Ed InvestmentHigher Ed

School start-up and expansion projects: The Lessons of Experience

By: Andy Homden*

Andy’s career as a school leader specialising in school expansion and foundation projects began as a senior member of the team that designed and relocated the British International School (BIS), Jakarta, from the confining inner suburbs of the city to its current position in Bintaro Jaya. Appointments guiding educational expansion projects as Head of School followed, first in Malaysia, at the Alice Smith School as Director of Schools, at Enka Schools in Istanbul also as Director, and then in Thailand at Bangkok Patana School as Head of School. His most recent project work has been with Taaleem LLC in the UAE, as Principal of Dubai British School (DBS) and subsequently as the founding Principal of Jumeira Baccalaureate School (JBS), which in three years grew from a small primary and early years school of 90 children in September 2010 to a K-12 school of 860, entering its first students to prestigious universities around the world in 2014.

1. What are the 3 most valuable lessons you have learnt in managing school expansion and foundation projects?

a) Educational needs must drive architectural solutions
If a building project brief is based upon the learning objectives of the school, all else follows. Specialist educational input is therefore needed at the earliest possible stage of the start-up process in order to minimise the risk of costly and avoidable building variations.

b) All players must understand the start-up process
To be successful and to keep the project moving forward, investors, sponsors, consultants and operators must understand that a school expansion project needs to be explicitly guided through three distinct phases of a single process:

  1. Conception
  2. Feasibility
  3. Design & Implementation.

Feasibility studies must reveal rather than hide unwelcome truths and all key players must clearly understand what effect the feasibility study has had on the project’s original conception. It is especially important that staffing and curriculum implementation are properly costed to avoid later surprises after implementation is under way.

c) Don’t neglect the details – door handles; windows; chairs; colour; lighting, etc., etc.
As the project gets underway there are countless smaller decisions to be made by the educators and project manager about finish, fixtures and fittings. These decisions will all have long term and possibly very expensive consequences if made poorly. Are the window fittings on the upper floors safe? Will the student chairs damage the chosen floor finish? Are the door specifications sufficiently robust to carry a potentially over-specified handle? Are the specified lighting schemes appropriate for different parts of the school? Experience counts for a great deal in making these decisions.

2. With space being a constraint on education facility design and construction, what design principals did you apply in your school expansion and foundation projects to ensure that facilities were able to meet future needs?

a) Minimise the use of fitted equipment
Only install fitted equipment where you have to. Even for specialised spaces such as laboratories and libraries more flexible options are available. Minimising fixtiures gives potential for low cost future variations in use of space.

b) Allow the use of space to evolve naturally after a building project is completed
Reserve a budget to take advantage of indicators that emerge after the campus has opened. “Natural” paths frequently emerge in a way that designers had not anticipated. When they do, provide a suitable surface for them.

c) Create flexible educational spaces which are open to easy variation

  • In primary teaching areas especially, well positioned connecting doors from room to room open up a range of teaching possibilities and enhance flexible use of space
  • Large indoor spaces should be designed for multi-purpose rather than specialised use, especially in the first phases of a new build
  • Although some specialised IT facilities are necessary, don’t over allocate space to IT laboratories. They may look impressive, but it is more effective to establish on-line access to all classrooms for general use.

Power points should be evenly distributed in rooms, while ensuring that services and utilities to specialised teaching areas are accessible to enable later variation of use and facilitate servicing

d) Allow sufficient room for storage
Give careful thought to storage and even though space may be at a premium, be as generous as you can. It’s difficult to add proper storage later.

e) Design transition areas carefully
The way students move around the school is largely determined by the design of the transition environment, which therefore plays an important role in establishing tone and ethos. Well – designed indoor to outdoor transition spaces are particularly important. The design of landscaping, shade and protection from the elements all have a profound long-term impact and must not be an after-thought.

3. What were the main strategies you used to ensure school projects were delivered on schedule and on budget?

a) The appointment by the board or owners of a balanced, and properly qualified project committee with a strong chairman. Keep the committee small: the Principal, Project Manager, Business Manager and 1 or 2 Board representatives form the core and co-opt members as necessary. One of the Board reps would be the chair. Ensure the committee has clear Terms of Reference: if they are uncertain about the extent of their powers, delays are almost inevitable

b) Taking care to remain compliant with regulations as decisions are made through the project to avoid delays to opening due to last-minute problems with regulators

c) Appointing the best project manager affordable, preferably on an exclusive contract. This may be expensive in the short term, but it is likely to save money in the long run and significantly enhances time keeping.

d) Make haste slowly: keep up the tempo, but recognise when you need to slow down and think again. Then move on.

4.  What would you say are the 3 key points in effectively managing school expansion and foundation projects?

a) Appointing a small project steering committee with clear terms of reference.
b) Ensuring the sponsors of the project understand the big picture processes and are kept informed about progress
c) Making the right decisions in the right order using the expertise of the right people

Chief Executive Officer, Consilium Education, Global support for learning

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