Community Participation in the Design Process

5 Tips to Building Successful Project Support

Jim with Groupby Carl Franceschi, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, MCPPO | Principal

In any public construction project, engaging the community stakeholders is vital for a successful outcome. Whether the task is to renovate, add, or demolish an existing building and replace it with new construction achieving buy-in from all interested parties is a crucial step involving a wide array of community interests. These community participants include end-users of the facilities, taxpayers, and residents from the local neighborhood. Each of these parties will be affected by the project in various ways, but all of them can provide valuable information and insight to help determine the best location, program, design, or execution strategy. Other involved participants, such as developers, businesses, and local government officials are also valuable resources, with unique viewpoints. Gathering information from the community, and garnering broad-based support for the project sets the stage for a well-informed and positive design process.

There are many ways to build project support, we offer these five most effective tips:

1) Assemble the right Building Committee. The building committee should represent a broad spectrum of constituents. For instance, for a public school project, the building committee membership should not be limited to the superintendent, principal, and school committee; similarly a public library building committee should not be comprised of only the librarian and trustees. While such people are definitely key personnel with important contributions, they are (and are perceived to be) too vested in the outcome, with a limited community outlook. A broader cross-section of people that represent the full community is essential to ensure that the final project best serves the general public. These include politicians, community leaders, technical leaders, and educational leaders. Also, it is worth considering including on the Building Committee those who might be perceived to be against a project.

The committee should have strong independent leadership without vested interest one way or another. The committee should be large enough to represent the diversity of the community, often these means 15-20 people. In such cases there should be a smaller working group of 5–7 people that participate in more frequent meetings to deal with more detailed planning.

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2) Start Early with Community Participation. Committee participation is a process and a community should be considered a partner throughout the process from the very beginning. Community participation should not be viewed as a “sales pitch” at the end of a project. The building committee should start the process without preconceptions, and be open to community participation. Milestones should be used to identify the process. Ideally there should be at least three formal meetings or workshops with the community throughout the feasibility portion of the design process a first meeting to identify the needs, a second to discuss options, and a third to review the preferred option.

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3) Be Transparent. All members of the building committee and the design team should be open in advance and willing to share the basic goals, timeframe, processes with the public. All meetings should be open to the public, with the press and cable TV invited, if available. Also, the committee and design members should refrain from communicating or making decisions outside of these public meetings.; private emails are particularly to be avoided. Communications should be transparent and consistent with the spirit that this is truly a public project.

4) Communicate the need. Before considering any design options there must be a serious and a rigorous investigation to get to the essence of the project. The public needs to know “why” a building the project is necessary. Once the need (or needs) are identified, the committee should seek buy-in from the community. With that common understanding, the community can then move forward to focus on the next steps in the process- developing potential solutions.

Community image15) Seek meaningful input. During all interactions with community, the design team and building committee should be seeking meaningful input. Each meeting will be more effective if it is considered a “workshop” not a “presentation”. This implies sharing information, and working together towards a common goal. Without delegating their authority, the Building Committee and design team should treat the public as partners during these workshops and value their contributions. It is important to treat people with respect, seek meaningful input and respond to their concerns.

Community participation in the design process is a key strategy to successful building projects. Engaging the community members in a positive way not only results in a successful public building, it also builds respect, trust, and a sense of accomplishment among all those involved in the process. ♦


Designing Breakout Spaces for Schools

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by Ann Marie Procopio, IIDA, Director of Interior Design + Associate

When space is at a premium, finding places for students to meet or gather outside of the classroom is invaluable. These spaces can be created throughout the school such as the end of a corridor, at the intersection of corridors, or an area just outside the classroom.  Breakout spaces are used for individual study, one-on-one interaction, small groups, or for a few individuals to work on a team project. An example would be accelerated program students could use this space to work on a special project together.  For teachers, breakout spaces are great to interact informally with other teachers, administration, and school staff.

Pre-K, K-6 Schools

With elementary age students, seating areas include soft chairs, built in seating such as a bench, and creating a space on the floor. A bench needs to be height appropriate and can provide storage for books or supplies. Wall surfaces should be fun and attractive.  Features incorporate iPads, activity wall boards, magnetic, tack, and marker boards. This will provide space for student work to be displayed for all to see, creating a sense of pride and accomplishment for students of all ages.

When possible, it is beneficial to have natural sunlight in the space, as it improves student performance, and creates a healthy learning environment.  When children are exposed to outside views it helps them to be connected to their community in a safe and weather controlled environment.

