How to Avoid Negative Impacts of School Construction Projects on Students

Students Studying


Proper planning is critical to avoid unintended consequences of school construction for those who matter most—students.

Initiating a new school build or a significant renovation can be a lengthy process. Getting the project approved, perhaps passing a referendum, and determining the vision for your new or updated facilities is a lot of work.

This is ultimately all for the good of the students—to ensure their health and safety, improve their ability to learn, and give them tools for success. Even with good intentions, however, there can be unintended consequences of school construction projects that aren’t in the best interest of the kids.

That’s why it’s critical to put proper planning and consideration into every aspect of the project before a shovel ever hits the ground.

We’ve been designing K-12 schools for roughly 40 years, and we’ve seen it all. Here are a few key reminders we give to administrators to prevent negative impacts of school construction projects on students.

1. Don’t eliminate spaces that help to educate the whole child.

When budgets get tight, you may be tempted to cut some of the more non-traditional spaces in the school. These seem like luxuries. We need an adequate cafeteria; we don’t need “nooks” or green spaces.

When we talk about educating the whole child—creating an environment and providing opportunities that ensure every single child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged—this includes providing spaces that cater to the needs of every personality type and learning style.

In the planning and design process, be sure to address dedicated places for students to:

  • Take a quiet break
  • Discover their individual strengths or talents
  • Safely engage in physical activities
  • Utilize technology to its fullest potential

Also ensure students will be able to comfortably move throughout the school. For example, hallways should be large enough to accommodate busy passing periods and still have room for students to pull to the side to tie a shoe.

2. Make sure learning environments are the right size.

When you are trying to be efficient with dollars and square feet, there is a temptation to squeeze students into classrooms that are too small.

You must be realistic about the number of students that will—and should—be in each classroom, as well as how the classroom will be used and the subjects and types of activities that will be taught. Work closely with your design team to understand both anticipated class size (now and in the future) and the room’s purpose to create an adequate space for learning.

For example, science labs and other hands-on environments will have different space requirements than other types of rooms. Using classrooms and other spaces for their intended purpose is important for the success of your programming. It’s also why flexible classroom styles that can be adapted for the class at hand are preferred.

3. Be mindful of increased school security measures.

School security is top of mind for every parent, teacher, and administrator—as it should be. However, it shouldn’t have to be top of mind for students.

Part of what helps students be successful is a positive, welcoming, secure environment. In fact, it’s a biological requirement. The basic need of safety must be met before a child’s brain can focus on learning and building new connections. Obtrusive security measures can create the opposite effect, making students feel stressed about potential dangers.

Safety should be ingrained in the design of the facility so that it feels natural. There are many ways this can be achieved, such as creating clear lines of site throughout the building, choosing an appropriate security system, implementing sufficient lighting, and properly managing building access points.

4. Minimize distractions and risk during the construction process.

If you are renovating your current space, students and teachers will likely still be using portions of the facility. This means they may be near the construction work and all of the distractions that come along with it.

Make special effort to minimize the effects of the construction process on kids to maintain as much normalcy as possible, especially if standardized testing or other critical activities are occurring at the same time.

There are several primary areas to consider:

  • Wayfinding and Procedures – Make sure students (and their parents) are clear on room changes and other new procedures necessary during construction, and post adequate signage throughout the school to remind them. Install highly visible signs and implement barriers around construction zones to prevent students from entering these potentially dangerous areas and to guide them through route changes while their normal facilities are unavailable.
  • Noise – Loud noises during construction are unavoidable, and they can substantially interfere with students’ ability to concentrate, especially for those with sensory challenges. Noise can be quieted to a certain degree with construction protocols, such as installing temporary sound-absorbing barriers and using newer equipment that operates more quietly. Also try to schedule as much time away from noisy areas as possible for all groups of students (e.g. allow for classes to rotate through outdoor spaces or other places that are away from any construction).
  • Environmental Disturbances – Construction can also result in other environmental disturbances, such as smells and dust. Make sure teachers and parents understand that the construction team takes precautions to mitigate these factors and ensure no harmful impacts. If students express concerns about these disturbances, raise them with the contractor, who can help.

Planning the timeline and phases of the construction process appropriately is also key to avoiding or diminishing many of these disruptions. Some of the most intense or disruptive portions of the build should be scheduled during school breaks or outside of school hours when possible.

Learn More

Students aren’t the only ones to consider during school construction projects. There can be many unintended consequences for teachers, as well. Read part 2 in this series to learn more.

