Summer 2006 Newsletter

Former State Architect Castellanos Proposes Reforms to How Schools Are Designed & Built

Steven Castellanos formerly served as the California State Architect and currently serves as one of California's delegates to the board of directors of the American Institute of Architects. From his extensive experience designing and overseeing public projects and working with the Sacramento bureaucracy, Mr. Castellanos knows firsthand the challenge of building neighborhood centered schools and especially of conforming schools to California's necessary, but strict, safety standards. But, as Mr. Castellanos explains in this NSBN interview, uniform standards need not constrain local initiatives to design innovate joint use schools that leverage funding and better serve children's learning and health needs.

This interview takes place at the 2006 AIA Convention in L.A., where the challenge of designing & building new schools in California is being discussed by architects. You've said in other interviews with NSBN that the centralization of approval power at the state level is an impediment to smart, flexible school design. Could you elaborate?

Everyone now accepts the notion that schools can and should be "centers of community." Schools and neighborhoods go hand-in-glove, and schools now serve much more than ever important needs of communities and neighborhoods. We now expect schools to do a great deal more to knit together communities, generations, and the incredible diversity that cities have, particularly in Los Angeles. And we have to make smart capital investments, consistent with the realities of the marketplace – the construction marketplace re the timing of the construction, and how we work together, if we are ever to optimize outcomes and use scarce resources effectively.

Being smart about our school building investments, I believe, now depends on reforming the underlying government infrastructure which controls the approval of bond expenditures. Question: Has the size of the school marketplace in California outstripped the state's capacity to serve that need? I think it has. The multi-billion dollar marketplace that schools represent in California cannot be served any longer using the same tools that were generated decades ago. It wasn't until the late 1990s when we saw the first billion-dollar bond program, and since then the voters have been incredibly generous and have understood the value of schools and education to the future of the state. We have to make sure we optimize bond resources, and the state has to be willing to look at its own regulatory infrastructure – how the bond program is administered, how construction is administered – and support decision making at the local level better than it has in the past.

As a veteran of the state government at the State Architect's Office, critique the state's school building expertise.

Let's go back to the founding of the state architect's Schoolhouse Division. There has been no loss of life in a school since the development of the Field Act. The state has led the nation in the development of regulations that enhance the safety of construction, and we can't roll that back. We have to understand that schools themselves have to be safe, and any notion that this is about reducing standards should be set aside. The question is, can other players be introduced into this process? As construction has changed – the use of alternative delivery methods, the incredible use of technology – we need to look at how state processes need to change to build on the incredible increases in effectiveness that the marketplace is producing. The design-construction marketplace is taking its next leap forward through things like building information models and refined, sophisticated project delivery systems that we're learning about all the time. It is inconsistent with that demand for increased efficiency and higher value if the state doesn't align its processes with this new marketplace.

A couple years ago, State Senator Jack Scott, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said that the value of joint use was not only that school districts would win, but also that cities and taxpayers would win as well. You have often said that there are very few examples of joint-use, neighborhood-centered schools in California because of the funding and approval process. Could you be more specific?

Joint use has occurred where folks have engaged with education and understand the idea that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. You can find school board members who have been members of library or city planning boards and are willing to go through the effort of putting very complex deals together. But reliance on individual experience creates a situation that is not easily replicated. Joint use should be one of the early decisions you make as you think about a project, and that's not happening for a number of different reasons. People now tend to be engaged in maintaining their own programs, no matter what agency they're in. They're only judged on the basis of their own efforts, and thus success is not a measure of how successful collaboration has been. We must make sure that when people engage in consideration of joint use that they see it as a positive endeavor.

What public funding and regulatory processes need to change? Are you suggesting control over the siting and design of schools needs to reside more locally?

Control fundamentally resides within the regulation that defines the practices of design and the methods of construction. But the old adage that all politics is local is true. Public agencies must deal with other public agencies – for example, when facilities might be shared between school districts and other organizations. How do we not only encourage that but assure that there is no barrier as far as process is concerned to the desire that different local agencies may have to join together to enhance a community-based school building project?

The size of the state's school building program has in many ways outstripped DSA's ability to serve the needs of the state. It's an incredibly dedicated organization, but much as the energy commission has relied on local government and local agencies for enforcement and have developed very high standards in regulation, I think it's time for the state architect's office to be considering much the same thing.

Can school districts, local building departments, architects and engineers be engaged in a yet to be defined alternative process that can return local decision-making to local levels? I think we've come to that point when we have to ask that question and we have to have a public discussion about how to best locally approach this notion of safety and oversight.

I think the same is true with the bond program. Bond optimization is what it's all about. San Diego schools once reported that for every month of delay, a K-8 was lost because of the degradation of the value of the money. For every six months, a high school was lost. So the state has to work with local agencies, governments, and school districts to make sure that we deliver classrooms in a way that enables resources to go into the classroom by changing the process. This is no longer about streamlining an existing process; this is about making a new process so that the whole thing can be much more flexible and more nimble.

Since leaving the DSA, you returned to the practice of architecture and to advising groups like NSBN on how best to align facility goals, funding, and process. Elaborate on how current funding and approval processes make it difficult to build joint use facilities that serve as neighborhood centers.

The financing, review, and oversight mechanisms of state government layered in with the additional requirements that local school districts, along with other agencies at the local level have re boards and different leadership and different budgeting systems, do make it difficult. Collaboration offers tremendous opportunity, but priorities often clash. The overall effort must be directed at joining together to use a school site for more than just classroom education. But without greater incentives to do that and some flexibility with regard to funding, regulation, and the approval processes, it's just difficult. So how do we create incentives for people to come together and do something that is eminently sensible—align public funds in a way that creates a whole greater than the sum of the parts?

The funding and regulatory schemes appear to compel building fewer schools on larger sites housing the most seats possible rather than building smaller, joint- and shared-use learning centers that bring the public physically back in public schools. Is that true?

It could be true, but let's return to a discussion I know more about, which is that have we spent enough time rethinking our notions of education and why we continue to build the kinds of schools we continue to build. But we're still living, unfortunately, with schools that reflect an industrial-age model of dedicated, isolated sites for education. The whole notion of a classroom is not how we recall it from our own childhood, with desks lined up in rows. We're talking about a generation of children who are engaged and who desire much more exposure to the rest of the world. We need to rethink education and decide whether we're being responsive to new models.

Many of the Corps of Engineers types now working for school districts on siting and building new facilities complain that the educators are too unsure about what they want new schools to designed for, and their indecision is costly, because delay causes cost overruns. So, the facilities professionals step into the breach and build the cookie-cutter classrooms of the past. Are the construction folks right?

I don't know. I think there are different ways of looking at this, but it's always a challenge to try to engage educational programs with operations. There has been a push to separate those in school design and construction for some time, and I don't know why that is.

But if you look at office buildings nowadays for example, there's a great deal of good work going on about how to optimize workspace for increased productivity. There's a great deal of research about how to do much of the same thing in schools. But we're not seeing enough of that new knowledge penetrating deeply enough to influence significant change in the classroom models and how schools are built. We need more dialog among people who operate schools and folks who understand children and community for us to begin to learn and understand more about what we need to build.

Given that the state is spending about $60 billion on school facilities, can you explain why the State Allocation Board and/or the DSA have failed to track, examine and share the best practices of school district building programs so that districts can learn from one another?

I think there are legitimate reasons. There is such a pressing need for classrooms, so the notion has been that we have to put every available dollar into the development of a safe and healthy classroom. However, I think we all know that complex and large efforts require not just a guy pulling a trigger on the starting line and hope that we all run the race as quickly as we can. We're not learning from our own experience, which is endemic to the design and construction industry, and we're also not testing these assumptions that have been around schools and education the way we should be.

A small increment out of every bond program should go toward the development of a body of knowledge that informs future decisions better. Without that, we're doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. This is for children, for taxpayers, and to try to make our state a better place. We want to make sure that every decision is going to help make our communities successful.

Would it be fair to say that in jurisdictions like Chicago—where the mayor has oversight of the school and the city—there has been considerable emphasis on joint use and that where one jurisdiction has oversight of both entities, it's far easier to reconcile the differences and controversies?

Whatever the mechanism is, there have to be ways of getting school districts and others to partner. You can put them in the same room together, make them one in the same, or find other mechanisms. But the focus should be on partnership. Much the same thing is being discussed in design and construction – how do we remove the notion of being adversarial and towards collaboration to optimize outcomes?