Community Engagement

A building project is far more than pieces and parts that define spaces.

Projects reflect the goals and aspirations of the communities they serve.

Schmidt Associates views community engagement as an essential part of our strategic, data-based planning, giving Owners information to evaluate viable options and make good decisions. We take a proactive role in planning for public meetings that inform, gather feedback, and incorporate public input to achieve a relevant facility solution that the public can support.

In order to understand what is truly important in the eyes of the end user, we like to become part of the “fabric of the community” by gathering input directly from community members and project stakeholders throughout our process. Here are a handful of community engagement tactics we typically use:

Community Workshops

The target audience for these workshops are neighboring businesses, residents, the end users, students and parents, property and business owners, others who visit and work within the area, etc.

These workshops can range from presentations with Q&A, to an open-ended SWOT analysis, to interactive display boards where people can vote on the types of spaces, furniture, aesthetics, etc. they like the best. Depending on the scope of the project, these could be hour-long sessions, last a few hours, or be an open-house where attendees can interact and ask questions for as long as they need.

We want to hear from as many community members as possible, which can be hard to do. Some tactics we utilize to ensure these workshops are as convenient as possible are:

  • Setting up a variety of time slots, across several days, held in various locations—in the evening after the school day, Saturday morning with coffee and donuts, on a Sunday after church services, etc. It all depends on each unique community and type of project.
  • Providing childcare options, if children aren’t an integrated part of the workshop process. For example, we can meet with community members at a school with child-friendly activities held in the gym under the supervision of adults.
  • Offering a variety of input methods—like notecards, email, and limited access blogs—to ensure the quiet voices are heard and allow 24/7 access to the conversation.

Community Engagement - Community Workshops

Stakeholder Meetings

This is where we gather key targeted stakeholders and leadership in a casual environment to build interest and allow their influence on the project. We quickly share the community workshop findings and offer a brainstorming session to continue building ideas and support for the project. Our team then creates a deliverable that can be posted to a website and distributed to the community, stakeholders, and other interest groups.

The targeted attendees typically include property and business owners, developers, and neighborhood and city representatives. We take similar approaches to making these meetings as convenient for the stakeholders as we did with the community workshops. As the planning process moves forward, we often will reconnect with these stakeholders to communicate any findings, recommendations, and intent of the results.

Community Engagement - Stakeholders

Community Empowerment

The plan for any project must be intentional and community-driven so stakeholders will feel a sense of ownership. To create community empowerment, we have found that allowing physical, deliberate interaction with the space is essential. Together, we will visit the physical space and brainstorm ideas on-site, allowing the realities of the space to influence decision making.

Another approach we often take is to attend community, city council, or PTO meetings.

Community Engagement - Community Empowerment

Project Blogs

Along with our physical approach to community engagement, we also leverage technology to bring it all together. We have successfully used a blog on projects to have a way for the community, stakeholders, and Owners to see the progress and to offer input. This is a controlled way to manage feedback and disperse current information, as determined by the project’s leadership team. Each blog features a “Make a Comment” button which sends comments as emails to Schmidt Associates. This way, we can receive comments, review with the Owner, and post appropriate responses.

We have used a link to our website to post the ongoing status of the project—from planning through construction—to keep the public involved and informed throughout the process.

Community Engagement - Project Blogs

Ultimately, only community projects built on community input can maximize their influence and create shared ownership and investment. If you have questions about our community engagement process or want to learn more about how we can help you with your next project – reach out!

Communities Build Schools

With Schmidt Associates’ 40th birthday just celebrated, we thought it would be interesting to explore some of the ways in which the challenges and expectations of our clients and their stakeholders have evolved over the last four decades. This month, we’re publishing four spots on what “40 years on” have meant for the team in our K-12 Studio.

In our fourth and final blog post on key issues in the world of K-12 and its evolving built environment, Tom Neff, a Principal of Schmidt Associates, takes a sideways look at the ways in which communities have come to play a major role shaping their schools and their evolution.

40 years ago, although the community may ultimately have funded the school, its role in and impact upon the look, feel, functions, and ethos of the premises was much more limited. And the notion of stakeholders – as opposed to “official” paid professionals acting on behalf of parents, students, and the community – was virtually non-existent. Four decades later, community power is prominent and the wishes of key stakeholders are at the forefront. What are the implications for the school design process and those who lead and guide it?