Vacant Big Box Store Finds New Life as a Preschool

Building Indiana

Features Anna Marie Burrell, Sarah Hempstead, Brandon Fox, and Shelbyville Central Schools

January 24, 2019

“In the small Indiana community of Shelbyville, Shelbyville Central Schools District will transform a nearly 63,000 square foot abandoned Marsh Food Store and the adjacent strip center – once housing other retail stores, a restaurant, movie rental store, and a bank – into a preschool, space for children with special needs, and the school district’s offices.”… read full article

Indianapolis Architects Redesign Restaurant and Cosmetology Learning Center

School Construction News

Features Anna Marie Burrell & McKenzie Center for Innovation and Technology

November 19, 2018

“Shortly after the visitors are seated in a comfortable banquette with modern art on the wall behind them, Devon, in a brilliant white and wrinkle-free chef’s jacket professionally greets them, “Good morning, welcome to Bernie’s Place! May I get you a water?”… read full article

Q&A Session with Anna Marie Burrell

Anna Marie Burrell

From the infectious smile to the genuine care and concern for those around her to her constant flurry of activity, Anna Marie Burrell—K-12 Studio Leader and Principal-in-Charge—has a magnetic and energetic personality. Below, we try to get her to take a few minutes to just breathe and share a bit of her life.


Tell us a bit about yourself.
I grew up in Lantern Hills—an enchanted, undulating wooded neighborhood on the border of the then-active Ft. Benjamin Harrison. So, when I think back to my childhood, I remember sneaking tools out of dad’s workshop to build “forts” with my neighborhood friends for our imaginary secret society. P.I.G.s was the name of our secret group, code for Private Investigating Girls. Can you guess what our password was? We were headquartered—along with multiple expansion sites—throughout our forested world. P.I.G.s members were serious about our work and probably had too much fun torturing my brother by taking his favorite toys so we could later find them hidden up in trees.

I guess you can say that I have always been caught up in my imagination and drawn to those who have fun dreaming up new experiences.

And now?
This is my cheer squad:

Anna Marie Family

I married Tim in 1994, and we have two sons together — Sam (18) and Aaron (20). We have always been a close-knit family that loves to have fun. And I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Eddie, my labradoodle. We love dressing him up, but I am not sure if he loves it as much as we do.

What inspires you?

The arts, specifically dance. To feed my need to keep moving, my parents introduced me to ballet. I was hooked and spent every minute I could at Butler University’s Jordan Academy of Dance learning from instructors of a multitude of global and cultural backgrounds. I learned I loved creating or telling stories without the use of words through dance. I loved, and still love, the emotion of dance and the lines, rhythms, surprises, and forms that are endless only to one’s imagination. As an architect, I have realized these same elements are key to the delivery of any successful design project.

My love for dance continues today as I am starting to get involved with Kids Dance Outreach (KDO)—an organization providing children, regardless of income, with an opportunity to learn and experience the joy of dance.

What do you do in your free time?
I love to jump on the back of our motorcycle with my husband, Tim, and just ride with no agenda. It snaps me into the happiest of moods.

Anna Marie Burrell Motorcycle

If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?
I’d love to explore Southern France, though lately I’ve been obsessing with wanting to go dog sledding in the countryside around Quebec. To be clear, my idea of dog sledding includes blankets and hot chocolate while someone else “drives” the dogs for me.

Do you keep anything special at your desk?
I’m never at my desk, instead I carry a backpack with scarves to hold my hair back. I never know when I might get whisked off on an impromptu motorcycle adventure.

So, have you guessed that P.I.G.s secret password yet? OINK!


Also learn about Sarah HempsteadTricia SmithCharlie WilsonTom NeffJoe RedarDave JonesPatricia Brant, Liam KeeslingSayo AdesiyakanBen BainAsia CoffeeEric BroemelMatt DurbinKevin Shelley, and Eddie Layton

Designing for the Middle School Mind

Oh, how complicated (and scary) the mind of a teen works – emotions are high and attention is scattered. They may be more worried about the gossip in the hallway than the lessons in the classrooms. Distractions are everywhere, and it can be difficult to keep them engaged. But to be fair, it isn’t entirely their fault. The brain doesn’t fully mature until about age 25, meaning teens are more likely to be less organized and focused at their age.1

According to scientist James Bjork, teens crave activities that lead to a high level of excitement or require little effort. As designers, we also need to consider this while working on a middle school project. The classrooms, common spaces, and active areas need to engage and relate to the middle schoolers’ minds.