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break out space copyThe idea of a breakout space is to create an area that differs from the classroom setting. This is accomplished several ways. Define these areas with a variety of ceiling heights, lighting treatments, and floor finishes and incorporate bright colors. With these varied elements, a unique, flexible, creative, learning environment can be achieved.

Middle School/High School

For Middle and High School, the breakout spaces and seating needs to be more flexible as students in this age group have a growth spurt between freshman and senior years. Therefore, the learning spaces should offer several seating choices, from high-top desks for those who like to stand with their laptops, to flexible soft seating that is easy to slide and move, but too heavy to pick up.

Collaboritve Area - FinalTechnology is a must for these students and would include smart boards, a projector and screen.  This breakout space would accommodate a cluster of up to ten teens. Again, the idea is to provide an environment that is different than the rest of the educational spaces.  Change the circulation space to a multidisciplinary space where students can work individually, or collaborate in small groups. These spaces inspire students and offer flexible learning options. Students can sit, stand, or work at a table either solo with an iPad and headset, or work with others in a small group. Informal relaxed seating allows students to be more comfortable and offers different seating options.

The staff members or educators could be part of these smaller working groups with a few students, or to do project based learning. This is different than other circulation space. The furniture is durable, and maintainable. The environment needs to address sound, and offer a quieter space by using special acoustical treatments, so as not to disturb adjacent classrooms.

Learning Commons 2 - edit copyFor these spaces lighting should also be different than a typical classroom. A variety of lighting is needed such as task, and dimmable, and overall lighting needs to be flexible to accommodate numerous activities. The ceiling treatments help define these areas of flexible use. All materials used in these spaces must to be durable and high performance; furniture, fabrics, flooring, and wall treatments are needed for this common area to be successful.

In breakout spaces, the colors are more vivid and offer a more creative and stimulating environment. These colors promote activity and interaction. Here in these spaces we foster creativity, collaboration, and inspiration. The use of art murals, quotes, and goals of how to treat each other, as well as fun graphic images can encourage team spirit and school pride.



A successful educational environment offers opportunities for everyone to learn. Offering breakout space allows students to learn in a variety of ways, to work independently, one on one, or in a small group. The physical space should be flexible, comfortable, and colorful, and designed to inspire and support students for 21st century learning. With planning and thoughtful design, these breakout areas help create the ideal space for learning. ♦

Career Tech Education for All

The Next Step in the Evolution of CTE

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by Carl Franceschi, AIA, LEED, MCPPO | President, DRA

Career Technical Education (CTE) has evolved to become a valuable, robust, and flexible form of instruction that would be beneficial to all students, not just those enrolled in technical or vocational schools.

This is the next step in the evolution of CTE.

CTE education has become more popular to the general student population. Unlike previous generations, many current graduates of career tech high schools are going on to attend college, and study subjects such as engineering, biotech, and information technology. This trend should be encouraged.

The positive aspect of this evolution for the entire population is that it aligns with many relevant trends in 21st century education. Many of the goals identified in current education plans for traditional academic high schools are already being implemented in Career Technical Schools:

21st Century Skills
Educators and employers recognize that students need to acquire specific skills to succeed in the 21st century: creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. Because of the way their curriculum is designed, CTE schools have already responded to these new needs. Through their advisory committees, CTE curriculum has paralleled the economy’s shift from manufacturing to service to sharing. Along with this evolution, they have introduced these 21st century skills into day-to-day coursework. Students often work in teams to collaborate on projects; are challenged to create solutions to real world problems, communicate their results to the class, and critically research precedents. CTE graduation requirements often include innovation or entrepreneurship courses.

Project-based Learning
It has long been recognized that students have multiple intelligences. Some learn better with lecture style learning, some prefer reading for themselves, or watching a video. Many learn best by actually doing- designing and physically creating things with their own hands. This is the basis for project-based learning that is at the core of Career Tech Education. For example, for some students in a purely academic setting studying calculus might be a vague abstract concept. But in a career tech school setting, a student plotting the motion of a robotic arm retains a great deal more of the concepts.  This type of learning makes the subject relevant and more real world.

SHOP image CTEIntegrated Curriculum
Many schools encourage cross-curricular collaboration; CTE schools have been doing this years. As part of each career area, students spend time in both the traditional “shop”, as well as in an adjacent “Theory” classroom. This is where a carpentry student learns about geometry, an auto mechanic appreciates physics, or a health tech student understands biology.

