Leadership through the construction process

Published April 20, 2018
School executives reveal all the ways hiring outside architects improves, safeguards building efforts

As questions rose over a planned Kellyville (OK) Public Schools basketball arena, local officials sought answers from executives with Sparks Reed Architecture and Interiors. Longtime Kellyville board member John Tuttle said the architects listened carefully and politely at each gathering, putting some of the public's construction inquiries to rest within moments. Those questions they couldn't immediately answer drew quick research and results, which helped win the trust of staff, parents, and voters. 

That parallels experiences many athletic directors, school administrators, and other officials shared from similar efforts. It marks just one reason why these executives recommend hiring an architectural firm as early as possible in any renovation or construction project. By outlining the best and safest long-term paths to a successful, cost-efficient operation, the advice and guidance of outside architects may save schools time and money through the decision-making process.

"An architect is vital in that role," said Tuttle, a former president of the National School Boards Association. "A teacher isn't a designer, and neither is a superintendent, however much they like to think they are. Not even someone who's in construction, like me, is a designer. I'm thinking about details in the building process and not about how we should set up each classroom.

 

"That's where you rely on that architect and that design group," said Tuttle, president of Kellyville's board. "They have the expertise to lead the people who know what they want to happen in that proposed room but don't know the best way to make that happen. The architect's job is to guide them through the process, to help them understand."

This recommendation recognizes the increased sophistication and internal resources high schools, colleges, and universities now command. Hiring an outside consultant provides clear, unbiased views that often weigh things insiders may overlook or take for granted. The outsider helps keep projects on track.

“There’s always a budget and there’s always X number of dollars you can spend on a structure,” said Robert Sprague, a former athletic director for Tulsa Memorial High School who worked with Sparks Reed to develop and build Memorial’s Veterans Arena. “The architect is excellent at keeping you on that budget.” 

Unforeseen options

Many school officials and supporters admittedly have a better grasp of these issues today than they did a generation ago. Where once many boards and voters had to be carefully led through the decision-making process, most schools now have one or more standing committees to regularly evaluate building maintenance needs, efficiencies, and funding resources. Even small school districts often employ long-range master plans to direct growth needs, while many colleges and universities draw on internal architectural arms to oversee such projects. 

But with all those resources, nearly all these organizations still hire outside architectural firms at their earliest opportunity. They need them for:

Learning the latest trends in work and traffic flow, occupant safety, cost evaluations, infrastructure efficiency and sustainability, the best available materials, and cutting-edge hardware. 

Guidance on political hurdles facing construction, environmental issues, location evaluations, and the latest in research and development results. 

Leadership on inspiring designs, multipurpose potentials, and ways to generate more revenues from building usage. 

Reassurances that any structure they raise or update will remain vibrant and useful for generations to come. 

“We’ve been very blessed to have architects to help walk us through this process,” said Tulsa (OK) Union Public Schools Assistant Superintendent for Support Services Charlie Bushyhead, whose school district handles about 20 construction or renovation projects each year. "Our architects have often brought options forward to us that we had not looked at before."

"Our most important things"

Architects help construction-minded school officials grasp vital issues right from the beginning, such as:

Ensuring the safety and success of students, faculty, and visitors within or around the building.

“First and foremost is student safety,” Sapulpa High School Athletic Director Jason Parker said of campus construction priorities. ”Second to that is outcomes, student outcomes. Whether students can be better served by having more rooms, access to the facility, more equipment. These benefit everyone in the community. Obviously, when you have better education outcomes, you get higher levels of community development." 

Bushyhead shared how Tulsa Union’s various contractors have guided such discussions concerning a variety of materials and needs, from social issues like traffic patterns and student habits to structural specifics of safe rooms and safety glass.

“Safety and security are our most important things,” he said. “But our mission still falls into educating our students and helping them into a better life.”

Performing due diligence on program needs.

“Form has to follow function,” said Bushyhead. “You have to ask the question, How does what we’re building support what we want to happen?”

Such diligence usually proves an ongoing process, from the project’s big-picture conceptualization and bond funding determination to such fluid construction details as where electrical outlets go, what kind of lights to install, communication system needs, or how many stalls each bathroom requires.

“Most users can’t visualize that,” said Tuttle. “The architect’s job is to lead them through the process, to help them understand.”

For example, one often-overlooked issue here involves pinpointing the best possible building location for benefitting campus foot traffic, usage, efficiency, parking, visibility, and future growth needs.

