Making Magic – Approaching Conceptual Design

Many people seem to think there is some sort of magic that happens when architects develop early project design concepts. It’s a big part of the fun; the first steps in connecting the client to their dreams. Not that it’s a simple exercise, but it actually involves many of the same replicable steps each time.

  • Understand the client’s needs and wants, as well as the real problems and opportunities that need to be explored.
  • Understand the building program elements – the what and how much.
  • Finally, understand the context.  Not just the physical site or location for the proposed project, but a clarity of what will give the project substance and delight for a given client.


The first two steps are ones that you likely knew or could guess. But the last one is what will provide a solution which will transcend an Owner’s expectations, making it even more special than they imagined by giving it a meaning unique to them and their specific opportunity. That’s the magical part of the equation. It’s not something to be calculated, but rather it is experienced. These are tangible outcomes of seeking the less tangible understanding of what the building really means for a given Owner, not just what it needs to do for them.

The Johnson Center for Fine Arts at Franklin College offered an outstanding opportunity for a special project, especially with its prominent location along an external campus edge and an internal campus pedestrian mall. Paying attention to these contextual situations to make it work effectively with the site, but paying attention to its purpose will lead to taking advantage of unexpected opportunities that will make it special for all who experience the building.

Art infuses this building, finding its way into planned niches and surprise locations around the building and the exterior plaza. The pyramidal skylights which top the atrium gallery were equipped with hanging points to allow sculpture to float above the atrium floor. Even the donor plaque became an artistic expression in curved dichroic glass, etched and backlit in the central rotunda.

Ultimately, a building and it’s spaces are most successful if they make the users smile while allowing them to do what they need to do more effectively and efficiently. That’s the magic we work to bring to each project.

Alternative Stormwater Options

Stormwater runoff is generated when precipitation from rain and snowmelt events flow over land or impervious surfaces (paved area and building rooftops). The more impervious surface areas are in the project site, the more stormwater runoff will be generated. As the runoff flows over the land or impervious surfaces, it accumulates debris, chemicals, sediment, or other pollutants that could adversely affect water quality if the runoff is discharged untreated. Traditional methods to control stormwater discharge include detention ponds and Best Management Practices (BMPs) structures. Some projects, because of limited project site and cost, require alternative solutions, including:

Underground Detention – This system is located underground and provides water quantity control through temporary detention of stormwater runoff. The underground detention structures are pre-cast or cast-in-place concrete structures or pre-built modular systems. Underground detention is most often used in developments where land availability and land costs predicate against the development of surface stormwater detention. Underground detention is ideal for use under paved areas such as parking lots.

Green Roof – A green roof is vegetation growing on a contained roof space. Green roofs can absorb stormwater, reducing runoff, therefore reducing the need for on-site stormwater management systems. Green roofs can improve a roof’s visual appeal, reduce roof temperatures, and reduce noise pollution.

Rain Garden – A rain garden is a shallow planted depression that allows rain water runoff from surrounding impervious areas to be absorbed and soaked into the ground. Rain gardens can reduce the amount of pollution reaching nearby water bodies, therefore improving the water quality.

Water Quality Swale and Bio-Retention Area – Water quality swales and bio-retention areas are vegetated depressions in the landscape with an infiltration device through which stormwater drains. Water quality swales and bio-retention areas improve the water quality, treating the runoff as it is conveyed.

There are also other alternative stormwater solutions that can be used per project conditions, such as Drywells, Pervious Pavements, Rain Barrels, Sand Filters, and Stormwater Wetlands. Each site is unique and requires specifically designed and calculated solutions.

What are the Design Components for an Auditorium?

An auditorium is an auditorium, right? Actually, planning for a new or renovated auditorium in your school is more complex than that. You must design for what audiences SEE, and for the parts they don’t see as well.

There are three main components to auditorium design projects:

 1. The Main Seating Area

  • Seating is based on approximately 18 s.f. per person.
  • The guideline of 18 s.f. per person allows for aisle ways, sound and light control areas, and entries that trap the light when late-comers arrive.
  • View angles are critical components of seating layouts; every seat should have a great one.
  • Acoustical control is a science, and the use of 3D computer models is essential to develop the optimum “sound environment”.
Lake Central Auditorium

Lake Central High School

2. The Stage

  • The stage is sized to accommodate the largest group to be featured. How big is your biggest band? Do you anticipate a band and choir performing together? Allow for your largest group in the design instead of being sorry later!
  • Assume that the typical stage is 30-35 feet deep with a proscenium opening of 40-50 feet wide and up to 30 feet tall. The side stage should be at least half the size of the proscenium opening on each side.
  • Ideally, access to the stage is handicap accessible. You can accomplish that with side aprons on the same level as the “cross-aisle.”
  • Computer-controlled stage rigging and LED theatrical lighting have become standards in most performance venues.
LaPorte PAC

LaPorte High School – Performing Arts Center

3. Support Spaces

  • One of the most important support areas is the set construction area. This is a combination of storage, as well as space to build sets.
  • Don’t forget the dressing rooms.
  • Plan for a ticket booth, a “green room” that can double as rehearsal and instructional space, and a general storage area.