Lifelong Learning
There is an emphasis on lifelong learning in school today, based on the recognition that future workers will need to adapt their skills over time to new, and currently unknown jobs. Students must learn how to learn. This skill is being encouraged in Career Tech education by exposing students to both current career needs and by sampling other fields through required “exploratory” programs.

CTE also partners with business and industry in a region to stay forward-looking. Business leaders serve on the school’s advisory committees to provide relevant input on curriculum. They also provide internship opportunities for students to get real world experience while still in high school. This partnership creates valuable community involvement for schools and richer experiences for students.

Block Scheduling
Many educational consultants recognize the value of longer class periods, or “block” scheduling that allows for more innovation such as project -based learning, in-depth science labs, and cross-curricular opportunities. For such experiences, 50 minutes periods just won’t do. CTE schools have extreme block scheduling- rather than a typical school schedule; CTE students have alternating weeks with an entire day devoted to their career area. This provides tremendous flexibility for the instructors to utilize a variety of teaching methodologies including activities, projects, and field trips.

Personalized Learning
Another important development in education has been the recognition of the value of personalized learning. Not only does this recognition allow a student to flourish by utilizing their predominant learning style, it also strengthens the student-teacher relationship. This provides each student with an adult role model who knows that individual and takes an interest in her development. CTE education has developed this model for some time now- with both low teacher student ratios (often 1 to 12) and longer contact time (entire weeks together).

So how could the richness of CTE be applied to traditional academic high schools?

1) More Comprehensive High Schools These are schools that offer both general academic courses and career tech education. There would need to be scheduling flexibility to operate on two different schedules under one roof, but having the CTE resources available opens opportunities for all students to experience at least some career technical education. It also provides traditional academic courses with more cross-curricular opportunities.

2) Regional Career Tech Centers  For those who can’t afford to have certain CTE programs within their district, or that don’t have enough students to justify a CTE program, a regional career tech center may be the most appropriate solution.  Such schools are shared resources, usually funded by the state or county. Students are typically bussed there from their home high school for half-day CTE courses. A secondary use of such facilities could be to support Community College degree programs and adult job-training.

3) Offer a General Integrated Curriculum with long-block scheduling, cross-discipline curriculum, and project based learning.  Without the typical CTE shop spaces, such a school would need to add (or reconfigure) spaces for such activities as collaboration/ break- out areas, project rooms, maker spaces, and learning commons. This would bring the CTE approach to the traditional academic population by providing students with more and different ways to learn.

Four recommendations to make this happen:

1) At the Local Level –  School systems could make the commitment to re-examine their educational methodologies to encourage CTE into their curriculum.  Exposure to some CTE courses could be a requirement for graduation.

2) At the State Level – the State is best positioned to identify the local and regional economics as to what skills and career education is needed. In Massachusetts, the MSBA could fund more CTE projects, and support more comprehensive high schools.  The State Department of Education could investigate the feasibility of regional CTE centers.

3) At the Federal Level – Currently the federal Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act funds the purchase of vocational equipment exclusively for CTE schools. This funding could be more widespread to support traditional academic high schools as well if they demonstrate that they integrated CTE into their curriculum.

4) At the Private Level, Independent schools could encourage the notion of college credit for certain CTE type high school courses. This would make the school more affordable and improve the perception of career education in general.

Career Technical Education continues to evolve. It now provides programs and pedagogies that complement and enhance academic preparation for all. With continued focus and emphasis, CTE can be the model for true 21st education.

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See Carl’s other CTE article, The Evolution of Career and Technical Education.

Flexibility in the Classroom


by Greg Barrett, M.Ed, REFP / Educational Planner

Recently, in a professional working group, my peers and I were asked to respond to a prompt: How do teaching and learning approaches like Project Based Learning and Multiple Intelligences impact school design?

Having been a teacher and administrator before, approaches like these feel dear. Project-based learning (PBL) and Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences (MI) are a couple among hundreds of ways educators think about teaching and learning. In a well devised class, an educator likely has several strategies and theories at work concurrently.

When thinking about educational space design, finding a specific set of learning strategies to design towards can hurt in the long run. Heresy! I know, I hear you. Of course, one designs to client programmatic needs, but what if designing for an educational strategy means that other strategies are pushed to the wayside?

Instead, let’s design spaces that support a multitude of teaching and learning styles in the same environment; especially since, in the lifespan of a classroom, many varying strategies will be employed. This is long term flexibility in space, which saves future repurposing dollars.

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On the micro-scale, classroom flexibility makes for more effective education space. Planning lessons, the question that dogged me most was “How can I engage all the students in my class for this content?” Some students would do better in a small group, others on their own, and others using hands-on materials to play with a new concept. How could I give everyone what they needed?

Content isn’t inflexible – there’s no shortage of tips on how to reach different learners; often, one of the biggest constraints to those targeted activities is how easily they can be done in a classroom. Is it possible to quickly and without tears get a group of 1st graders to change the layout of the space? These transitions are crucial in a classroom and made easier with flexible furniture and a space that supports different set-ups.

There are innumerable ways of learning and teaching, and they all walk into a school as students and teachers.

Why do we need that? Wasn’t it simpler in the days of the one room school house where a strict teacher just told every quiet student what they needed to know? Well, as mentioned before, there are innumerable ways of learning and teaching and, like it or not, they all walk into a school as students and teachers. The job is therefore complex, and the space must be able to support the varying answers that our education practitioners come up with to produce student achievement.

As designers, we shouldn’t recoil from this truth, nor from supporting the varying possibilities in the educational spaces we design. Instead, we need to make learning spaces a good place for teachers to teach and students to learn by allowing the many possible teaching and learning solutions in the schools we design. ♦

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Rethinking the School Garden

Student in Garden courtesy JJohnson copy

by Amanda Tirado, Administrative Assistant / Student at Boston Architectural College, and Greg Barrett, M.Ed, REFP / Educational Planner

Some may wonder why schools are good places for gardening, but evidence shows that gardens can actually be great places for schooling. In fact, the US used to have many more at school gardens, which helped lead students to many state universities that began as agricultural schools. This was a vestige from our European roots (a continent that has chosen to keep more school gardens over the years), but one we left behind mid-century to turn to a seemingly more efficient factory-like model of schooling. Education thought leaders have been revisiting school gardens for decades. Dr. Maria Montessori, one of the most influential voices in education, thought that gardens had a unique engaging power with kids:

 “Children indeed love flowers, but they need to do something more than remain among them and contemplate their colored blossoms. They find their greatest pleasure in acting, in knowing, in exploring, even apart from the attraction of external beauty.”

She wasn’t alone in connecting natural experiences with education either. Harvard’s Dr. Howard Gardner challenged the idea of the singular IQ by describing the “multiple intelligences” that his work defined; one of these being the naturalist intelligence, which he sums up as “the ability to make consequential distinctions in the world of nature.”[1] Both of these educators must have been on to something, because the data shows real gains: as much as 15% increases in standardized tests scores were shown in a longitudinal study of schools that incorporated gardening into their curriculum. Teachers will be on board too, since current teaching seeks those real-life experiences to foster authentic learning.[2]

Educational gains are, of course, central to what educators do, but we mustn’t overlook the basic needs of children either. Health and safety have taken on a new role in the modern education world, and school gardens can help address these concerns. Over the past couple decades, the childhood obesity rate has tripled [3], and, since kids have around a third of their meal times in cafeterias, schools have a huge opportunity to show healthy eating habits. Putting it front and center on the national stage, then First Lady Michelle Obama championed school gardening as part of her Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.[4] What’s more is that school gardens may be most impactful for America’s most needy districts, like those in urban food deserts; districts which also typically carry many more minority students who are nearly one and a half times more likely to be obese.[5]


To take care of our youth’s bodies and minds, more and more schools are petitioning districts, writing grants, getting volunteers together, and much more to bring the garden back onto school grounds. Gardens can be in a schoolyard or in raised beds, and don’t need much more than a couple of hundred square feet, which, given the possible benefits, doesn’t seem like so much. So, although schools may have left behind gardens in the past, it may again be time to revisit having gardens at schools today.


[1] Real Results. (2013). Retrieved from

[2]  Donovan, S., Bransford, J., & Pellegrino. (1999). How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.

[3] Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Fryar CD, Flegal KM. Prevalence of obesity among adults and youth: United States, 2011–2014. NCHS data brief, no 219. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2015.

[4] Let’s Move. (2010). Retrieved from

[5] Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Fryar CD, Flegal KM. Prevalence of obesity among adults and youth: United States, 2011–2014. NCHS data brief, no 219. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2015.