Repeating School

Text David Steiner

Photos Lindsay Jonkers

Caught in a tangle of greenfield development at the edge of many large Ontario cities is an assortment of newly built brick school buildings. Many of these schools look similar, and almost all are straightforward: rectangular punched openings for windows, a variety of brick colours, flagpoles, and large mowed fields set back from the roadway. Around certain cities like Kitchener-Waterloo, or in the Peel region near Toronto, you’ll see that a number of schools appear identical. This is not accidental, nor a mistake by an unsuspecting client. Rather, repeat school buildings within a given area are a deliberate effort on the part of local school boards to build facilities quickly and within tightly controlled budgets.

In 1998, the Conservative government in Ontario introduced a pupil accommodation grant which ensured that all students in the province, regardless of location or affluence, would receive the same funding for primary and secondary school educations. School boards would no longer have the power to tap into their local tax base. This meant that regions which could once raise money according to local planning priorities and their economic health were now subject to a pre-determined handout by the provincial government. It also meant that a child living in a struggling rural area could expect the same quality of educational facility as one in a wealthy Toronto suburb. The reasoning made sense. Children should not spend their formative years in inferior facilities because they live in a less affluent area. But construction costs were pinched. A high school of 190,000 square feet for 1,500 students can be built with a straightforward design for about $25 million, provided that it is well managed during construction–though this is slightly below average for institutional building costs. All regional school boards, ultimately the clients for school construction, know from the start that the amount of money allotted to build their schools is around $125 per square foot for primary schools and about $15 more for high schools. This sum must be sufficient to construct buildings that fulfill the programmatic requirements and will have a reasonable lifespan. But with limited funding, building schools that incorporate the programmatic requirements within this tight budget is a rapidly growing concern. Controlling exorbitant maintenance costs is also a huge problem–think of the sprawling, single-storey buildings that are slowly leaking because of the lack of proper maintenance. However, one approach to saving money is to build a school according to the same plans as one that has already been completed on time and on budget. This gives the client something previously tested and reasonably reliable. However, the level of architectural design excellence is debatable.

Repeat schools have a number of certainties: classroom areas of a consistent size, standard gym and cafeteria sizes, and a typical ratio of circulation area to program. They also must be open by the beginning of each September when school starts. If not, portables will be erected, thus draining a school’s maintenance budget. They also tend to look particularly ghastly. Every aspect of building the contemporary Ontario public school is as lean and efficient as possible to meet the targeted budget. Yet schools are a building type that offer a lot of potential and huge benefits from innovative circulation and programmatic relationships.

This past fall in the Peel region, which lies to the northwest of Toronto, there were nine new schools and seven renovations completed, providing space for another 8,191 students. All nine of the new schools were “repeats” and carried a total project cost over $126 million. By fall 2006, another eight “repeat” schools are scheduled to open. In 2004 alone, Brampton (pop. 325,000), one of the cities in Peel region, gave out 9,500 building permits for the construction of new dwellings. In such areas of exploding growth, it is considerably quicker to build a subdivision and fill it with young families whose children need schools than it is to build a primary or secondary school. Parents will also pressure their boards to build schools nearby. No mother wants her Grade 5 daughter to sit on a bus for an hour every morning and afternoon, nor does she want her child to spend her high school career in a portable, waiting for a new facility.

Consequently, there is a scramble to build new facilities or outfit existing buildings in order to accommodate the increased student load. While many lament the loss of stately old schools or the lack of new construction with the same presence, boards contend that such buildings are impossible to maintain and unaffordable to construct. Slate roofs are beautiful, but cost a fortune to repair and bite heavily into a building’s maintenance budget, noted one manager, referring to schools like Galt Collegiate in Cambridge, Ontario.

Even though a school may have been designed for a particular site, the delivery of the program and the quality of interior spaces can be maintained when a similar school is transferred to another site. Is this good architecture? That depends in part on the quality of the model. There is nothing inherently wrong with repeatedly constructing a well-designed building. The quality of a proven model is not diminished by rebuilding it at another site. What does suffer though is the building’s relationship to its surrounding context. Consider the environment in which repeat schools are built. Most stand alone in vast pools of single-family housing that have little visual diversity, topography, or natural features. It is typical for builders to flatten their sites and remove all vegetation before building anything–not just schools–out in the suburbs. One architect, working for a Toronto firm that does nearly half its business in these schools, calls the work “parachute architecture.” He sees the buildings as prototypes that are adjusted slightly to fit different site conditions. In the case of building in a speculative greenfield development, even the simple context is removed. Ultimately, flat greenfield sites are what suburban school boards are seeking.

Nonetheless, repeat schools can be a consistent source of revenue for architects, and a stable source of work once a firm has established a reputation. Despite the uniformity between various schools, no two are ever identical. Issues of site, orientation, and minor alterations always affect the layout. Typically, a firm will receive 50 percent of a conventional fee for doing a school building and then collect a supplemental amount for modifications and additional details or revisions. If the changes are extensive, an office can see its fee approach the cost of an original design. Familiarity, along with a stock of prepared details and experienced contractors, can expedite the process. There are pitfalls, however. The primary one is where the firm starts to run on autopilot. Even if the building is a repeat, there is still the possibility of seeing each school as a chance to refine the model and its parts, as opposed to recycling the same product. The stock of details, if not well designed the first time, become mistakes compounded over the number of new buildings constructed, thus reducing the profitability of the commission for the firm.

The emergence of this school type is generally confined to areas in Ontario just beyond urban cores where a strong economy and housing market can sustain large spurts in home construction. Parts of Alberta, particularly around Calgary, are in a similar situation, though to date, they have largely managed to avoid building repeat schools. For the Calgary market, this phenomenon remains unclear: is it because they have politicians with different agendas or is it because their housing market has not reached the same frenzied level as in certain parts of Southern Ontario? Either way, the constraints that Alberta’s architects face in designing schools are similar. The
Alberta Association of Architecture’s president, Art Ferrari, wrote a letter to the Deputy Minister of Infrastructure stating that it would not be in the province’s best interests to pursue repeat models for their schools and that standardized designs would not “be as effective a solution as standardization of the parts.” Nonetheless, the government of Alberta is still considering ways to build rapidly and economically. One idea is to build a standardized core with mobile classroom wings. Building cores, consisting of uniform program spaces (e.g., gym, cafeteria, library) would be the same from site to site, while the number of classrooms would vary depending on the demands of the community. It is believed that this model would speed up construction and reduce costs, particularly design fees.

With some firms seeing a steady flow of schools coming through their offices, perhaps a greater degree of research and refinement could become incorporated into the design and administration of repeat schools. Such research may lead towards more architecturally ambitious models that repeat schools would be based on. It is still possible to meet the bottom line while improving the product that is being sent out the door. Though the pace of construction in Ontario may relax once the economy slows, the funding for schools will certainly not increase dramatically. To find more money, some boards have made innovative partnerships with other users, both private and public. Joining community centres or recreational facilities to a standard school, building multiple schools with shared facilities on one site, or even pairing with developers who pay for the school in exchange for entitlements to develop are just a few contemporary ways of building more interesting and efficient schools. Many see schools as primary community spaces that should ideally have a particular distinctiveness. Unconventional building relationships, such as those listed above, may move these underfunded, hurriedly constructed buildings beyond their currently dubious status.

David Steiner is a freelance writer living and working in Ontario.