Standardized Design for School Construction: Cookie Cutter or Building Blocks?

The Schools Development Authority embraces modular design, but critics say it's slowing down new work

The standardization of school construction — the notion of choosing from a few standard design and construction models for classrooms or even whole buildings — is not new to the industry or even New Jersey.

Through the decade of the state’s massive court-ordered school construction program, the idea has been included in any number of strategic plans as a way of saving money and getting the work done expeditiously.

Yet at the same time, the bulk of the projects built under the program have been largely customized to the communities and their needs, for good or ill.

Now the idea of standardizing building design and construction is commanding new attention — or drawing new fire — since the Schools Development Authority (SDA) said it was a key component in deciding which projects will move ahead and which will get a second look.

But with that announcement also comes the debate as to whether standardization will only lead to so-called cookie-cutter schools or whether it will even work at all in a state with as divergent needs as New jersey.

SDA Spells Out Design Criteria

The latest forum was yesterday’s hearing of the legislature’s Joint Committee for the Public Schools, with SDA executive director Marc Larkins testifying to the criteria he used in choosing the projects that would proceed.

The SDA last month announced after a year of review that it was restarting work with 10 specific projects. The hearing was held at Trenton Central High School, a possible project that was passed over in the next round.

A detailed scoring process was used in determining needs and priorities, Larkins said, but he also testified that a critical determinant was in how easily the projects would fit into standardized models that could be used statewide. That helps explain why nine of the 10 projects chosen were elementary schools with approximately 700 students.

“That makes a difference in terms of the options we want to provide,” he said.

“Part of the problem that has plagued the program for years is there are no standards,” Larkins continued. “Every single project was designed from scratch.”

But legislators — all Democrats — yesterday questioned the precise scoring used to make those decisions, saying the SDA had not laid out what its standards were before choosing which schools would proceed, putting districts at the disadvantage of not knowing the rules they needed to follow.

State Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden), who chaired the meeting, afterward applauded the idea of standardizing the process more, but questioned how those standards were being applied in choosing projects to proceed. Norcross has been especially critical that only one project south of Trenton has been chosen to move ahead.

“It’s still a mystery,” he said after the hearing. “We know they are using standardization, but we don’t know how.”

Larkins acknowledged that determining the exact standards and laying out the models for design and construction has only just begun. He cited a number of states and city school systems that have gone to standardization, among them New York City, Miami and Philadelphia.

Stall Tactics?

Still, the approach has its critics, or at least its skeptics, some saying that at best, it’s not as simple as it appears and at worst the SDA is only using standardization as a stall tactic to delay building more schools.

“The question of what exactly are they going to standardize,” said Joan Ponessa, a long-time facilities consultant to the Education Law Center, which has led the Abbott v. Burke litigation that prompted the creation of school construction program in 2001.

“There are some advantages where you have the same type of communities with similar properties,” she said. “But as some of the architects have pointed out in urban districts, there are some areas where it’s tough to even get a crane in and you have to move all kinds of things around.”

“It’s just not as easy as it sounds,” Ponessa said.

Count Ponessa among those who wonder if this is more about putting off projects than anything else, something SDA officials deny.

“No question that’s the purpose,” Ponessa said. “No question in my mind there is some delaying tactic in this.