Warsaw Community High School

  • We’re also getting a number of requests from schools to design auditoriums that also have an adjacent small and flexible performance space—think “black box” theater or small recital hall for music or dance.

Lake Central High School

Pardon the pun, but a little “out of the box” thinking can be helpful, because auditoriums are a valuable asset for serving students—and for inviting families and community members in to have a pleasant experience at your school.

How to Pick a Site

The design of a school campus is crucial to the safety and efficiency of any program. When given the opportunity to choose between different locations, here are some thoughts on what elements create a successful K-12 exterior environment.

  • Space to establish clear visibility and organization –When on a school campus, clear site lines help create a safe environment. Community members, parents, students and visitors need to understand immediately where they are to enter the site, where parking is located and where to enter the school building. When evaluating a potential site, look to see if site frontage will give you enough length to have decel/excel lanes for safe campus entry; that there is space for staff, visitor, student and event parking; and that the site has the room to allow for bus traffic and parent/student traffic separation.

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In many urban & rural locations you will be required to extend sidewalks across your site. Consider the presence of or proximity to existing sidewalks, bike routes, and public transportation and how all of these amenities will come together to serve your school community.

  • Location of Utilities – Doing your due diligence on location and distance to required site utilities is crucial. A clear understanding of what utilities are available and costs to bring utilities to your site is necessary to understand if a particular location is logistically feasible. If city water is not readily available, it could put a big dent in your budget to run water to your site. You may be forced to look into a well that could then dictate decisions about sprinkling the building and fire protection. Think about utilities such as water, sewer, electrical, data, and gas services.

Utilities Location Picture

  • Storm Drainage – Selecting a site that drains well, or that can be designed to drain well, is critical. Most new building projects )and some renovation projects) will be required to meet local and/or state requirements for storm water collection, detention, and treatment. Storm sewers, detention ponds or basins, and treatment facilities that remove oils and grit from the storm water, will all likely be required and must meet local design codes. In addition, understanding the closest and most adequate storm water outlet for the site will be necessary in fully understanding the costs associated with the storm water system. Sites without a close drainage outlet can lead to expensive, offsite storm water systems to transport runoff to the appropriate location.
  •  Zoning/Local Codes and Ordinances – Understand how the site is zoned and what the process might be for changing zoning if necessary. Things to research in the code are requirements such as allowable building height, building material and landscaping requirements. Is the site in a floodplain, wetland, or near a railroad? Make sure you check as certain cities have strict restrictions in regards to each.


  • Space for Play and Athletics – Thinking through your future growth at the site is critical if you are envisioning athletic facilities. A high school requires different space than an elementary. Knowing that there is potential land around you to expand or that the space is adequate will keep you from accidentally falling into multi-campus facilities. Elementary schools will need enclosed play areas for the younger students, depending on age. Investigate the size you will need to confirm the site is adequately sized.


How to "Right Size" Your School

Has your school or district experienced influxes or decreases in student population due to shifting enrollment patterns or unanticipated variables that impacted your demographic projections? Having too few (or too many) students in a building affects space utilization, staffing, and operating costs.

Typically, the capacity of a school is determined by the number of classrooms available. This is combined with a loading factor that establishes the ideal number of students per classroom—the resulting number is the “functional capacity” of the building. This technique is most effective for traditional elementary schools where students are “parked” in a classroom for the day and all subjects are delivered in one setting.

However, this is no longer a typical educational model for most elementary schools—and certainly not for middle and high schools. Student-centered, interactive, and exploratory lab settings, combined with small- and large-group activity areas, have changed the traditional concept of classrooms lined up in a row along a hallway.

In a typical elementary school, the total area of classrooms represents only about 30% of the total school. In a typical high school, the percentage of the area devoted to classrooms drops to about 25%. The balance is devoted to the cafeteria; support and specialized areas; restrooms; gymnasiums; hallways; and space for the mechanical, electrical and technology systems. Merely counting classrooms to determine potential capacity is short-sighted by as much as 75%.

