Article (August 01, 2001)

In this issue, we examine government policy related to the design of public schools in British Columbia and the determination of a client in Toronto’s North York Board of Education to commission a series of schools that combine design excellence with building durability and community satisfaction. Each jurisdiction has approached the task of building public schools in quite different ways. In B.C., decisions were made on a short-term, budget-driven basis, while in North York a long-term, education-centred plan was put in place.

As Adele Weder tells us in her article on the B.C. situation (see page 10), there was little foresight on the part of the former NDP government’s capital funding program and regulation of school design. Concern over taxpayer perceptions following the completion of several outstanding school buildings led to construction budgets being slashed by 30 percent in order to avoid what might be perceived as extravagant spending. Worse still, the government put into place a series of draconian design controls covering details like percentage of glazing and size of overhangs. For architects, this proved to be the most unacceptable aspect of the government’s policy. It was one thing to ask architects to work with meagre budgets (on the order of $83.60 per square foot); it was quite another to deny the profession’s expertise by prescribing, in detail, how to design.

Weder describes the many problems associated with schools designed under the new regulations. The government hired an independent consulting firm to investigate, which found that the post-budget-cut schools were incurring high maintenance costs. Those lower capital costs came at the expense of school users and taxpayers, who shouldered the repair and maintenance costs resulting from inadequate design and cheap materials. Weder reports that the government eventually “quietly folded the mandatory design restrictions.” In addition, the importance of what Weder has called architecture’s “qualitative effects” had certainly been overlooked when expense and the perception of extravagance became the focus in B.C.

By contrast, a sensitivity to the learning environment as well as the role that a school plays in the larger community was at the forefront of the planning process for schools built for the North York Board of Education (see page 14). The Board’s Chief Architect, Sheila Penny, insisted that architects anticipate potential complications down the road. She considered not only construction issues, but the impact of a school’s presence and design within the community. Parents, teachers, students, trustees, ratepayers and neighbours were given as much information as possible on each school, and were asked for their input on design and maintenance issues.

Considering the North York schools’ far from lavish construction budgets–$98.05 per square foot, on average–the Board’s built legacy is an important lesson in the value of architectural expertise, and not only when it comes to consultants. The opposite of the B.C. example, which sought to minimize the role of the architect in the building process, North York’s approach has demonstrated that the presence of an architect in the role of client serves the public interest through an informed demand for what Weder calls architecture’s “qualitative effects.” The resulting schools stand as built testimony that, far from being mutually exclusive, judicious management and quality design are both well within the realm of the architect’s expertise. Nyla Matuk