Essential Questions To Raise During a Building Project

by Tod Schneider

As a school design consultant I’m often pointing out dysfunctional elements in otherwise fine school buildings. I’d much rather catch them in the design stage but don’t always get the chance.

With this in mind, I’ve drawn up a list of essential questions to keep handy during the design process, addressing safety, health and connectivity.

• No. 1: Can you see approaching threats?

Where are windows located and at what height? Who normally has a view out those windows—employees, students or volunteers? Visual obstacles, such as support posts, frequently go unnoticed until too late. Will you rely on indoor and outdoor patrols? If electronic surveillance is used, who will be watching the monitors?

• No. 2: Is the main office designed to serve as the “guard ian at the gate”?

Is the main office adjacent to the front door? If the office faces the door from across the hall, will people entering the building be backlit and harder to identify? Pay close attention to the walls surrounding the reception area. Are there solid wall sections that could use some windows? If windows are in place, are they transparent or do they use architectural glass? Are there objects outside the window that unnecessarily block the receptionist’s view?

• No. 3: Can a threatening person be kept from entering the school?

How difficult is it to lock all exterior doors? How will you know if they are open, closed, locked or unlocked? Who would lock those doors and how? Who are the first people likely to see threats on each side of the building? How would they arrange lockdowns? Are secondary entries protected? A receptionist should be able to lock doors electronically rather than having to broadcast a lockdown, hurdle the front desk, run outside, fend off the intruder, extract the right key and lock the door.

• No. 4: Can students easily retreat into the building, away from external threats?

Can students playing outdoors regain safety quickly? This might mean adjacent doors remain open during play time and drills or that proximity cards allow staff to open doors from outside.

• No. 5: Does the design protect against internal threats?

How hard is it to lock down classrooms? Can teachers do so from inside classrooms or must they step into hallways? Is the door to the hallway the only escape option? Would a chemical spill in the lab block an escape route? Can a back door or window serve as an emergency exit? Are phones available in all classrooms?

• No. 6: What school area should serve as a disaster shelter?

The most likely settings would be the gymnasium, auditorium, hallways or basement. Would these serve only students or the community as well? Are food, water, bedding, communication devices and first-aid supplies available? Can windows be shuttered? Are doors easily locked from inside? Are secondary means of escape or ventilation available?

• No. 7: Does the design guide visitors to the correct entry or delivery area?

How many entries are there? Where should signs be installed and what should they say? Is the main entry the most convenient and apparent entry point for visitors approaching from the parking lot?

• No. 8: Is it easy to see activity inside the school?

Are there isolated niches? Small seating areas can enhance connectivity but also can create hidden areas where misbehavior can go undetected. Can these areas be opened up or secured? Are there solid walls, particularly at corners and on exterior walls, where windows could be installed?

• No. 9: Does this design maximize environmental awareness and personal health?

Solar exposure can improve academic performance while reducing utility bills. Can light shelves mitigate glare and balance light levels? Can rainwater be gathered in cisterns for watering grounds? Are least-toxic construction materials required? Do security features block access to fresh air and the natural environment?

Can students safely walk to school? Is bike parking provided near the entry? Will exhaust from idling vehicles drift toward air vents or play areas? Is there a space for student gardening?

• No. 10: Does the design enhance connectivity between schools, teachers, students and the community?

Can wings be opened independently, for pre-school or after-hours events? Is there a community bulletin board? Are areas available for mentor-student meetings? Are local employers involved in designing classrooms geared toward training future employees? Will they need special access or storage features?

Are multiple topics covered in the same wing, allowing teachers who share students to interact? Do teachers, as well as students, share convenient spaces for collaboration and conversation?

Is the design wheelchair-friendly? Will exhibits recognizing varied accomplishments receive equal display space? Will signs be available in all relevant languages? Can students and their families create tiles, murals or other enhancements? Can the school be redefined as smaller, schools-within-schools?

School planning isn’t easy. Compromises can inadvertently undermine critical health and safety features. Errors can go undetected until too late, becoming apparent only after the cement is dry. Don’t let this happen to your school.

Tod Schneider is a consultant on environmental design for schools. He can be reached at 894 West 4 th Ave., Eugene, OR 97402. E-mail: