...what an architect learned about school design by working as a school facilities administrator
After fifteen years as an architect specializing in the planning and design of schools, I recently found myself sitting on the other side of the table. While I loved my work at EUA, Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) was advertising the need for an architect/planner in their facilities department, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work for the district my children attended in the city that I love and call home. So, in January of 2020, roughly three months before the world had heard of COVID-19, I embarked on a new career path. As I worked for the district on the execution of various facilities improvement projects, for the first time in my life I was representing the client rather than the designer. A different perspective to be sure!
I returned to EUA in August of 2022. I found that I missed the impact I was able to have on the design process here. I needed interaction with other clients and coworkers in the broader design world. I left MPS with no regrets, and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to work with some amazing coworkers and friends there. I’m still processing much of what I learned in that role, but I believe that experience has forever changed me. After taking a moment to reflect, here are a few thoughts from the other side:
1. “I know you need an answer… but everyone is a little busy right now.”
As a designer, I was sometimes confused by clients who were not as engaged in the design process as I thought they should be, or who were slow to get us the information we needed to complete our work. After sitting on the other side of the table, I have a much greater appreciation for just how difficult it is to give a design project all the time and energy you would like to give it, while also tending to the myriad other pressing issues that demand your attention each day. It also drove home the importance of having design partners who were trustworthy. The client is often left depending on us to execute details that they do not have time to oversee. As designers, it is our responsibility to be trusted partners who work with our client’s best interest in mind. We need to keep our questions straightforward, recommend a defined course of action, and ensure that we are supplying the information needed to empower our clients to make decisions as efficiently and painlessly as possible.
2. “What do you mean… not-in-contract?”
Architects naturally tend to focus on what is within our contracted scope-of-work. However, there are major costs and commitments required for most projects that fall outside of our design purview. We can bring value by helping our clients anticipate these tasks and expenses so that they are not caught off guard. What exactly is included in the construction contract verses what is a “furniture” or “equipment” item that must be purchased separately by the owner? What options does the client have for furniture and equipment procurement services? What fees should be anticipated for any necessary environmental remediation, geotechnical services, or site surveys that are not included in the basic services contract? How would the client go about obtaining these services? Who will handle the design of wall graphics, murals, and artwork that might be needed to complete the interior design? What will that cost? Will the district need to hire substitute teachers so that staff can attend design meetings? Will furniture movers or extra cleaning staff be needed to prepare for opening day in the newly designed space? Does the project schedule allow enough time for the district to clean and prepare the spaces for students after the construction is complete?
3. “With all due respect… the project is not about you.”
Of course all designers know that this is true. But it’s always good to remember that the purpose of school design is ultimately to enhance the lives of the people who teach, and the children who learn in the buildings we design. Perhaps the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has driven this point home more than anything else. Our buildings are not just beautiful works of art. They are second homes for our students. And when that home gets taken away or changed, the lives of those students are profoundly impacted. What we do as designers matters. It is our responsibility to prioritize the design elements that will have the greatest impact.
None of these thoughts were entirely new to me when I began working for Milwaukee Public Schools. Here at EUA, we have always taken pride in our ability to go beyond design, and to be the strategic partners that our clients need. We believe that at its heart, building design is about people. But I am returning to EUA with a renewed sense of the value of these principles. I am excited to get back to designing learning environments that will make a difference for our clients and the students they serve!