By {{Article.AuthorName}} | {{Article.PublicationDate.slice(6, -2) | date:'EEEE, MMMM d, y'}}
{{TotalFavorites}} Favorite{{TotalFavorites>1? 's' : ''}}

Blueprints for K-12 school construction reflect radical changes in the educational landscape. Yesterday’s linear hallways and windowless classrooms are being replaced with open, collaborative learning spaces purposefully designed to accommodate small group interactions and project-based learning.

Although kids are still kids, and students are still students, the world in which they are growing up has shifted monumentally. For teachers to connect with students and for students to connect with their worlds, 21st century school designs must keep up.

Also trending in school design is a significant emphasis on energy efficiency and building materials, as well as stringent safeguards in security.


The Natrona County High School in Casper, Wyoming, was originally built in 1921. When the school district began thinking about a renovation in 2004, it wanted to maintain the historic integrity of the building while accommodating the needs of its 1,800 students. 

“We are seeing more additions and renovations rather than completely new buildings when it’s possible, and repurposing the way buildings are being used,” says Tom Stone, vice president of project procurement with Adolfson & Peterson Construction’s Denver office, who supervised the six-phase renovation.

This can be a very delicate balancing act. For the Casper project, the firm was charged with painstakingly restoring stained glass windows in the old theater, re-ballasting historic light fixtures, cleaning and re-patching original terracotta on the exterior, and taking special care of other time-honored elements. It also had to build a swing space—a temporary area for the students to hold classes while the renovation project was in progress—which now has a second life as the Student Fitness and Activity Center. 

Ultimately, the project team renovated and restored 135,000 square feet of the original building and added 200,000 square feet to an adjacent building.
From conception to completion, the massive project took 14 years and earned the company a first-place Excellence in Construction® (EIC) Award from Associated Builders and Contractors. 


New educational learning models are driving the trends in school design today. 

“Probably the most noticeable and significant trend in design is building space for collaboration,” says John Marshall, vice president of Satterfield & Pontikes Construction, a first-place ABC EIC Award winner for its role as the general contractor to build the new Klein Cain High School on the outskirts of Houston. This massive 675,000-square-foot school accommodates up to 3,500 students and provides an extensive range of advanced resources and facilities, from core curriculum classrooms to technical education spaces.

A collaborative learning model is giving rise to spaces where students can work together. “Rather than narrow hallways with low ceilings and classrooms lined up on each side, you’ll see higher ceilings, more open spaces, more light, and in some areas you’ll have nooks,” Marshall says.

Many projects also incorporate “learning stairs”: a place for students to gather off the main hallway. Others include operable partitions, so it’s easy to break into either smaller rooms or more quiet spaces. 

“You don’t have that same hard-and-fast design of hallways running down a spine and classrooms on either side, with desks set the same way. It’s been a real effort to encourage and enable learning in a way that students learn today,” he adds.

Across the country, more resources are being dedicated to career and technical education at the high school level, resulting in construction of spaces such as auto and culinary shops or cosmetology labs.

Stone agrees that construction of collaborative learning spaces, learning pods and shared gathering spaces is becoming more common.  

In addition to an open classroom layout, the Natrona County High School offers students a courtyard and a multistory common area. “It’s got soft seating, places to gather and a large, open, cohabitated space with many functions going on at the same time; that is a big trend when it comes to school design and construction,” Stone says.


The new reality is that security in K-12 schools is a critical component of school design, and it’s at the top of educators’ minds.

“That is probably, start to finish, the most significant part of a project: ensuring and maintaining the safety of the school. If you’re working on an occupied school, you have a whole different, and in some ways a greater, set of challenges,” Marshall says. 

Many school districts are installing security vestibules where visitors can be screened before they’re able to get anywhere else in the building, creating distinctly separate entrances for students and visitors, and ensuring good lines of sight from administrative areas.