At Schmidt Associates, it would be very fair to say that the single most important piece of learning we have acquired in the K-12 Studio is this: if you want to create a school that truly functions as part of the fabric of the community, it is to the community that you must turn. It’s important however to point out exactly what this philosophy is not – as well as what it does represent. It is not a cop out. We are not neglecting our responsibility as professional designers and an expert resource. We don’t expect “do it yourself” from the community. What we do expect of ourselves is the ability to listen, hear, and capture the needs and the specific knowledge of a community, in ways that drive the foresight and insight on which we pride ourselves.

The “wisdom of crowds” has long been recognized for its power over and above the views of a narrow group. This wisdom is even more potent when the “crowd” concerned happens to be made up of expert witnesses and contributors drawn from the parents, friends, students, and communities for whom the school has special significance. Tapping into this wisdom brings enormous advantages, advantages that were very largely overlooked 40 years ago. The most important of these in our experience is relevance. No imposition from outside will ever have the same relevance, or will ever hit the mark as accurately, as a solution that contains the community’s own unique knowledge.

The next indispensable advantage is differentiation. If the people concerned are given a real say in the design outcome, it becomes virtually impossible, as well as undesirable, to give them a standard, “cookie cutter” response. They will recognize the approach that truly speaks to them and their needs. Equally, they will spot, and reject, the clone and the impostor. There are many more reasons for co-opting stakeholders than space allows us to explore here. But one of the most important must surely be enthusiasm. People who, rightly, believe that they have contributed to any endeavor are correspondingly more likely to get behind its current and future progress and welfare. You can sense this in the very vocabulary that people use. When “that school” becomes “our school”, warm feelings and a positive sense of ownership are assured.

Desirable as these feelings are however, they do not “just happen”. Over four decades, we have learned that the environment for gathering and capturing stakeholder input must be as carefully considered as the school environment itself. That’s why we have developed a number of communication forums and channels, from public meetings and project update blogs to detailed working sessions, where people can join our architects and designers to actually take part in the process of developing solutions through our room-by-room process. This is infinitely more than a public relations exercise. It identifies issues before construction starts, drives positivity and buy-in, and removes obstacles to progress that a less involved or more prescriptive approach could only magnify.

We are proud to reflect on four decades of successful service to the needs of the many K-12 school communities we have had the privilege to work with. It is no exaggeration or flattery to state that much of this success derives directly from the contributions of those communities to unique design solutions. And our experience has left no doubt in our minds that, just as schools build communities, we will see in the next 40 years that communities do indeed build schools.

Missed a blog in this series? No worries…

Project Blogs: What are They and how do They Work

Schmidt Associates believes it is important to keep Owners, users, and the members of the surrounding community involved with the design process. However, it can be a challenge meet with all of those people and keep them informed without delaying a project’s schedule. To address this need, Schmidt Associates has developed project blogs to serve as a two-way communication tool—benefiting the Owner, the community and our design team and reducing time spent by all parties.

Project blogs can have different purposes, depending on whom the audience is intended to be and the information that is desired to be communicated (e.g. community consensus, or design decision communication, or merely community awareness). The blog created for Lake Central High School, a $100 million additions and renovation project, worked well as a programming and design tool. This project was on an accelerated schedule to keep the School Corporation’s promise of having their freshman students use the new facility before they graduated.  Typically, the design phase of a project like this could stretch to 3 or 4 months, but with the use of the project blog that time was shaved to roughly 6 weeks.  During design, meetings were held with select individuals from the School to review program and design information. The results of these meeting were posted shortly thereafter to the blog including graphics showing proposed layouts, etc.

Renderings of what Lake Central High School would eventually look like from different views

Renderings of what Lake Central High School would eventually look like from different views

Details and preliminary renderings of the athletic space

Details and preliminary renderings of the athletic space

The blog was then shared with all of the teachers and other users of the facility for review and comment. The process allowed all of the staff to be involved in the design, know how they would be affected, and have an opportunity for input.  It also condensed the reiterative process of design and allowed the project to meet the schedule.

