Prototype School Designs Reduce Budget, Schedule without Sacrificing Customization

Authored By: Megan White, AIA, ALEP, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C & Shawn Hamlin, AIA, CPD, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C

outdoor shot of elementary school with leaf design in tile

As two years of the pandemic and remote learning have taught us, schools can survive without buildings, but students truly thrive when they have safe and comfortable spaces to gather, collaborate and learn together, face to face.

Prototype designs help school districts balance the need for new and renovated facilities with the reality of lean funding. With each iteration, districts can find more customization, clarity, efficiency and savings.

Too often dismissed as “cookie cutter” or “bare bones,” prototype school designs can provide an attractive solution to these issues with highly flexible, highly customizable, district-equitable designs at a significant savings in cost and schedule.

With six decades of experience in the education market, BRPH has carefully balanced the art and science of the school prototype for districts throughout the Southeast, particularly Georgia and Florida. When executed correctly, school prototypes are: flexible and site specific; customizable and personal; schedule-friendly, budget-friendly and efficient; and equitable and unifying.

Flexible and Site Specific 

While poorly executed prototypes may get a bad rap for being too uniform, utilitarian or “all the same,” a true prototype can be more accurately viewed as a model or template to build upon. When created with a balance of pedagogical best practices, evolving educational models and consideration to state and/or regional aesthetics, prototypes can provide a skeleton with all the necessary bones, organs and systems which can then be customized to create a layout and appearance as unique as the students for which they’re built. With each modification, the prototype continues to evolve, informed by lessons from the previous iterations.

Each prototype design requires individualized civil engineering to optimize the school on the site and account for any natural or manmade features that may require alterations to the design. To accommodate various site issues, large segments of the prototype, such as gymnasiums or classroom wings, can be detached and reattached elsewhere. This “plug and play” concept allows the prototype to be customized not only to site configuration, but also student station count, curriculum and specialty programs to suit the individual needs of the community and school district in which it resides. Prototypes also provide the client the benefit of touring an already existing school to get a firsthand feel for the layout, student flow and overall aesthetic, which can then be customized to meet their specific needs.

grassy outdoor amphitheater at high school

The sunken outdoor amphitheater at East Forsyth High School in Gainesville, Georgia, is an example of a custom variation of a recent BRPH high school prototype design.

Customizable and Personal

Because schools are an extension of their communities, BRPH draws from neighborhood culture to fuel design inspiration. Using the Design Through Discovery process, BRPH’s own variation of Design Thinking, the team brings to the table all school stakeholders, including parents, teachers, administration, students, alumni and community advocates to communicate their needs, wants, strengths and challenges; establish priorities; and share their aspirations for their students.

As a result of this process, Volusia County School’s (VCS) Pierson Elementary School has a unique personality unlike any other. Located in the “Fern Capital of the World,” the elementary school boasts a two-story paint and tile fern pattern on the wall of its main entrance, conveying pride in the town’s claim to fame and reminding all that this is a place where students can grow and flourish. The longstanding family history within the community inspired the implementation of a memory wall, while a clay mural was preserved from the previous school campus to help commemorate the past. This highly customized prototype elementary school, the 13th iteration of the design since 1999, was awarded first place in the prestigious Florida Educational Facility Planner Association (FEFPA) competition in 2019.

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