BRW School Architecture

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I recently attended the 2012 Southern Regional Conference for CEFPI. (The Council of Educational Facility Planners).  The day was full, touring the exhibit hall, attending sessions, and reconnecting with colleagues and friends.

While touring the exhibit hall, I met an interesting vendor, Lactette.  Lactette is a product designed to solve the complex problem of inadequate facilities and barriers facing nursing mothers.  This company’s products and designs for lactation rooms are needed in today’s schools, colleges, and universities.  The timing was perfect, as this is the kind of design solution we have been seeking for our Houston Community College Project.

There were many interesting exhibitors on hand as well.  I spoke with Armko about roofing and waterproofing; the Gordian Group about Job Order Contracting (JOC) and how to successfully implement JOC in a school district; and others.

I attended several information sessions.  The one that really spoke to me was about building restoration and adaptive reuse.  While we have significant experience with this, hearing how colleagues and school district personnel implement them was interesting and educational.  Adapting reuse of existing buildings has great potential for getting students out of temporary buildings and into positive permanent learning environments.



The process of deciding whether building owners will benefit from choices that increase costs up-front but provide cost savings down the road

Do we invest now in more durable flooring that takes little maintenance, or do we go for a less expensive flooring material that requires more frequent, labor-intensive maintenance?  Do we pay more for a roofing material that deflects heat or do we buy a less expensive roof that results in higher air conditioning bills?

In an ideal world, we would always opt for the more durable, lower maintenance materials.  After all, building maintenance budgets for school facilities have been just as hard-hit as every other budget.  Construction budgets, however, haven’t been immune to cuts either, so school administrators must weigh carefully the costs and benefits of various building materials and systems before deciding which option to take.

At BRW, we are firm believers that building a durable, low-maintenance, energy-smart school facility is one of the wisest investments a school district can make.  In our experience, the up-front costs are made up many times over in lower heating and cooling bills, less manpower (i.e. custodial salaries), lower water bills, and overall lower maintenance costs.  One of the key elements in long term facility costs is the cost of the energy it consumes.

When designing any building for maximum energy efficiency, the four main components are 1) the building envelope, 2) interior finishes, 3) building mechanical systems, and 4) water-saving devices.

Depending on local climate, existing regulations, and local priorities, one of these may be more important than others.  But, in general, our goal is to build the most energy-efficient building we can while staying within our budget.  Designing an energy-efficient building is the architectural equivalent of flossing, eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise: it’s a little investment now that pays off immensely when middle age hits.

The building envelope: This includes the roofing material, insulation, flashing (the waterproofing system that diverts water that inevitably infiltrates the wall system), and exterior materials.  Each of these elements has a wide range of choices that offer both durability and lower maintenance.

Interior finishes: This includes flooring, wall finishes, and ceilings.  Because of the extreme wear and tear on school floors, this single decision can mean dramatic savings (or costs) down the road.  Newer choices, such as diamond-polished concrete, epoxy terrazzo, or porcelain ceramic tile, are a wonderful alternative to vinyl composition tile, which requires periodic stripping and waxing, or carpet which quickly shows wear.

Building mechanical systems: There are a variety of heating and cooling systems, such as geothermal systems, that offer long-term savings.  But there are efficient, easy-to-maintain, traditional rooftop or central plant systems that can be good choices when geothermal isn’t an option.  With lighting, the goal is to maximize daylight harvesting while also controlling cooling costs.

Water-saving devices: Given the increasing demand for water, combined with Mother Nature’s unpredictability with increased concern for potential use restrictions, installing water-benefits systems throughout the school offers almost instantly realized savings.  Low-flow or dual-flush toilets in the bathroom, as well as electronic sensor faucets, can bring dramatic savings.  Outside, xeriscaping with hearty, native plants and drip irrigation is undoubtedly the way to go.

Stay tuned for more in-depth discussions of each of these topics.  If you can’t wait, though, and you would like to talk with us now about designing a low-maintenance energy-smart school in your area, please contact us at

POSTED BY: Jeffrey Choyce, AIA and Lisa Lamkin, AIA


Everybody loves a new school building. The shiny floors, the immaculate bathrooms, and that wonderful new building smell. But what if you have a solid building that’s simply in need of expansion or updating? If that’s the case, innovative design in the project’s early stages is just as, if not more, important than it is with new construction.

Many school buildings today are 50+ years old, so they pre-date modern technology needs, security sensibilities, and even transportation realities. A good design team will be able to turn an out-of-date building into a point of neighborhood pride. Such a team can even, as is the case with an ongoing BRW project in Houston, suggest improvements not included on the end-users’ original wish-list.

Tina E. Whidby Elementary School, in Houston ISD, was built in the 1950s, when kids walked to school and security concerns were, rightly or wrongly, much lower on the district’s priority list. The school has undergone a few minor renovations over the last 50 years, but BRW was asked to oversee an extensive redesign this year.

Very few major projects can be completed, start-to-finish, during the summer, so most major school renovations must be done, at least in part, during the school year. These projects must be phased to provide for the safety and security of the students while also minimizing the disruption of the learning environment.

Whidby Elementary consists of two buildings connected by a breezeway. The first phase of the project (renovation of the smaller of the two buildings, scheduled to start in October 2011)  required the students and teachers to move into the larger of the two buildings and into several temporary buildings onsite. This phase will be completed by the end of 2011. In the spring, the students will move into the smaller building (and T-buildings) while the classrooms of the larger building are renovated. This building also houses the administration office and public spaces, so portions of this building will remain open during this phase. The public spaces and administrative areas will be completed during the summer.

The finished project, which will be completed before school resumes in August 2012, will include the following upgrades:

  • Completely renovated bathrooms;
  • New main entry. The main entrance will be moved to what is now the side of the building, which will also move the bus, automobile and foot traffic off the busy main road, thereby improving traffic flow and providing a vastly safer area for students;
  • New HVAC system;
  • New lighting, ceilings, paint, marker boards, tack boards, floor finishes and door hardware;
  • A reoriented front office. The current office doesn’t face the school’s entry and doesn’t allow office staff to see people coming into the building. The new office will face the entry hall and give the school better security;
  • In order to better accommodate community use of the school (elections, scout meetings, etc.), the public spaces will be designed so that they can be accessed during out-of-school hours without granting access to the rest of the building. This will have a double benefit, because it will improve the security of the classrooms and any expensive technology they house while also making the school a focal point of the community.

Most of these changes were in the school district’s original plan–all but the moving of the front entrance to a side street. During our early site visits, it was apparent that it posed a safety risk because it was just a few feet off a busy street. The school was built at a time when most children walked to school. That is no longer the case, and the school’s design needed to reflect that cultural shift.

Whidby Elementary is a classic case of how a well-designed renovation can improve the learning environment, meet the needs of the surrounding community, and became a point of pride for the families who will spend so much time there.

POSTED BY: Jeffrey Choyce, AIA and Lisa Lamkin, AIA