Receiving comments on designs shared is an important aspect of the use of blogs. Gathering a community consensus, positive or negative, can help steer a project’s direction.  Most public blogs have comments built-in to the posts, but as you may know comments can be destructive to a process as well especially when commenters have an advantage of anonymity.  To address this issue, most of the blogs we produce only allow comments through emails.  These comments are received and shared with the Owner, outside of the public posts of the blog. This allows Owners and the Design Team to identify the commenter,  and address the comments in a direct, discreet (return email) fashion or a public fashion (blog post) that other involved parties can view.

Schmidt Associates simply offers these blogs as another service to Owners— allowing them to have total control over how much information is shared on a blog and who will have access to view it. Some blogs are private, open only to a project committee, and others are open to anyone and everyone. Some Owners even choose to have both a public and private blog. The Owner may want the public to only be able to view floorplans, leaving everything else accessible to the project committee.

In summary, there are several benefits to Owners who choose to implement project blogs for a project:

  • A wide range of information is share to those interested in seeing a project’s progress that normally would not be involved
  • Ability to trace comments and opinions
  • Users are one click away from the information they need and can share it with others
  • Seeing floorplans and 3D modeling gets people excited about the finished product
  • The Owner controls the content not the Design Team
  • Owners can view our past blogs to get a sense of how blogs can work for them

Two Questions

The founding fathers explicitly warned fellow countrymen to distrust government and to remain vigilant in their suspicion. They knew full well the tendency of those with a measure of power to steadily encroach on those with less, until the latter are fully subjugated. We were to be a nation of citizens, not subjects. That meant, and still means, that we must be strong citizens to have strong leaders. The responsibility lies first with us, as we are a people governed by our own consent.

We are hearing the noise of another major election approaching. Some citizens are attempting to claw back power from those they feel have misrepresented them and betrayed the interests of our nation. It gets a little ugly, but it doesn’t compare with, oh say—beheading. Wherever you fall in the political spectrum, you can afford to smile at the dissent that is being “Trumpeted” before consent is given anyone to lead.

The experiment that is the USA is still going. Whatever else is in contention, we always struggle for a balance of power between the government and the people … between collectivism and individualism.

As we scan would-be candidates, we wonder, “What would a servant leader look like in office?” And the next question of course, “How does a citizen help that happen?”

“Leadership can not be measured in a poll or even in the result of an election. It can only be truly seen with the benefit of time. From the perspective of 20 years, not 20 days.”

—Marco Rubio

Elevate Your Expectations for Downtown Development, Part IV

In my Indianapolis Business Journal column listing 10 things Indianapolis could do to make our already thriving downtown an even better place to live, the fourth item was:

Face up to the fact that urban dwellers may not have cars, which means we’ll need more forms of public transportation.

Yes, the Indiana Pacers Bikeshare is great. And huge public transportation projects between the suburbs, downtown and the airport are on the drawing boards. Urban dwellers need additional simple solutions.

Before choosing a place to live downtown, a professional has already figured out how long it will take to walk, bike, or bus to work. They (and retirees who opt for walkable downtown living) have already scoped out restaurants, bars, a gym, and a grocery.

One day they will need to make a major shopping trip, see their doctor, take their dog to the vet, attend an event that’s too far to walk, or visit grandma for Thanksgiving dinner. Or maybe they walk to work, but their spouse can’t. What then?

Good news

  • Options have improved in recent years. We already have taxis, Uber and rental cars that deliver. Lyft ride share can get you to Castleton for $27 or the airport for $26. Rent-by-the hour Zipcars can be found here for about $7 an hour plus a membership fee, but we need more of them to make them a true convenience. (If the costs seem high, remember how much YOU’RE paying for car payments, insurance, fuel, repairs, and parking.) BlueIndy electric car rentals will be here later this summer.
  • Megabus can take you from city to city, and are within walking distance for most downtown residents.
  • IndyGo’s new Downtown Transit Center, scheduled to open late this year, should make transportation around the city easier and more pleasant.