As designers, there are several ways we can help teachers keep students attentive and engaged:

  • Furniture: having flexibility within the classroom for the students and teachers are essential to interactive learning. Teacher’s often have a fixed desk either in the front or the back of classroom as well as a mobile station, allowing for more student interactions. Selecting furniture that has a mix of pieces ranging from flexible chairs, stools, desks, and tables can promote movement within the classroom.
  • Acoustics and technology: teens do best with active learning styles, opposed to passive. This requires a classroom to be well-equipped with the latest technology. Mobile white boards or smart boards allow the technology to be effective regardless of the furniture configuration. By designing a tech-rich environment, teachers are then able to switch up their lessons more spontaneously – keeping those teen-minds more interested in the tasks at hand. There is also evidence that proves attaching music to a lesson helps students retain the information.2
  • Bottle filling stations: letting kids drink water during class time has proven to help their brains function smoothly and lengthen attention spans2. By providing water bottle filling stations, kids can have their H2O in class.
  • Quiet breakout space or focus room: for when a student needs to take some time to regroup, set those emotions aside, and then get back to work. Spaces like this, inside a classroom or separate gives their minds a break from the fast-paced world they live it.
  • Bring nature in: include plenty of opportunity for students to see outside since they no longer get recess time. Including big windows in the classrooms will allow natural light to flood the space, increasing productivity and improving moods. We do keep shades/blinds in mind while designing for when teachers need a dark room for projector-related activities.
  • Common social spaces: because many teens prefer to interact with their peers, we can create a deliberate space to do that between class periods.

In addition to thinking about middle school design that will be engaging, we also keep safety and security in mind.

The big jump from the small, safe elementary school into the new, exciting middle school setting is a big bite to chew for most kids – including their parents. It will be important for us, as architects, to design a non-threatening environment to help students feel safe and put parents’ fears more at ease.

If hallways are tight and cramped, teen emotions are heightened and shoving can begin. Therefore, we are designing corridors to be wide enough to keep students from bumping into one another during passing periods. One way to elevate hallway anxiety is by separating grade levels in wings – keeping the smaller 6th graders away from the bigger 8th graders. A good example of a project where we did this was at George Rogers Middle School.












Another way to keep grade levels separated is by floors, which we’ve done at Greenwood Middle School.











It is true that teens will all learn, act, and respond in different ways, but the path for design is clear. By designing an environment with “the teenager’s view of their environment in mind and where there are “active, stimulating place where people can talk and share, quite places for downtime, and space for movement is planned for,” we can lend a hand to teachers.


1 McDonald, Emma S. “A Quick Look into the Middle School Brain.” NAESP, Jan. 2010.

2 Wolpert-Gawron, Heather. “Tween Brains, Part III: How to Work It Out In The Classroom.” Tween Teacher, 30 Oct. 2013,

Infographic: 5 Tips for Early Childhood Planning, Design, and Construction

Most of us may have a difficult time remembering what it was like to be in preschool, but try to put yourself there for a moment. Everything seems so much bigger than you, your imagination is running freely, and you are actually encouraged to nap in the middle of the day.

When planning for an early childhood facility, it is important to think from preschooler’s perspective and consider how they interact with the world around them. The following five tips show a few aspects to keep in mind:

5 tips for early childhood design infographic

If you are interested in learning more or need help with you next project, reach out to us!



Does Your School Really Need New Construction?

Schools serve as a fixture within their communities, stirring up nostalgic moments for past students. Like for the college student driving past their old elementary school on their way through town during their first break away from school, remembering those days on the playground during recess. Or for the parents of high school students, strolling through the familiar hallways during parent-teacher night. Or for the spectators who pack in the basketball gym, year after year to support the town’s team. These schools serve as a significant piece of the community’s history far beyond the lessons taught within the classrooms.

When these schools inevitably start to age, the student population starts to grow, or when the schools simply can’t keep up with new programming demands, there needs to be a discussion about what to do moving forward with the facility. Do you really need to tear down the school that has been standing on Main Street for generations and build a completely new building? Can you just update the systems on the inside? Is there enough land on the lot to add a new wing?

Determining whether your school needs new construction begins with developing a space needs facility assessment, looking at both the physical conditions of the building and its capacity to serve educational programming needs. When used correctly, this tool accurately reflects the programs offered and how a facility should look under ideal student loading conditions. We described this tool in a previous blog here as a mechanism to establish criteria to determine equity between and among facilities.

In conjunction with spaces to accommodate the educational program, it is critical to identify and quantify the support areas, such as cafeteria, media area(s), small- and large-group spaces, administrative and mentoring spaces, and the core requirements of restrooms, mechanical, and technology support spaces. Incorporating adjacency studies helps assess whether an existing facility can be adapted, expanded and repurposed, or if it would be more educationally appropriate and cost-effective to build something new.