State and national trends in educational facility utilization ratios suggest the following.

Utilization Ratios

These recommendations change slightly if your enrollment is higher or lower than these typical ranges.

A basic assessment of utilization and capacity divides the student count by the gross square footage. If the resulting number is within one of the ranges suggested above, utilization and capacity are probably balanced. If the number falls below the ideal range, the facility is probably crowded. If the number is higher than the ideal range, the building probably has room to absorb additional capacity.

Sample High School Programs

Schmidt Associates has developed a more sophisticated mathematical model to capture the ideal space needs for an educational facility. Our mathematical model is based on the number of students enrolled in each subject or grade level, combined with the actual programs offered or anticipated. The model factors in appropriate cafeteria size, the number of plumbing fixtures and resulting area for restrooms, as well as the approximate floor space for mechanical and electrical systems.

This model allows us to explore the effect of variations in student loading to assess whether an existing facility has capacity to absorb students, or, if there is a shortfall of space, where that shortfall is located.

We often find that even when sufficient classrooms are available, lack of space in the cafeteria, for example, requires additional or shortened lunch periods, has an impact on class scheduling. In the example below, the projected space required for the anticipated population is almost twice as large as the actual area available.

Twice the Size

The result impacts the number of students who can be scheduled in classes around lunch, ultimately limiting the overall population of the facility.

The same tool is an excellent resource to “re-purpose” underutilized areas of a facility to boost capacity, improve utilization and operate more efficiently.

Fourth in the Series: 12 Red Flags for Your Construction Project

Everyone involved with a construction project hopes to avoid challenges or hiccups along the way. This series of blogs describes the red flags you should look out for if “smooth sailing” doesn’t seem to be the direction your project is going. In this final installment, we give you red flags #10 through #12:

1. Ignoring or dismissing an updated construction schedule. If the contractor is reluctant to update and distribute the construction schedule when it needs to changed (see red flag #9 in our last blog), all parties are forced to get from hereto there without a map. This is not a good idea and will likely result in rework.
2. Blame-shifting. A contractor who resorts to blaming anyone (Owner, architect, subcontractors) or anything (weather, material availability, existing conditions) else for poor performance is usually grasping at straws. There are legitimate reasons why a contractor may have challenges, but resorting to blame-shifting for their contractual responsibility indicates you may be past the point of expecting a good outcome.
3. Taking excessive risks relating to sequencing/weather. Installing products out of sequence (i.e. installing drywall before the roof), and failing to protect installed work (wet drywall) indicates the contractor is taking too great a risk by gambling on the weather.

Our list of 12 red flags is not exhaustive, but they are the ones we consider to be the most common when a construction project goes awry.

Have you observed these red flags (or any others) on your projects? Let us know. We’ll share your experiences on our blog so others can learn from them.

Lessons Learned on Design/Build

Schmidt Associates summarizes lessons learned after each project to continually improve. The list below summarizes our experience with various design/build projects—acting as either the criteria developer or as a member of the design/build team.

•  There can be different levels of scope or criteria development depending on the Owner’s desire for control or the desire to include certain features or products.
•  Some clients believe the design/build delivery method is less desirable for more complex or specialized projects.
•  The Owner must require a realistic schedule and hold the design/builder accountable for meeting it.
•  Owner coordination with third-party contracts before, during, or after design/build construction is difficult and may require additional coordination by the Owner.
•  It’s important to use explicit language in criteria documents to avoid gaps in the scope.
•  Highlight non-negotiable items in performance specifications to clarify scope (i.e. Energy Star requirements, windows in all offices, VRV with a minimum of 15 zones).
•  Use Construction Specific Institute (CSI) code when organizing performance specifications for referencing ease.
•  Be clear on who is removing, transporting, and installing Owner-provided products.
•  Review project-specific requirements when you review proposals and pay particular attention to required clearances.
•  Carefully review all of the design/build responses and document any exceptions prior to signing the design/build contract.

Overall, when planning a design/build project, carefully review all criteria and proactively plan the project. These lessons learned will help your project go more smoothly.

40% Reduction in Design Time Using Integrated Technology

Owners often ask for “faster, better, cheaper.” Schmidt Associates and Turner Construction recently completed an addition and renovation for Lake Central School Corporation’s high school, reducing design time through the use of integrated technology by 40%. The key elements that reduced design time were:

•  Our on-site team and office teams worked directly with school staff and user groups in real time at our respecitive offices. The on-site team used mobile devices to take pictures and screeen captures and uploaded them in a directory at our home bases. The parallel office teams pulled the information from the directory and quickly translated the input into conceptual Revit models, space by space. The models were uploaded to a Buzzsaw account, and the on-site team used iPads to share them with the staff. This resulted in near-immediate feedback.
This process saved at least a week of “in-house” production.

