Digital Crayon: The School Planning Process

Digital Crayon

Article 2 – The Planning Process

David with School Clients croppred










In this article, we discuss the steps to consider when embarking on a major facility project. For many educational institutions, major projects evolve from their strategic plan, which provides the broad objectives and rationale for the initiative. This is ideal as it provides a solid foundation for the basis of the project. While beneficial, it is not always the case. For example, certain projects become critically necessary to provide the capacity to accommodate the students already enrolled. In an any case, the transformation of a school to embody 21st century learning concepts occurs at multiple levels, including the educational program, operation and facilities. Planning, however, should begin with the educational vision. Operations and facilities should follow, supporting the pedagogical goals of the school.

Over time, a fairly consistent process has evolved to facilitate this effort which we summarize in this article.

Educational Vision

The first step is to define the educational vision. The vision builds off of the school’s mission statement, defining the goals of the educational program. A good example is the Learner Profile of the Principal Year Programme (PYP).  In that case, the PYP defines the qualities that each learner should acquire (balanced, inquirer, thinker, caring, etc). Educational Visioning, should go a bit further, however, and address the important features that will make achieving those goals a reality. For example, if creating “engaged learners” is a goal, is there a hands-on or community learning experience that facilitates this outcome? In addition, the educational visioning work  should also describe the proposed organizational model as well. Will there be subject -themed academies or interdisciplinary teams? Will students be team taught? The educational vision can be the product of a team of educators working with the board or with a school consultant. Many  schools engage the community through public charettes.  It is often helpful to visit other model schools for inspiration.

Once the Educational vision is outlined, the next step is to define the specific kinds of programs and spaces needed to support the mission. This is often done in the Educational Specifications (Ed Specs) document, which includes a description of the program, its organization and space needed to support these efforts. It is a document that describes the educational program and its space and equipment needs in some detail and serves as a guide to the design team for planning and design.  Similar to the visioning, Ed Specs can be written by a team of  educators or with a special consultant.  While architects do not typically write Ed Specs, an experienced school architect can help facilitate the process and provide examples of reference. Another option is to develop the Ed Specs in conjunction with the Space Needs Program and combine these two efforts (see below).

At this point, the school is ready to engage the design team. The design team is led by an architect, who is supported by a team of engineers.  The design team will create the School Facilities Master Plan.

Facility Analysis

With an existing structure, there needs to be a thorough review of the condition of the building and site systems. In projects based in the United States, this effort is typically part of the pre-bond vote work of the architect and their engineering team. (For international projects, this kind of assessment is uncommon). In addition to a report on the building and site conditions, there is also a review of the building code and cost estimate for the deficiencies identified. The cost estimate provides a baseline for fixing the existing facility without addressing educational needs, a number often requested by community members. The cost estimate is typically update after Concept Design so that it includes both new and renovation work.

Space Needs Programming

With the Ed Specs in hand, the architect interviews the user groups in the school and creates a detailed spreadsheet listing all of the existing and proposed spaces, their sizes, and important adjacencies and environmental requirements. If there are not Ed Specs, then the architect often includes a narrative describing the educational goals  This important document becomes the basis for the concept design explorations. It also gives the project team a good idea of the amount of additional space that may be required to achieve the goals of the project.

Concept Design

At the outset, multiple design options are presented which meet the needs of the Space Needs Programming. Working with the facility committee and board, a single approach is selected and refined. To be clear, the designs at this point are big picture and do not include detailed information. A cost estimate is created and combined with the estimate done for the Facility Analysis. With this information, a project budget is created, which estimates all project costs including consultant, permit and legal fees, as well as construction costs and Owner’s contingencies. On public projects, this is the number used for the bond vote. There are typically several public meetings during this phase to educate the community about the project and get their feedback. For private schools, the Master Plan is presented to the Board of Directors for approval and authorization to implement Phase I of the master plan.


Due to the preliminary nature of Concept Design, there is a significant amount of additional design work required to complete the project. Depending on the size of the project, the design phases can take from 4 to 12 months. In design, the architect and their engineers develop the detailed drawings in preparation for bidding and construction. For international projects, this includes both the design architect and the local architect working together to make the design a reality. Many international schools hire a Project Manager at this point to manage the scope of consultant services, the project budget and schedule and the procurement of construction service


Construction is dependent on project size, type of construction, and in the case of an existing facility – phasing. Because a school must remain operational during construction, the project often must be split into multiple phases which can extend the timeline. Often portable classrooms must be brought in to act as swing space so that areas of the school can be safely renovated. A clerk of the works or quality control engineer is recommended to assist the Owner with construction observation and other logistics. During construction, the architect responds to contractor questions, reviews submittals, and attends  construction meetings, helping the Owner and Contractor to bring the project in on time and on budget.

In our next article we will discuss writing Educational Specifications. Stay tuned!



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