Charter schools are growing like Topsy. But don’t jump on board unless you know what you’re getting into.

April 10, 2013

9. Don’t hesitate to educate the educators

“They’re not builders. They’re looking for guidance: Here’s my pot of gold, what can I get for it?” says Ronald Corrado, Project Executive, Turner Construction Co. (

Corrado, who has worked with Friendship Charter Schools and KIPP Public Charter Schools in Washington, D.C., says 50-60% of his projects have been design-build or design-assist. “These projects work well with having the contractor tied to the architect,” he says. “We occasionally have to tell a client that, for example, there’s no way we can do that curtain wall, and here’s why. It saves a lot of time, and it’s good for the budget.”

However, you must also do your part to help charter clients realize their goals. “With charter operators, there needs to be a lot of listening up front,” says Phil Nemeth, AIA, LEED AP, Managing Principal, HMC Architects ( Adds HMC Managing Principal Steven Prince, Assoc. AIA,  “You have to spend time up front to understand their business model.”


10. Make sure your design allows for additional income streams

For the Foxboro (Mass.) Regional Charter School, a $15 million public middle/high school that opened last September, HFMH Architects increased the size of the new gymnasium well beyond the needs of the anticipated 1,200 students. The reason: The school had cut a deal with a local sports club to lease the space at night and on weekends—an income stream that’s more than paying its way.


11. Tutor your charter client in the basics of scheduling

Neophyte charter operators simply don’t appreciate the amount of time it takes to design and build a school. “They come to you in April and say they need a 20,000-sf space by August, and they haven’t even hired the architect!” laments Gilbane’s Rogér.
Late delivery is not negotiable, says Turner’s Corrado. “If you can’t figure out how to meet the schedule, you’ve got to be honest and help them make the decisions they need to make right now. The endgame doesn’t change. It’s game on, go!”

Charters don’t have the luxury public school districts sometimes have to be able to shift children around for a few weeks. “If they don’t open on time, it could be catastrophic,” says Jentoft, the charter facilities consultant. “The parents will just take their kids elsewhere. It could put their whole program in a death spiral.”


12. Expect to do much, much more with much, much less

For charter construction, figure you’ll have 65-70% of the space and 65-70% of the budget per square foot that you’d have with a comparable public school. “In New York State, where I’m currently working, you can pay $250-300/sf for a public school,” says Gilbane’s Rogér. “You throw that at a charter school and they’ll laugh in your face.”

Can it be done? Yes. In Castle Rock, Colo., Hutton/Cuningham Group ( is putting the finishing touches on the 80,000-sf Aspen View Academy (PreK-8). “We broke ground last November and it will be ready for 700 students this summer,” says Paul C. Hutton, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, Principal. “We’re going to bring it on line in half the time and at half the cost that the local school district could have done.”

While some charter schools, especially those whose operators are new to the game, are still being built on the cheap, it is also the case that many of the established charter operators are building facilities that compare favorably with well-funded public schools, including full gyms, foodservice facilities, assembly spaces, and playgrounds.


13. Make every space work twice as hard

“You have to learn what spaces they think they need, and then you have to talk them down to a reasonable level and be innovative, because every space has to serve more than one purpose,” says Perkins Eastman’s Schlendorf.

Charters often have after-school programs, community meetings, adult education, and health programs going on six or seven days a week. “They don’t shut down at three o’clock,” says Mark McCarthy, AIA, LEED AP, Principal, Perkins Eastman. “In a traditional school the teacher owns that classroom; in a charter, someone else uses it at night and on weekends, so every room has to do double duty.”
One common solution: the “gymacafetorium,” a flex space that can be quickly reconfigured into a gymnasium, eating space, or auditorium/meeting room.


American Academy PreK-8 charter school in Castle Pines North, Colo., 20 miles south of Denver, designed by Hutton/Cuningham Group. While the majority of charter schools nationally are located in cities, the Denver metro has substantial charter activity in its fast-growing suburbs to the south. Photo: Raul J. Garcia / Courtesy Hutton/Cuningham Group


14. Step outside your comfort zone

Global Village Academy, a language-immersion K-8 charter in Aurora, Colo., wanted a building that reflected the international nature of the program, “so we did some fun stuff with color and tilt-up and sealed concrete floors,” says Adele Willson, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, Principal, Slaterpaull Architects ( “That’s not something we could have done for a neighborhood public school.”

Hutton/Cuningham Group has designed blue roofs for Denver-area charters: “In our climate, green roofs are not practical, but we do have flash storms.” Hutton says a blue roof can be cheaper to install than a detention basin. He has also experimented with combining low-cost rooftop air-handling units with displacement ventilation to provide improved indoor air quality.


15. Take good ideas wherever they come from

UrbanWorks’ Pat Natke recalls an innovation that came from an unexpected source at UNO, Chicago’s United Neighborhood Organization: “We were at a dinner with the incoming teachers for Galewood School, and they told us they didn’t want the usual wing of ‘teacher offices.’ They wanted to be close to their classrooms, to maintain the connection with their students.”

This discussion led to a floor plan with glassed-in offices flanking the classrooms and extending into the corridor. Each office is shared by two teachers from the same grade to allow for collaboration but also to provide two sets of eyes on the corridor and into the classrooms. To get the required one-hour fire rating for the glass, the designers configured the sprinkler heads to spray the glass.

Natke says the maintenance crew also asked for storage space for their mechanical floor washers. “They also reminded us that we had missed something in the design of the vegetated roof,” she says. The designers quickly amended the roof plan to add a closet for storing shovels and hoses.


16. Design and build in phases to stretch the budget

“Charters move a lot in the first five years,” says charter facilities consultant Jentoft. “They get into that first building and start growing, and then it becomes a question of how to get over the finish line into a new building.” His advice: look into a lease with option to buy, and design buildings that can be completed in phases.

Plan carefully for contingencies, too. “These jobs need to be planned with alternatives that can be added or removed based on the budget,” says Jentoft. “There’s no second bite of the apple. You can’t go back to the school board for more money.”


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