Digital Crayon: Writing Educational Specifications

by David Epstein, October 28, 2013

When beginning a facilities project, it is important for the Owner to define the various goals of the project. Is it to improve collaboration between students or teachers? Is it to provide social spaces that help build a sense of community? Does the school need additional capacity? The Educational Specifications (Ed Specs) is a document that many schools use to communicate this information to their architect. To create Ed Specs, it is necessary to create a vision for the school. This can be done in several ways: internally, with an educational consultant, or with an architect with expertise with this type of work.

Visioning is typically led by a team of educators. There are often workshops with the broader school community to brainstorm ideas and build the vision collectively. Gathering information from the various user groups within school in separate meetings is often also helpful.

The result of this effort is documented in the Ed Specs. We often include this as a narrative within our initial Facility Audit report. Ed Specs describe both the proposed educational program and its physical space needs. It provides the educational basis for the space needs program developed by the architect, a document which describes the space requirements and important adjacencies for each space.

When crafting the Ed Specs, it is helpful to address the proposed program at several levels. At the top level, they should speak to the overall mission and goals for the school. Next it should describe the organizational model(s) proposed to meet these goals. Finally, it should describe each program area and the different activities and participants that occur in that space. Sometimes this detailed work is postponed until the project is under design. At a minimum, however, the educational and social concepts driving the use of this space should be outlined.

Diagram provided by Frank Locker, PhD

Diagram provided courtesy of Frank Locker Educational Planning

Educational Goals

Ideally, there is a clear mission statement and strategic plan developed for the school to begin with. A strong mission statement or other previous adopted principles or goals can provide a solid, justifiable basis for creating the Ed Specs.  Regardless, at a minimum the Ed Specs should address many of the following topics:

  • History
  • Enrollment
  • Learning
  • Wellness
  • Community
  • Technology
  • Sustainability
  • Accessibility
  • Security
  • Natural Environment

 

For each of these topics, the Ed Specs should enumerate the key goals for each topic. Regarding sustainability, for example, should the school be a net-zero energy building, achieve or LEED certification or focus on natural light? In each category, the Ed Specs should be as specific as to what are important features or qualities should be integrated into the new facility.

Organizational Models

Having established the primary goals, the next step is to conceptualize the organizational models that would be most effective to achieve those goals. Some of the issues to consider include:

  • Departmental vs Team-Based Model
  • Grade level, subject or theme-based Academies
  • Classroom pods or clusters
  • Centralized or decentralized administration, guidance, library
  • Creating smaller learning communities
  • Separate or centralized library for all grade levels
  • Integrated or separate tech education

Ironically, it is best, however difficult, to disregard your existing facility when developing Ed Specs. It is a time to dream big and imagine the future.

Program Areas

Once the organizational model is decided, the following requirements for each space are described:

General Information:

  • Objectives
  • Organizational Concepts
  • Activities Performed
  • Persons Housed

 

Details:

  • Furniture and Equipment Used – detail
  • Special Environmental Requirements
  • Space/Storage Requirements
  • Location/Adjacencies

 

As stated earlier, sometimes the gathering and documentation of the detailed information is postponed to a later phase. For example it is not recommended or necessary that the Ed Specs list the amount of space need for each program area. Assigning the appropriate amount of space is the architect’s job in the space programming phase.

Final Thoughts

It is important to provide a linkage from the broad goals of the mission statement all the way down to the detail of the program areas. At each level, there should be a clear rationale as to how the item in discussion fits into the whole. This approach provides a strong basis for the project, whose design may be under extreme scrutiny during design and construction.

This is not to say that the Ed Specs are a fixed and unchanging document. As the project proceeds, there may be restrictions due to existing facilities, regulations, financials and budget that require modifications to the original project intentions. The Ed Specs provide a basis for evaluating the impact of these changes on the educational program. If necessary, the Ed Specs can be modified to align with the proposed building design.

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