Here’s more we could add to elevate expectations:

  • A simple system of shuttles to take people from one part of downtown to another. It’s a relatively low-cost solution that Indianapolis has implemented off and on. Let’s make it reliable and easy for everyone.
  • Trolleys. We’ve tried them before, but we may have the population density now to support them. Besides, it’s just fun to ride a trolley.
  • Do something bold and make it permissible for people to hail a cab. A no-cost solution.
  • Create more covered and pleasant bus shelters. We have some; we need more.
  • More Segways. Segways are available downtown – but for organized tours that originate in White River State Park. That works for tourists, but what if Segways were available for spur-of-the moment rentals in convenient places for downtown residents? We could make pick-up and drop-off sites adjacent to the Pacers Bikeshare locations and repurpose old phone booths as Segway vending machines!
  • Make transit planning an essential element of big events. Remember the radio ads for bus service to the Indy 500? Public transportation is a welcome solution when it’s well planned and communicated effectively. (Of course the Indy 500 service usually required you to drive somewhere to catch the bus, so we have to get past that.) What if we had “Blue” shuttles to take Colts fans from restaurants and bars to the game, easing the congestion around the stadium as St. Louis does in its entertainment district? And what if that ride was fun?
  • If we had unlimited money… What about more trains? More elevated monorails? An airport tram? A combination of busses and underground trains like Seattle? An “L” system like Chicago?
  • Driverless cars. OK, I know that sounds futuristic. But they’re coming sooner than we think — and it’s going to change everything. When they arrive, you’ll know I’m a genius for being among the first to tell you!


To read my IBJ column, click here.

Crime prevention through environmental design

As communities work on neighborhood revitalization, one strategy of note is to deter crime through design. When Schmidt Associates studies opportunities in a neighborhood, we use a variety of crime deterrence design strategies including;

  • Natural Surveillance – adding first floor windows onto the street, lowering hedges and fences, providing proper lighting, all provide both the perception and the reality that you are “visible” to others, and enhancing occupant safety while allowing the opportunity to meet neighbors and build community.
  • Access Control-Access Control Strategies can be as simple as locking gates, and thorny bushes, to enhancing building access points and vestibules.
  • Ownership/Territory Reinforcement – The design of a space can indicate public, private, and semipublic space. This not only creates a sense of Ownership, but it makes intruders more easily identifiable.
  • Benches, art, trees, and scheduled activities indicate the purpose and ownership of a space.
  • Activity Support- both the scheduling of activity and indicators of activity (signage, etc.), natural surveillance (and the perception of surveillance) can enhance safety across a site and a neighborhood.
  • Maintenance- the removal of blight and ongoing maintenance indicates a place that is cared for- where a sense of pride permeates residence, and where crime will not be tolerated.

Crime prevention is the issue of the day in Indianapolis. Environmental design, when properly executed can be a key part of the solution.

Elevate Your Expectations for Downtown Development, Part III

In my Indianapolis Business Journal column listing 10 things Indianapolis could do to make our already thriving downtown an even better place to live, the third item was:

Mix in more housing individuals can afford. Starter living units with lower price points will lure sought-after young professionals earlier.

Energy consumption will make housing and retail density even more important in years to come. Housing and retail density is also crucial for urban walkability – or simply put, if we can live, work, eat and shop within walking distance we consume less fuel.

Many urban residential developers aim for the high-end consumer. That’s understandable. It’s where the higher margins are.

But if we’re trying to attract millennials to Indianapolis’ downtown, we need “starter” housing for young professionals.

A good, comprehensive plan for urban housing includes a little bit of everything: studio apartments, one-bedroom units and the two-bedroom and larger units that allow young professionals with children to remain urban dwellers.

The art is weaving both the high-cost units and the low-cost units into the same urban area without upsetting the high income residents! Once an urban neighbourhood is overbalanced with high-wealth occupants, the NIMBY (Not in my back yard) syndrome begins to set in.

If we plan our urban residential neighborhoods with a good balance from the beginning it’s easier to make it work. And our “starter” young professional tenants move up into larger and more luxurious digs once their incomes begin to increase.

Balance – as always – is the key.

Think about established urban neighbourhoods in other cities you love. Can an outside observer really tell from the exterior which are the affordable places and which are the luxury ones? Can you distinguish the full-floor living space buildings from the studio apartment ones? Not necessarily.

