emphasis on having a welcoming lobby, lots of natural light throughout the building, and big windows at the end of all of the corridors to bring light in and add a sense of well-being. Within the design, we try to provide opportunities for kids to sit together outside the classroom or the library — in the hallway on a bench or in the lobby. This shows them that they’re part of a community that doesn’t necessarily involve teachers teaching them and gives them space to interact with other kids in a safe place.
Where do you think the evolution of school design is heading?
Flexibility has been important for many years, but for a period of time everybody thought that meant folding partitions were the answer to everything. That certainly wasn’t the case, and we are not using many anymore. Anywhere you can get a double bang for your buck is good.
A couple of years ago we looked at the spaces we were providing for recreation in our new primary and intermediate schools. Now, instead of building in a gym and an auditorium, we changed our room planning standards to call for a “gymatorium” that could take the form of any number of iterations: stadium seating plus an exercise or performance floor or a more typical gym floor with a stage, for example. All of those yield good exercise space, which is more and more important for kids when everybody’s just exercising their thumbs, and it gives flexibility for learning opportunities. It’s also important to fit in little seating nooks and benches in corridors so teachers and kids have an extra space they can use. Every kid should have a favorite part of the school, so you’ve got to keep those in mind when you design. You always have to tell yourself the story of how each space in the school can be used.
Bruce Barrett, AIA, is Vice President for Architecture & Engineering at the New York City School Construction Authority.