Remedial Economics

As Vancouver architect Joost Bakker aims his Volvo up the long, sloping driveway to Burnaby Mountain Secondary School, he speaks with disarming candour. “It’s pretty straight up,” he says about Hotson Bakkers’ first public school project, which the firm designed in conjunction with Cornerstone Architects and part of which looks like a concrete airport hangar punctured by L-shaped windows. Inside, it crosses the large public spaces of a shopping mall with tough institutional finishes. “It’s not capital-A architecture,” says Bakker, “but at the end of the day, it’s a good learning environment.”

Burnaby Mountain is one of B.C.’s new breed of stark, lean, economically-driven schools for the 21st century. In the 1990s, the province was producing some of the most architecturally acclaimed public schools in Canada. But these days, an industrial aesthetic and entrepreneurial outlook dominate school architecture, the legacy of a curious chain of cost-cutting and design policies.

The first link in the cost-cutting chain was the most widely acclaimed facility of them all: an elementary school near Victoria called Strawberry Vale (see CA, May 1997). In the words of government officials and detractors within the school district, the Patkau-designed school was “extravagant,” “self-indulgent” and sent “the wrong message to the taxpayer,” constituting proof in its critics’ minds that public school construction budgets were higher than they needed to be. The issue drew bureaucrats’ attention to other prominent recent school architecture in British Columbia, which, like Strawberry Vale, appeared to them to be so high-end as to suggest an improper use of public money. The education minister at the time, Paul Ramsey, famously declared that “the first thing you do when you design a school is you don’t hire a fancy-assed architect.”

In short order, the NDP government gashed the per-square-metre construction budgets by up to 30 percent, reducing elementary school unit rates to just $900 per square metre (about $83.60 per square foot), and introduced stringent mandatory design guidelines, prompting spirited but impotent cries of protest from local architects. Some, like the Patkaus, simply resigned themselves to never designing any more schools in the province. Others struggled as best they could.

At Burnaby Mountain Secondary School, Hotson Bakker and Cornerstone took an entirely different approach: a kind of macro design-build process called “integrated management.” The firm crafted an intricate network of deals, not just with the contractor, but also with suppliers of materials, services, even cafeteria food. Telus, IBM, VanCity and a food-service company became partners, throwing something into the pot in exchange for exclusive deals. Even the city itself, through the Burnaby Parks and Recreation Department, is a partner: it supplied enough funding to build an extra-large tournament-size gym (rather than a conventional school gym) that is open to the public as a community centre after school hours. The process is, as Bakker says, “enormously complex. But it’s bloody interesting.”

James Gorman, Director of Project Finance and Review in the Capital Division of the B.C. Ministry of Finance, deems Hotson Bakker’s and Cornerstone’s work on the Burnaby Mountain school “a magnificent job on a difficult site.” Yet he adds that the integrated-management approach is not seen as a prototype for future schools: too many parties involved; too complicated and hence too hard to predict and measure real costs with certainty. But Gorman does praise the firm’s ingenuity in coming up with a tailored response to the very low budget, a response that, for now, has been shown to be successful in practical terms. For, as it turns out, many of the province’s new schools aren’t faring that well.

Not long after the first round of post-budget-cut schools were completed, signs of trouble appeared. Several new schools were experiencing serious leaks, or unacceptable wear-and-tear, or were functionally impaired because of a lack of storage cupboards and other millwork. The government commissioned an outside consultant, Helyar & Associates, to analyze whether in fact the lowered budgets allowed for adequate construction quality over a building’s 40-year life span.

Earlier this year, after a case study of nine representative new schools around the province, the consulting firm concluded that the current budgets did not allow for an adequate level of construction quality on several fronts. First, the budgets made no allowance either for inflation or for newly compulsory features like rainscreen protection. Also, districts were complaining of high maintenance costs and insufficient storage millwork. And the consultants discovered a tendency for school districts to make up for the budget shortfall by aggressively seeking supplementary funding, undermining the goal of true cost restraint. Helyar & Associates’ recommendation, now implemented, was to raise the budgets from $900-$940 per square metre ($83.60-$87.35 per square foot) to $1,035-$1,065 ($96.20-$98.95). The study justified the higher unit rates by arguing that they would lead to reduced life cycle costs due to decreased expenses related to maintenance and material replacement.

While Helyar & Associates were assembling their report, the government quietly folded the mandatory design restrictions, which stringently dictated such elements as the maximum dimension of overhang, maximum amount of glazing, location of mechanical equipment, and so on. The original intention, according to the government, was to rein in architects who would otherwise add costly and gratuitous design elements. In reality, it turned the average quantity surveying “value analysis” procedure into an antagonistic ordeal that some architects liken to the Spanish Inquisition.

James Gorman agrees that the design restrictions were often inane–restricting, for example, the ratio of glazing to overall wall space in a building, or the inches of overhang allowed, even if the project was under budget. These days, school architects can, at least in theory, incorporate whatever amount of glazing or overhang they deem necessary, as long as they remain on budget. Quantity surveyors are still likely to pounce on, for instance, a hallway waterfall or 18-foot cantilever. But the days of undermining functional elements with absurd restrictions, it seems, are over.

