As another school year draws to a close, thoughts naturally turn to summer and the ubiquitous facilities “to-do” list. Over the past two years, most independent schools have been in reactive mode, quickly adjusting and adapting the physical space to meet the changing needs and requirements resulting from the pandemic. Because we are now at a point where we can begin to think more proactively about facilities, we now have the space to consider not only those immediate tasks — the summer to-dos — but also longer-term changes in the way that independent schools think about their physical plant.
Working Hard To Breathe Easy
I have the unique opportunity to speak with a wide swath of independent school business officers and business partners across the country. And when I ask them what is top of mind with regard to facilities, I immediately hear that clean indoor air continues to be a top priority for many schools, as an important way to maintain the well-being of the entire school community. Previously, deferred maintenance, funding PPRRSM, and constructions projects would have been far more likely to top the list.
More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, many of our member schools have already addressed the issue of classroom ventilation and filtration to some extent, but they are looking well beyond “band-aid” fixes in years to come. For example, Adam Wojtelwicz, chief financial officer and assistant head of school for institutional stewardship at The Shipley School, told me that school leaders had adopted a three-year plan to upgrade all of the school’s HVAC systems. This would have been a unique mindset in the pre-pandemic era.
Now, in large part because of what we learned from the pandemic, building evaluation will have a much greater focus on health and wellness.
In the past when HVAC was upgraded, the primary motivation would likely be better performance and greater efficiency for long-term cost savings. Now, in large part because of what we learned from the pandemic, building evaluation will have a much greater focus on health and wellness. As Larry Eighmy, managing principal of The Stone House Group, told me, “If healthy students are important to our school, then healthy buildings are needed.”
This of course continues the increased attention to wellness that we were seeing even before the pandemic. Moving forward, to ensure clean indoor air, schools will be paying much closer attention to dilution and filtration strategies that make sense for their particular campus and physical plant, and technology like indoor air quality monitors and high efficiency mechanical filtration will be more commonplace. According to Laura Miyoshi, director of operations at Sandy Springs Friends School, this increased focus, together with more advanced tools, allow the school to manage the quality of indoor air in much more systematic and careful ways.
The increased attention to indoor air quality does not come without a cost. According to recent research, a facility with improved air quality will likely consume 30% more energy when compared to a pre-COVID baseline. A three-pronged strategy to achieve a healthy building, which includes attention to HVAC operations, space planning and healthy building rating systems (e.g., LEED, WELL, Fitwell) can ensure this is money well spent, according to Eighmy. And although perhaps harder to measure in financial terms, the upside of course will be a healthier faculty, staff and student body, which is a tradeoff that business officers will likely resource and a result that is fully mission-aligned.
Flexing Our Spaces
Another trend that has risen to the top for independent school facilities management is a continued increase in the demand for more flexible physical spaces. Dennis Palmer, LEED AP O+M — senior vice president & COO at Building Solutions, put it bluntly: “If I can’t use it [a school space] in different ways or if it sits empty, it’s an underutilized, and therefore, costly waste of space. I don’t want the science lab to solely function as a science lab.” Schools today, he added, are looking much more carefully at underused spaces and working with experts to determine how to use those areas more effectively. One example of significant square footage devoted to a single purpose is the traditional library, which schools are beginning to reimagine as multi-use spaces, noted Palmer. More creative and intentional use of outdoor space wherever possible is another trend that accelerated during the pandemic and will no doubt continue to grow as schools consider the most effective and efficient uses of their current facilities.
Wojtelwicz also stressed the importance of agility in classroom spaces, should the need arise to change configurations to comply with pandemic mitigation protocols like social distancing, for example. This may include, as Wojtelwicz noted, temperature controls and separate air filters within each classroom, as well as furniture that can easily be reconfigured both to accommodate flexible uses and to allow for physical distancing or other adjustments that might become necessary. All of these considerations highlight the need for adaptability in the months and years to come, regardless of any lingering impact of COVID.
Rethink, Reuse and Recycle
This demand for increased flexibility is directly related to the third significant trend that I’ve noticed: there will likely be much less new construction going forward. “If we aren’t enrolling more students as an industry overall, why build more buildings?” asked Eighmy. He is seeing an end to the facilities “arms race,” with independent schools feeling much less motivated to undertake new construction simply because peer schools are doing so.
Schools’ growing interest in being good environmental stewards is also playing a role in the downturn in new construction. Palmer asserts that we build too much in the United States in general, and he believes that more schools will realize that “one way to be sustainable is to build less. New construction is resource intensive on the planet.” The critical question, in the words of Miyoshi, is: “Do you really need the new building, or can you expand or improve your existing facilities?” Taking into account all of the direct and indirect costs will help business officers find the right answer.
As we consider how our understanding of school facilities is changing, it’s also important to note one thing that has not changed. The physical plant, like the budget, exists to support the program.
One final thought, and also a suggestion. As we consider how our understanding of school facilities is changing, it’s also important to note one thing that has not changed. The physical plant, like the budget, exists to support the program. This became abundantly clear during COVID-19, but it was also true pre-pandemic and will continue to be true post-pandemic. It should guide our thinking as we consider the changes outlined above. The evaluation of any investment in facilities — whether time or finances, or most typically both — must include the facilities’ support and impact on the school’s educational mission and the learning and teaching that takes place in those spaces.
And now the suggestion. Perhaps the most important learning to come out of this pandemic is a deeper appreciation for how important our people truly are. The faculty and staff are the lifeblood of any school, and this certainly includes our colleagues and peers that work in facilities management everyday. Having a strong facilities staff and a strong relationship among the facilities team, the business office and the school’s administration, is critical.
A few years ago, Deborah Anderson, the chief operations officer at Foxcroft School, shared with us her practice of documenting facilities work throughout the summer, including taking before and after photos, and then sharing the visual record with the faculty and board at the return-to-school meeting. The idea is to help everyone understand the amount of work that goes into establishing and maintaining physical spaces that are safe, healthy and conducive to learning.
Let us all give a collective shout-out to our facilities teams as they continue their hard work this summer and beyond! It doesn’t hurt to remind faculty that when they return in the fall, they would do well to avoid asking facilities staff how their summer vacation was, and to instead extend their thanks for all they did to help us get ready for a new school year.
Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.