BRW School Architecture




BRW was recently published in American School & University Magazine’s February addition.  Click here to view the article, “Lighting the Way to Better Education,” written by Anne Hildenbrand, AIA and Lisa Lamkin, AIA.


BRW Architects embraces a structured process for planning, design and documentation that supports a collaborative atmosphere and leads to well-integrated documents aligned with the project scope and budget.

Our 6-step process leads to a completed campus designed for long-term value that enhances the community and stays within budget.

Step 1 – Visioning and Programming

A vital first step for all project stakeholders is reaching consensus on 3 to 5 prioritized key goals for the project.  For example, an important factor to be confirmed early is whether the building will be LEED certified or a TX CHPS-designed school incorporating “green” building features.

This crucial first step is often overlooked when a project starts, as it often does, with “Ed Specs” (Educational Specifications) and Technical Design Guidelines already adopted by the district.  Even with such established guidelines, every project has some unique aspects that should be fully considered early in the process.

Stakeholders must understand that when project priorities shift during design, these revised goals often conflict with fundamental early design decisions and have a significant impact on the budget. This is especially true with building renovation and additions, as it is always difficult to know where to stop with renovation.

To properly evaluate existing buildings, an Existing Condition Assessment should separate the project scope into three categories: 1) deferred maintenance, physical condition, and code improvements, 2) operational improvements, and 3) aesthetic improvements.

Next we prioritize these scope categories and align them with the budget accordingly.  The overall goal should be to find the best value.  For example, a priority might be exterior design, where aesthetic improvements for the benefit of the community may be a required priority.  The final step in defining project scope is going through a detailed review of the program ‘Ed Specs,’  translating operational needs into the appropriate building spaces and site requirements.

Step 2 – Scope to Budget

While confirming the Scope to Budget the project budget and project requirements must be analyzed to assure the scope and budget are aligned from the start. Two important budget items – not discussed often enough – are contingencies and cost escalation.  Most owners agree that a small contingency fund built into the construction contract helps accommodate small unforeseen conditions.  But another contingency fund should also be held outside the construction contract to cover larger unforeseen issues, if any, as well as to fund added scope desired during construction.

The best time to establish the most appropriate construction contracting method is before the project design phase.  But whether the contract is a lump sum or cost plus a negotiated fee contract attained through a Competitive Sealed Proposal, Construction Manager at Risk, or Design Build method, it is important to identify the responsibility for cost estimating and a process to re-align project scope as necessary.  This is especially true when the contractor is under contract during building design phases, such as when the CMAR approach is used, when all team players should participate in the scope-to-budget alignment process.

During the scope-to-budget phase, BRW uses our in-house Historic  Construction Costs database to prepare the first cost estimate.  This is the time to consider site development and foundation design costs.  If the geotechnical report is complete, the estimate can be more accurately tailored to the foundation design recommended for the specific site.

Among site development issues to consider is cost created by distance to utilities such as water, sewer, electrical power, and natural gas.  Another substantial cost factor depends entirely on the project’s location: in hurricane-prone areas or where tornado-resistant rooms are desired, structural design to resist these wind loads will add cost.

Step 3 – Concept Design:  SF Cost Estimate

During concept design, the site plan, floor plan and building massing options are reviewed and consensus for a preferred scheme is established.  More detailed cost-related discussions of this stage in design may include: landscaping ordinance requirements; building code requirements, exterior image and building material, and roofing assemblies.

This is also a good time to discuss the benefit of creating bid alternates to allow flexibility on bid day.  The goal is to achieve an awardable base bid, with the flexibility to fully utilize the available budget by selecting separately bid alternates.  The best type of scope for bid alternates is when they involve one or just a few trades, such as an alternative roofing system. As the concept design forms, the next cost estimate will still be based on square foot cost, but it will now be anchored on a concept floor plan and preliminary site layout.  This is a critical time to make any major realignment of the project scope and budget, if necessary, before Schematic Design begins.

Step 4 – Schematic Design:  First Quantity Take-off Cost Estimate

The Schematic Design (SD) phase usually builds on the concept design with more engineering decisions, including civil grading and site utilities, structural foundations and framing, and mechanical/electrical systems.  At this time many building products and materials assemblies are considered for life span, performance, energy and water efficiency, appearance, code compliance, and cost.  The cost estimate created during SD will typically be the first quantity take-off estimate, where all major components are measured in linear feet, square feet, or cubic yards and multiplied by a unit cost.  Once again, the cost estimate is reviewed and the project scope is evaluated against the construction budget.

Step 5 – Design Development:  Cost Estimate with Engineering Systems

The Design Development (DD) phase typically involves final selection and approval of all materials and building systems.  The DD cost estimate is a refinement of the SD estimate, with more detail.  It is the final validation of the project scope before construction documents (CDs) begin.

Step 6 – Construction Document:  Final Cost Estimate

The challenge with preparing CDs, as related to construction cost, is to not allow “scope creep” into the construction documents.  At this stage, owners and designers will inevitably think of small project enhancements, which may be incorporated, as long as the overall construction cost is carefully monitored.  A 95% cost estimate is the final check before bidding or pricing and this is the time to finalize bid alternates.

With the structured collaborative process outlined here the project will be one that the community takes pride in and the district can proudly say stayed within the budget.

POSTED BY: Lisa Lamkin, AIA


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