We’re beginning to see a growing trend of including social spaces in the design of urban housing for millennials. While a small apartment might be desirable and have great monthly rent, fitness rooms and gathering spaces for barbeques, games, drinks, and watching sports makes urban living more fun.

To read my IBJ column, click here.


Look Up

With the recent launch of Look Up, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) is working “to reconnect the public with architecture and position new generations of architects as catalysts of growth and visionaries for renewal.”

Since its inception, Schmidt Associates has a legacy of active AIA generational involvement whose roots lie in servant leadership, a defining element of our firm. The legacy includes individuals who authored the first-ever comprehensive local architectural purview—Indianapolis Architecture—serve as the National Chair of the AIA Committee on Design, serve on the National AIA Board of Directors, as well as numerous years of leadership on local and state level boards.

Our deep investment in AIA stems from a corporate value that we should purposely continue the discussion of design excellence among ourselves, with other professionals, and within the community. This level of engagement extends well beyond today’s notion of networking to become purposeful in working with colleagues to accomplish the mutual goals of those larger AIA realms.

In addition to the multiple professional services contracts provided by the AIA to the design and construction industry, the AIA provides our membership with professional development, education, and engagement opportunities through a myriad of focused conferences, online learning, and annual national conventions. These opportunities lead to personal and professional growth through travel and explorations of new design work in cities across the globe, strong connections to colleagues with whom to build alliances and team with to pursue new work, and the ability to work together to impact governmental decisions at all levels with a common voice. The focus of these pursuits is ultimately to advance the quality of life through design for ourselves, our families, and our communities.

The commitment to AIA is important for those hiring architects. It means you are getting a professional committed to the overall community, lifelong learning, and professional excellence in the architectural field.

Leadership Moment from November

Give someone a fish—feed them for a day; teach someone to fish—feed them for a lifetime. The adage makes a whole point with half a picture. Do you want a potato and slaw with that fish? Are you going to wear fish? …sleep on them? …use them to get around town? Clearly, man needs more than fish. So once essential needs are met, what happens next?

Prosperity—that favored frontier! These are the voyages of man’s flagship, enterprise—its continuing mission to seek out opportunity, answer a need and drive commerce where it has not gone before. Charity lifts people out of suffering, and education releases them from dependency. Equipped to convert effort to value in the marketplace, business then provides the opportunity for continuing progress. Business puts individual effort to use in a larger context, advancing one’s security and prosperity, building aggregate wealth in the community at large, a share of which reliably cycles back into charity.

Some few with loud voices and limited vision disparage all companies and even shame the country for pursuing the most successful means of poverty relief the world has ever seen. But most of us both hold our humanitarian values and deal with economic realities, in and out of the workplace. So charity and education—for sure. And to help people further, build a business.

“All prosperity begins in the mind and is dependent only on the full use of our creative imagination.”

—Ruth Ross

50 Letters From Architects: Our Contribution

This is part of a series of blog postings of Schmidt Associates architects’ responses to the American Institute of Architects (AIA)-Indianapolis invitation to write letters to Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard. Architects submitted big or small ideas to improve the urban built environment for Indianapolis and were on display at The Hall during June and July of 2014. Follow our blog to see future posts.

Dear Mayor,

In my recent travels to New York City, I was introduced to an idea that has flourished there, but is part of a larger group of similar ideas deployed around the world. The organization is known as openhousenewyork (OHNY). By its mission, it “is a 501(c)3 organization that promotes a greater appreciation of the city’s built environment; broadens public awareness by exposing diverse audiences to distinctive examples of architecture, engineering and design; educates and inspires discussion of issues of excellence in design, planning and preservation; and showcases outstanding new work as well as structures of historic merit.”

OHNY is one of 23 members of a global network of Open House events, with Chicago being the only other one in the United States. These organizations are about opening doors to provide unique access to explore the built environments of their respective cities in a way that is educational and diverse, not only in terms of programs—but of the audience it welcomes to its events.

Open House events inspire and encourage public education and engagement in the discussion of architecture, design, and cultural heritage. With the links below to the OHNY and Open House Worldwide websites, I encourage you to learn more about the organization as you consider the opportunity to bring this type of successful community program to the City of Indianapolis.

Best regards,

Steven K. Alspaugh, AIA, LEED BD+C
2014 Chair, AIA Committee on Design