“We’re eliminating exterior entry points in a controlled way—it is very centralized,” Stone says. “How you get in and how you access and enter the building is very purposeful.”

Security extends to the construction site as well, with workers being scrutinized and vetted a lot more closely than they used to be, especially during renovation projects.

“Existing school sites’ modernization work is seeing an increase in enforcement of security and restricted access, and pre-approved criminal background checks,” says Ron Hicks, vice president and co-owner of Soltek Pacific, an ABC Accredited Quality Contractor firm headquartered in San Diego. “New construction has adopted completely new standards for door hardware to provide additional security during lockdown mode.”


Energy efficiency also is on many school districts’ radars, with educators advocating for the positive impacts of air quality and natural light on students’ learning.

“We’re seeing a lot more sustainable thoughts, ideas and design implementation, and more options for energy conservation,” Stone observes. Especially in the West and South, school decision-makers are seeking construction of geothermal systems and installation of solar panels to take advantage of local energy-sharing exchanges. 

However, LEED is falling out of favor for some developers and planners in the K-12 marketplace.

“While you may not get a lot of educational facilities that do seek the [LEED] certification, you see the associated benefits that come from greater energy efficiency and environmentally friendly design,” Marshall says. Indeed, at Klein Cain High School, the building’s air quality is as clean as it can be, while the abundance of windows allows natural light to stream in.

The emphasis on LEED and other certifications has reached a plateau in recent years due to the realization that the excessive costs of achieving certification is not always compensated by long-term savings in life cycle maintenance, Hicks explains.

Still, in San Diego, schools are incorporating more smart technology than ever before to achieve ultra-efficient, environmentally controlled heating, cooling and lighting. 

Schools are also seeking more sophisticated craftsmanship in everything from carpets and flooring tile to paint, hardware and fixtures. Metal mesh panel accents, specialty tiles, polished concrete and high-end wood finishes are growing in popularity.


Like the buildings themselves, construction delivery methods are evolving. 

California almost exclusively has migrated to a lease-leaseback delivery method; Hicks has found, however, that K-12 clients prefer this anyway, as the method creates a higher degree of collaboration and fewer conflicts. “School clients prefer to have the architect and contractor work together throughout the design process doing constructability review and budget maintenance to ensure minimal change orders due to design errors or conflicts during the construction phase,” he says.

While every delivery system has its benefits, the question becomes what works best for the district. For Klein Cain High School, Satterfield & Pontikes acted as the construction manager at-risk to provide preconstruction and construction services, and it incorporated BIM and 3D modeling that contributed to quality control.

“Using technology, we are able to, in a visual 3D model, show the impact of certain decisions and materials. This really helps the owner and the design team quickly get to what works best. We always advocate for more collaborative delivery and earlier involvement of the construction team,” Marshall says.

Stone likewise is seeing more collaboration. “Most projects are done in a negotiated way; whether it’s design-build or construction manager/general contractor, we’re seeing more of those methods than the traditional bid deliveries.”

Teamwork becomes even more essential when contractors are contending with occupied buildings, scheduling logistics, weather delays and tight timelines, not to mention added background checks for workers. Plus, school construction often requires additional layers of plan check, review and approval by historical preservation groups and local/state architectural boards. 


Despite the headaches, bureaucracy and potential setbacks that can delay a K-12 construction project, those who work in the industry believe it is worthwhile in the long run. Hicks enjoys the “satisfaction of fulfilling a role and creating an environment for students and future leaders.”

Similarly, Stone adds, “I like the idea of the leading the charge: We have the opportunity to enhance kids’ lives and help them move forward.” 

Marshall, who is from a family of educators, says, “I am a big believer in education. I think it’s what makes us different as a country than anyone else in the world; knowing we’re contributing to that is really satisfying.” 


 Comments ({{Comments.length}})

  • {{comment.Name}}


    {{comment.DateCreated.slice(6, -2) | date: 'MMM d, y h:mm:ss a'}}

Leave a comment

Required! Not valid email!