 

Sprague said this is a vital first step, especially if the school seeks to build a stand-alone structure like Veterans Arena. Bushyhead noted how determining such paths might spur changes or new usages for other parts of the campus. 

“We’re not just building a $12 million facility to last 10 years,” said Sprague. “We’re looking for at least 50 years, and possibly more. That’s where the architects can give the owner some vision and thought into the future, not just the present.”

Stressing sustainability in purpose, function, and materials.

“What products do I select that are going to allow this building to be standing 50 years from now and still functioning?” said Bushyhead. He noted how architects play a vital role in that with his organization., helping Tulsa Union identify efficient, appealing materials that do not stretch the budget yet wear well.

"For example, we're spending a little more money than we first thought on bathroom finishes, floor, and wall tile," he said of a project now under construction. "They're going to stay cleaner a lot longer with less maintenance."

These steps fit the strategy of all school leaders, as enabled by their architects, to get the best bang for their buck.

“We build nice buildings,” said Bushyhead. “I tell people I will never apologize for trying to give our students the very best that I can. We want to make sure that we create an environment that is the best educational environment for our students.”

Maximizing multi-purpose usage.

“Any time you can get multiple issues covered in one facility, you’re doing yourself a huge favor,” said Parker. “You see a lot of schools get into trouble when you pigeon-hole yourself into one-use facilities.”

Identifying multi-purpose opportunities not only benefit more school programs, but helps these programs and the school generate future revenues. For instance, the practice gym included in Memorial's three-year-old Veterans Arena has helped the Tulsa school attract several state tournaments, along with other events. 

“Those are just kind of bonuses that you’re not thinking of, but that you hope will happen,” he said of such construction planning. “I know it’s called the auxiliary or practice gym, but our school uses that for all testing purposes. Groups have had banquets in that facility, as they have in a similar smaller venue in the arena. They rented the hospitality suite for that as well.”

Identifying and achieving the best opportunities for inspiring all who use the building.

“You have the opportunity to send a message to your community, and to everyone who will ever step into your facility, so you want to make that point well,” said Parker. “Nobody wants to see a new facility or complex that is inefficient or not ascetically pleasing, or doesn’t have amenities that patrons and users have come to enjoy in other facilities.”

Schools often feel the need to keep up with competing institutions in everything from scoreboard graphics to easily accessible concession stands, hospitality suites, and bathrooms. But with their ever-tight resources and focus on safety and education, many school executives leave ascetic and amenity issues to what architect imaginations may achieve under existing budgets.

Bushyhead said the grand entryway at Tulsa Union's new Union Collegiate Academy evolved from an architect's inspiration. School officials quickly embraced those flourishes, even though they required some plan changes. 

“Walking into a grand building like that, which is designed with a little more expensive and finer finishes, it tells our students, it tells our staff, it tells our faculty, that you’re walking into a first-class institution, and our expectations are very high,” said Bushyhead. 

 

"They listened to us"

Balancing all these issues offers ways for architects to distinguish themselves, especially as their ideas spur competing visions from school or community leaders. 

“I know that, when we were working with Sparks Reed, they truly involved us, the patron, in the design process,” said Sprague. “They listened to us. I have friends in other school districts that said that wasn’t the case for them. Their architects came in and said, ‘This is what you need,’ or ‘This is the way it’s going to be,’ and you had little to do with the input. They did what the architectural firm was comfortable with, as opposed to Sparks Reed, where they let us use our own ideas. They found out basically what we wanted and then helped us to develop that to the finished product, and that was fabulous.”

Successfully navigating all these issues throughout the building and bond determination process may help school officials win or maintain voter trust — a vital point towards passing future bond issues. Several executives said hiring a resourceful architectural firm early on helped achieve such long-term goals.

"It all comes down to whether the community is going to support you," said Tuttle. "You rely on your architect… trust that their specs, their design, are all coordinated… so that there are no blow-ups when the general contractor starts construction."

That underscores a central truth in all such efforts.

"Regardless of the project, or how big or expensive it is, the people you are building that project for are viewing this as their number one priority," said Bushyhead. “So you have to look at this from that standpoint.”

Sprague said Memorial’s early architectural hire keyed its success with Veterans Arena.

“It is well-spent money,” Sprague said. “It helped us get the most for the amount of public money we could spend, and the very best product.”

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