Adjacencies and facility layouts play a significant role in selecting a new site. Site size is important, but access to the site for vehicles and utilities is equally important to the ultimate success of a new educational facility.

Three key factors contribute to school site selection:

  1. Site size and configuration, including grading, natural vegetation and surrounding contextual elements
  2. Site location and access, as well as the feeder mechanism or facility transformation of elementary, middle, and high school space needs
  3. Natural and legislated external factors, such as drainage ways, utility access, and zoning.

As always, we recommend talking with an architect about your facility before determining if you need new construction.

Five Tips for Early Childhood Facility Planning, Design and Construction

Most of us may have a difficult time remembering what it was like to be in preschool, but try to put yourself there for a moment. Everything seems so much bigger than you, your imagination is running freely, and you are actually encouraged to nap in the middle of the day.

It is important to think from 4-year-old’s perspective and consider how they interact with the world around them when planning for an early childhood facility. The following five tips show a few aspects to keep in mind:

  1. Homey Feel

Creating a learning space that makes the students feel like they are at home is a main component to making them comfortable and confident in the classroom. Using rocking chairs and pillows in a reading time space and even at the front door of a typical classroom helps to make the children feel at ease. The image below of Wayne Township Preschool is a good example of this.

Click here to view more from this album

  1. Separation and Ease of Use

If the pre-school is part of a facility that includes an elementary or high school, keep in mind that the preschool functions differently than the rest. Constructing a facility that positions the early childhood area near the front entrance is essential because pick-up and drop-off will be separate from the rest of the school because they are on different schedules. Also, designing different recess areas for preschool children makes for a safer playtime.

  1. Keep it Low

Children at this age are using their senses to learn about their environments. The design should be planned to accommodate for their small stature. Textures on the bottom of the wall for them to explore, windows dropped to floor level for them to look out and shorter countertops they can reach are all essential in making a space practical for an early childhood facility.

  1. Hard and Soft Balance

Children at this age spend a lot of their time on the ground. Hard surfaces are easy to clean up after creating messy artwork and snack time. Soft surfaces are practical for naptime, playing and reading. Creating a balance between hard and soft surfaces will allow for all the necessary activities within the classroom.

  1. Utilize Color

Using playful, rich colors within the design on the space can help stimulate learning for the children. According to a study by the University of Kentucky, primary colors, especially red, are preferred during early preschool years. Warmer colors tend to excite brain waves, while cooler colors tend to be more calming. Depending on the type of space, colors should be considered and utilized accordingly.

Future blogs will explore these concepts in more detail.



Current trends of K-12 media spaces


Media Centers are always evolving in the school setting. Thoughtful design is mandatory to ensure spaces are utilized to their maximum potential and tailored to the ultimate goal of enhancing the student, teacher, and community member experience. Here are some current trends critical to a school’s Media Center space.


Looking at how the space can be flexible. A variety of flexible and inviting furnishings; prolific technology and power integration; and a variety of private, semi-private, and public spaces are often incorporated throughout evolving media centers. Design flexibility such as movable book shelves and adjustable furniture allows the space to be modified as technology and desires change.

Western Boone Jr./Sr. Media Center


Semi-Private Space

Media Centers are not purely quiet places anymore. We have found that commons spaces—open, sunlit, airy spaces with flexible seating, bordered by glass walled group study rooms—are popular, while their adjacent spaces are quiet and controllable. These spaces allow students to see and be seen, work in groups, and safely access technological resources.

Multi-Purpose Spaces/Maker Spaces

Designed to flex in both size and function, multi-purpose spaces can offer a venue to drive public events, lectures, maker space activities, group activities, teacher meetings, etc. The ability to have presentation marker walls and flexible technology set ups allows the room to support various learning styles, curriculums and resource opportunities.

ISIS Lower School Flexible Classroom


Extended Hours

The desire for convenience drives the need for extended hours in the public areas of schools such as media centers, cafeterias, gymnasiums and commons spaces. Properly designed and programmed, these spaces can create a safe hub of activity for guest speakers, music, performance, and late night gatherings. Providing separate entrances for public use and areas that can be utilized for catering help to service after hour patrons. Modern schedules are flexible, and a successful facility can meet this need.

Books vs. Digital

Books are the backbone of a library. However, the expansion of other media types does create a real square footage need for digital access (like distance learning spaces or student testing). Other technology offers an opportunity to store rarely used resources off-site, accessible either through retrieval technology or as an ordering system. While the overall library square footage may not shrink, technology does change the spatial allocation.

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.