•  To push the design concepts out to a wider audience of the affected school staff, Schmidt Associates developed a design blog. The blog posted ongoing design concepts and solicited comments from the staff, board members, and even the community. This approach also allowed the Owner to be part of the process by accessing the most current postings, feedback, and responses to feedback at all times during the process.
The blog reduced the overall design timeline by about three weeks.

•  Schmidt Associates and Turner developed a protocol matrix to define the level of detail of each Revit model iteration, so the scope of the estimates was clear and responsive to the design level. This had a huge effect on the design progression. Materiality issues and quantity of square footage affected were identified at a very early stage, allowing us to adjust the project scope and scale to maintain the overall budget. It also had a significant impact on the project’s phasing by identifying potential timeline impacts of different materials for both availability and assembly time.
The protocol matrix saved another three weeks.

•  To develop a totally integrated building design, Schmidt Associates created what we call our “Collaboration Lab.” Our total commitment to using Revit in all disciplines led us to create a collaborative working environment with large monitors to see the 3-D impact of working a design in real time with simultaneous input from all disciplines.
Using the Collaboration Lab saved an additional two weeks in the design schedule.

Construction Meeting with Turner

Why did all of this work? How did we meet the ambitious initial schedule as promised? The team would like to say it was a remarkable plan—and it was. More importantly, it was the right people, in the right positions, at the right time.

Who Do I Need on My Team?

When you decide to open a charter school, you are also tasked with deciding which professionals to partner with and when. It’s beneficial to team with professional firms that are experienced in charter school construction—and to get them involved early in the process. This will typically include professionals in the following industries:

Architect and Engineer – An architect can think comprehensively about the costs associated with designing, renovating, or building a school. Local codes have specific requirements for school construction; knowing the cost implication of those codes upfront will keep you on track. Engaging architects and engineers early who have knowledge in charter school design and construction will help you develop a realistic planning budget.

Realtor – A realtor will help you find the right location. Determining if you will lease, renovate, or build can be time consuming and overwhelming. When your team includes the realtor and design team (architect and engineer), you can quickly explore many options. Your design team will understand your facility needs and be able to quickly assess land and building options for your review and consideration.

Lender – As you look at financing your project, you need to weigh financing options against your target budget. Financial experts who are experienced in charter school construction are great resources to help you find options that best fit your school’s needs.

Legal Counsel – Charter school laws and codes differ from region to region, especially as they relate to construction and funding. Engaging an attorney upfront will streamline the process and help you steer clear of obstacles that can slow you down.

Using local firms and individuals should help maintain the project schedule and minimize project disruptions because they understand local laws, finance requirements, building codes, and regulatory approval processes.

Please contact Schmidt Associates for help with any current or future charter school projects.

Synthetic Turf—Not Just for Sports Fields Anymore

Installing synthetic (artificial) turf for sports fields instead of natural turf is no longer just for the professional teams, large universities, or “rich” high schools. Over the past 10 years, there has been a shift from synthetic turf being a luxury item to an option that simply makes good sense. In fact, Lake Central High School will soon be one of the only (if not the only) Indiana public high schools with football, soccer, baseball, and softball all being played on synthetic turf. Other now-common sport-related uses for synthetic turf include indoor training facilities, golf greens, and tennis courts.

Tennis Courts

Tennis Courts

In addition to sports fields, there has been a serious push recently to use synthetic turf for playgrounds, pet parks, commercial lawns, residential lawns, and rooftop patios. Nevada and California have incentive programs that pay cash to property owners who replace their natural turf lawn with synthetic turf to reduce water usage.

Residential Lawns

Residential Lawns

While the biggest disadvantage of synthetic turf continues to be the upfront costs, there are many advantages compared to natural turf:

Much less maintenance and manpower requirements
•  Unlimited use of fields with no “recovery” time following rain
•  Superior and more consistent appearance
•  More consistent playing conditions
•  Safer than natural turf fields that are not properly maintained
•  Backed with 8- to 10-year warranty
•  Environmental advantages:
–Reduced water usage
–No need for herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers
–Materials are recyclable
–Less need for gas-powered equipment




Pet Parks

Pet Parks

Commercial Lawns

Commercial Lawns

* Images are courtesy of the Synthetic Turf Counsel.