Scott Powell, AIA Responds to Niki Haley’s Support of Stock School Plans

When the founding fathers created our government, they decided that the public should elect officials who are more educated than the typical citizen to make decisions beneficial to the public’s wellbeing.  Positions by current political candidates in our state have proven our elected officials are not more knowledgeable than the general public.  Facing a failing economy, Superintendent of Education candidate Mike Zais and Anderson House of Representative candidate Don Bowen have noted that they support stock school plans as a means of saving money.  This week gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley joined in, ironically after giving her support of charter schools because they offer a different approach to public education.

On the surface, it seems logical that developing standard prototypical building plans and specifications can reduce design and engineering cost.  However, the American Institute of Architects estimates that the average building design cost is three percent of the total project cost.  Prototypical plans do not eliminate the necessity for hiring architects and engineers.  Each prototype plan will have to be adapted to fit a different site with different traffic patterns, topography, sidewalks, soil conditions, etc.  Depending on the solar orientation of the site selected, the mechanical system may have to be redesigned.  Besides, architects will still be needed to bid the projects and perform construction administration services to ensure that the contractor is meeting the intent of the construction documents.

In 2004, the state of Arkansas published the findings of a task force developed by their state’s legislators to study the benefits of prototypical school designs.  The findings of that task force were that there is little or no savings for prototypical designs.  Their findings were similar to a study in the early 1990’s by the Facilities Services Section of the Georgia Department of Education.  Georgia mailed surveys to the fifty State Departments of Education and received forty-one responses.  Only three states (Maine, New York and Virginia) reported that they had used prototypical plans in the past and none of those states were currently using standard plans for the construction of new schools.  In the 1960’s, the New York State Legislature passed a bill to fund eighteen separate stock school plans.  The state spent approximately $650,000 to develop nine plans.  After the plans became available, only two schools were constructed.

Stock school plans are not feasible due to constantly changing building codes and regulations.  Our state adopts a new building code every three years and updates the Office of School Facilities Planning Guide every year.

One of the biggest obstacles for stock plans is the liability risk.  Architects and engineers design buildings to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public.  The design team receives training to design structures to meet architectural, structural, mechanical and electrical codes.  The requirements of these codes vary depending on the part of the state the school is located.  The design team holds responsibility and has professional liability insurance to cover themselves.  An executive with Schinnerer & Company, a major insurer of architects and engineers, warns states of “confusing the lines of responsibility” and possibly violating the state’s own licensing laws by duplicating the same plan throughout the state.

The greatest reason to not build prototypical designs is that each community is as different as the children that it serves and the school should reflect the needs of the community.  Some schools have very active PTA’s that raise large sums of money to help fund their children’s education.  Some schools have PTA rooms for the vital organizations to meet and store their materials.  Other, less fortunate communities do not have PTA’s and could better utilize space to teach GED classes for parents or social services organizations that serve their children.

Many of the same politicians who support prototypical school plans also support more choices for our children to learn.  How can prototypical designs provide the spaces needed for the varying programs?  Magnet schools such as Stone Academy for the Arts in the Greenville immerse children in a curriculum focused around the arts.  It is doubtful that the state will provide a typical design for an elementary school with dance and music studios.  Some schools, such as the new A.J. Whittenberg Elementary and Engineering School that just opened in downtown Greenville, utilize the building as a teaching tool.  From their engineering lab, students can look out their window onto the roof below and view a green roof and photovoltaic panels from which they can calculate the energy gained from the sun.  Stock school plans will not enable school designs to meet the specific needs of a school’s curriculum.

If legislators want to save money, they should encourage school districts to share resources and facilities.  Traditionally, the really successful schools serve as the center of the community and the community is more likely to support funding of the schools if they see a benefit.  Fort Moultrie Middle School in Mt. Pleasant has a beautiful arbor-type structure in front of the school.  The City of Mt. Pleasant paid for the structure and uses it on Saturdays for a farmers market.  Anderson School District Four built a full-size gymnasium at Townville Elementary School.  The gymnasium serves to meet the recreation needs of rural, yet desirable area near Lake Hartwell.  And Greenville County Schools has partnered with the Salvation Army so that A.J. Whittenberg Elementary can share site, facilities and programs with the new Kroc Center.

To the average citizen who is rightly concerned about the state’s economy, having prototypical school plans seems like a logical way to save money.  History has not proven this to be true.  We are affected by our environment and each school should be designed to meet the needs of each community.  Politicians have been told of the pitfalls of prototypical school designs, yet they do not think that the voters of our state are intelligent enough to understand.  In November, prove that our citizens are smarter than politicians think. 

Scott E. Powell, AIA, LEED AP

Principal and K12 Studio Leader at Craig Gaulden Davis

Board member of South Carolina Chapter of the American Institute of Architects

Member of South Carolina Office of School Facilities Planning Board

Member of the Council for Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI)

Member of South Carolina School Board Association


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