SDA Building Blocks Standardize Design and Construction

Efficiency is the watchword, but critics say "kit of parts" approach can miss unique needs

school floor plan
As the Schools Development Authority starts rolling out the first new construction projects in years, it is also starting to deliver the details of what it wants the new buildings to look like.

SDA officials last week presented their board an outline of the “model school” designs that it is using to start the first dozen new projects to be launched by the Christie administration in two years.

Harkening back to children’s building blocks, the floor plans being considered so far for a half-dozen pending elementary schools are each different combinations of rectangular and square sections, each one serving different functions: instructional, office and support “core,” large group, and preschool.

No curved walls or courtyards, officials said, and definitely no atriums or wide-open hallways.

“The open space is really not efficient design, it’s wasted space,” said Jason Ballard, the SDA’s chief of staff, at a presentation of the plans to a reporter after the board’s meeting last week.

Efficient is the operative word here. Standardization of designs and other construction steps is the Christie administration’s answer to a yearlong remaking of the mammoth school construction program to be leaner and more manageable.

At the same time, the “kit of parts” approach is sure to face criticism as a cookie-cutter, uninventive approach to design that does not meet the needs and wants of individual communities.

It’s familiar debate for a program first ordered by the state Supreme Court more than a decade ago for the state’s neediest districts, a $12 billion school construction initiative that at one point was among the nation’s largest. But it has also been rife with accusations of mismanagement and waste ever since. One of the most visible culprits were what critics called grandiose and wasteful designs in some buildings, including tall entry atriums.

Two years ago, Gov. Chris Christie said he would be cleaning up program; the resultant remaking slowed the SDA to a crawl.

Now, the first projects look close to start, with 10 announced for the first year and two of those going out to bid this winter. Those two, a high school in Elizabeth and elementary school in Long Branch, actually will follow their original designs, since officials said they were close enough to the standardization models to proceed.

But six of the next eight are potential candidates for the standardized design, including one each in Newark, Paterson, New Brunswick, Bridgeton, and Jersey City. Officials said another comparable set of new projects would be announced in the next few months as well.

The design components would each serve a function; for example, a hallway of six to 10 classrooms or a multi-purpose space that combines cafeteria and auditorium. There are still variations in size and some other details, but by and large different blocks would be moved around to fit the size and shape of a property. Materials used and the looks of the building’s entrance could also be tweaked to fit local tastes and needs.

In Newark’s Oliver Street School site, for instance, the configuration appears at one end of the property. Jersey City’s School 3 would be one long building, and the proposed Paterson School 16 is another configuration altogether, lined up to fit into its triangular site.

“It’s a much different space, and space constraints, but the same components that we can rearrange,” said Kristen MacLean, the SDA’s communications director. “It’s all there, but moved around to fit the site.”

Officials maintained that the SDA’s goal is not to create cookie-cutter designs but to leave some discretion to meet specific site needs. But only up to a point, they added, where the predesigned components — crafted by the SDA’s design staff — would eliminate a procurement step for an architect, saving the state both time and money.

“We’re taking the whole thing and smacking it down to a couple of months,” MacLean said.

Whether that actually happens is yet to be determined, with local district officials only starting to get a look at the new models. And with that will surely come questions as to whether the new floor plans will meet unique needs related to, say, a district’s special education programs or its grade requirements.

In Newark, lost in the new design for the Oliver Street School were plans for a second building that would serve the earliest grades. Now, under the SDA’s plans, Oliver Street is a single larger school, the previous designs all but scrapped.

Newark’s facilities director, Steve Morlino, said he didn’t want to pass judgment on the plans until he could closely examine them. He said it is a similar standardization process to that undertaken by the New York City’s board of education, with mixed results.

Morlino said the process runs into challenges, especially in urban settings where site constraints are many. But Morlino said he’s all for anything that accelerates a program that has hardly been speedy.

“If we’re talking building 10 schools in Newark, some standardization could help in the long run,” he said.

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight