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

April 10, 2013

17. Don’t throw out the kitchen with the bath water

A full kitchen is a big-ticket item—$150,000 to $170,000. “That’s one of the first things charters let go,” says Hutton/Cuningham’s Hutton. Only about one-fifth to one-third of charters have kitchens that qualify for the National School Lunch Program, and “that’s a deterrent to low-income kids attending your charter,” says Jim Griffin, President, Colorado League of Charter Schools (
But the impact goes deeper. Federal Title I reimbursements and state subsidies are tied to the free/reduced lunch program. If you hire a caterer to bring in lunch, you don’t get reimbursed by the government, says Griffin. No full kitchen, no reimbursement—a double whammy.
Due to first-cost constraints, you probably won’t win the battle for a full kitchen, but you should advise your charter operator as to the consequences of not having one.

Hutton, who is the Incoming Chair of the AIA Committee on Architecture for Education, sees a similar problem with the paucity of gyms in charters. “Yes, I understand they have to make compromises, but with the crisis in childhood obesity and diabetes, I would urge charters not to cut those facilities.”


Boston Renaissance Charter Public School, a 105,000-sf K-6 serving 885 students in the Hyde Park neighborhood. A 15,000-sf addition links a 70,000-sf heavy timber/masonry mill building (shown here) with a 20,000-sf mid-20th-century warehouse. HFMH Architects led the team, including Garcia Goluska DeSousa Consulting Engineers (MEP) and Suffolk Construction (CM at risk). Photo: Anton Grassl/Esto / Courtesy HFMH architects, Inc.



18. Make the owner’s rep your buddy

Slaterpaull’s Willson says quite a few of the more than 30 charter schools she has designed hired owner’s representatives—and she’s glad for it. “Some of the ORs have targeted the charters as clients and understand their budgets and operations,” says Willson. “They can help navigate the process, especially when there’s a charter group that needs that kind of help.”


19. Keep building systems simple

Most charters don’t have the facilities staff to operate sophisticated building automation systems, says Slaterpaull Architects’ Willson. “We’ll still fight for daylighting systems and occupancy sensors, because those dollars come back to them in energy savings, but we can’t always justify the cost for higher-end mechanical systems.”


20. Let the building inspire the community

Charter operators with a strong community-service mission want buildings that provide a source of aspiration and inspiration. “Our overriding goal is to make an impact, not only with the academic success inside the classroom, but also with how our buildings project into the community,” says United Neighborhood Organizations’s Andrew Alt, Vice President, Real Estate and Facilities. “You can deliver a precast box, or you can do something that the community is proud of and has some ownership in.”

UNO, which serves Chicago’s 800,000 Hispanics, has 13 schools completed or in the works. “From an aesthetic point of view we hope that each of our buildings will have a positive influence on the surrounding neighborhood—well landscaped, well maintained, even a deterrent to crime,” says Alt.


21. Step in and help charters with long-range master planning

“A lot of the people involved in charters are looking at immediate needs, and they may not have experience planning for future growth,” says Russell A. Sears, AIA, LEED AP, Principal, Russell Sears & Associates ( “After reviewing their existing program, we talk about future enrollment, capacity, and curriculum, and then we look at the site—things like parking, and where we could put new buildings. They may have an addition on their wish list, and I may explain how that addition could hurt access to the site, or create an eyesore, or cut off the potential to put in a new building later on.” At that point, it’s time to discuss real options. “It’s a great opportunity to be creative,” says Sears.


22. Build green, but don’t go overboard

Most charter operators want to be green but usually have to settle for the low-hanging fruit—low-VOC materials and so on, says TenSquare’s Jentoft. Some want to be able to add green components later, when they have more money. “They always ask for a green roof but they usually can’t afford it, so we make sure the structural components and access to water are there for when they’re ready,” he says.

LEED certification for charters varies. New York City doesn’t require it for charters but Harlem RBI DREAM Charter is going for it, says Schlendorf. The District of Columbia requires LEED (or an alternative such as CHPS) for any project getting capital funding from the city. “LEED Silver is usually within striking distance,” says Perkins Eastman’s O’Donnell.

HMC’s Prince says the charter operator has to set the sustainability threshold. “LEED Platinum may not be their business objective,” he says. “If they just want to pick the right lights and low-VOC materials, that’s their decision.”

Of course, not everything green works. UNO did an extensive green roof as a learning space at its Veterans Memorial campus. “With six months of cold in Chicago, we’ve gone to green trays with a live load,” says Alt, UNO’s Vice President for Real Estate and Facilities. The charter operator has also ruled out geothermal as too expensive. Yet all six of the charters it owns outright have earned or are seeking LEED Silver or Gold.


23.  Try new materials

At UNO’s Galewood charter, “We wanted to create the sense of how UNO was rising at a cosmic rate,” says UrbanWorks’ Partner Meggan M. Lux, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C. The firm designed a dramatically upward-sweeping roof and specified a coated composite panel faced with natural wood veneer called ProdEX, from Prodema (

The problem: ProdEx had never been used for a school exterior in Chicago. “We had to prove that it was not making the wall less safe than more conventional materials,” says UrbanWorks’ Partner Rob Natke, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C. With the manufacturer’s help, the firm was able to get City Hall to approve the product.

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