Not that they were followed to the letter in the first place. “To be honest, we just ignored them,” chuckles one school architect. The overhangs on one of his projects were two inches over the design restrictions, but once the building went up, he figured, what would they do about it after the fact? “If we were challenged on it,” says the architect, who wishes to remain anonymous, “we would have just said, ‘Gosh, it seemed like a good idea at the time–keeps the kids dry and all…'”

For some architects and school districts, the partial funding restoration and relaxation of design restrictions have come too late. The Vancouver firms Carlberg Jackson Partners, Dalla-Lana Griffin Dowling Knapp, and Killick Metz Bowen Rose Architects have been slapped with lawsuits for problematic school structures designed after the 1997-98 budget cuts. “We were forced to use stucco and cut back elsewhere,” says Tom Bowen of his firm’s leaking school in suburban Langley. “That was a mandated requirement.”

Carlberg Jackson is dealing with two leaking stucco-faced schools in the Vancouver suburb of Coquitlam. The firm used to construct cavity walls with masonry facing, but turned to sealed stucco in an attempt to limbo under the new budget restrictions. “Some of the problems are either partly or wholly attributable to the restrictions that have been placed on us and the mandate to somehow fall within the maximum allowable unit rate,” says Carlberg Jackson partner Brian Hulme. “You’re trying to please the school client, but being restricted to unrealistically low unit rates, something has to give.”

Gordon Graham, a principal at Graham Hoffart Mathieson, says his firm has avoided serious p
roblems so far by focusing more on the irreplaceable components of the structure: foundation, supporting walls and columns. “We’ve been advising our clients that with the draconian budget cuts, they simply cannot afford floor coverings that will last 20 or 30 years,” says Graham. “You have to hope that someone with some sense is in power when the damn stuff wears out five years from now.”

Graham adds that he managed to squeak in under the reduced budget guidelines by employing repeat design and multiple tendering. His first post-budget-cut package of three schools netted a $700,000 contractor’s discount on a $3.5-million deal. But his last repeat-package comprised only two schools and so netted a smaller discount. The firm was able to meet the budget by replacing its planned dual-duct/dual-fan heating system with a cheaper but less energy-efficient system. But if they had been able to stick with the original model, says Graham, operating costs would have been around 30 percent less, with half the number of call-outs for maintenance and repair. “These last two are the orphans,” sighs Graham.

In addition to energy efficiency, local context has also been sacrificed, says Graham. For a school he designed for Prince Rupert, a northern B.C. lumber town, he feels he should have employed wood frame construction. But, like many of his colleagues, Graham felt compelled to stick to low-cost tilt-up concrete walls, widely considered to be one of the few inexpensive alternatives that is also practical.

Or is it? “I won’t touch it,” asserts Paul Grant of Grant & Sinclair Architects. “We don’t think it’s a good system, because we think it’s going to leak.” Instead, he built Fraser Heights and Clayton Heights schools in suburban Surrey with slab-on-grade suspended-slab construction.

Grant maintains that, for the best life cycle costing and quality of learning environment, the budget should return to at least $1,200 per square metre. Helyar & Associates’ Liam Murray, who undertook the case studies for the government, doesn’t believe the budgets need to be that high. But among architects, government, contractors and quantity surveyors there is little consensus even on the pragmatic issue of life cycle costing–and almost no discussion about the actual qualitative effects of architecture on the efficiency of educating children. Yet what could be more functional than an environment which increases learning productivity and inspires kids to enjoy school?

“There must be a correlation between design and students’ happiness,” says Liam Murray, “but how you measure that, I don’t know.” Some research firms in Europe and the United States have been attempting to measure building performance in terms of its quality as a learning environment, discounting such factors as socio-economics, student demographics and teacher quality, but no such research has been attempted for Canadian schools. “I suppose at the end of the day, we should put away the books and put away the rules, and put on our thinking caps,” says Murray. “And that’s what architects are very good at.” He pauses, and then adds: “The challenge is to translate that into cost-effective architecture.”

Architects argue that undermining the profession’s authority and expertise is not the way to achieve cost-effective architecture that meets educational or community needs. Some say that deferring to the private sector construction industry, which is in a position to profit from contractor-driven turnkey projects, will only make the problems worse. In the meantime, certain architects are increasingly kept out of the game. Vancouver-based Roger Hughes, who gained renown for Rogers Elementary and other schools, has received little more than a couple of small renovation projects since the budget cuts. “We just stopped getting shortlisted,” he says. When the budget cuts were announced, his Governor General’s Award-winning Rogers Elementary School was cited by a government official as one of the schools sending the wrong impression to taxpayers. He’s now widely believed to be on an unofficial blacklist, along with the Patkaus and other high-design architects.

“The value system is screwy,” concludes Paul Grant. “We’re doing private houses at $800 per square foot,” yet public schools, with all the requisite safety and durability requirements, are built on a fraction of that. “What’s important is what the children think, the parents think and the school thinks–not some mandarin in Victoria who says, ‘We want this building to look cheap.'”

Adele Weder is a Vancouver-based design journalist. She first reported on B.C.’s school design policy for The Globe and Mail in 1998.