Market Insights

Creating the Future: Facilities + Learning

Did you know…85.3 million people, more than a quarter of our population, are enrolled in or employed by a school or college? Or that enrollment in K-12 schools is projected to set new records every year through 2019? Unless you are in the industry, few people realize the size and scope of the education market. One look at the numbers and the anticipated growth in enrollment and you will begin to understand the dollars being spent each year on school construction. But the continued growth in enrollment is only one of the forces fueling a constant need for new and renovated K-12 facilities. Others range from the condition of our current facilities to increasing federal mandates on school performance, educational reform, societal change, environmental concerns, student safety issues, and the implementation of new and emerging technologies—just to name a few.

There is no question that the sluggish economy has quieted the school construction boom, but education still remains the number one non-residential buildings market for both new construction and renovation projects. Unlike the sentiment being felt in many other sectors of the market, there is a continuing willingness to fund the construction of schools. According to School Planning & Management’s 16 th Annual Construction Report, more than $24.5 billion of construction was put in place in 2010 to meet the needs of students and staff—$11 billion for college and university construction and another $14.5 billion for K-12 schools.

Since 2002, the majority of K-12 construction dollars went toward new buildings, but starting in 2010, it appears that districts have shifted their focus to upgrading existing facilities rather than building new ones. The need to upgrade facilities is exacerbated by the fact that the average “functional age” of school buildings in America is nearing the half-century mark. A number of our existing schools were built prior to WWII, and an even larger percentage was built during the 1950s-1960s, an era of cheap, non-durable, energy-inefficient construction. Intended to last for just 30 years, many (if not most) of these facilities are obsolete, overcrowded, and have outlived their usefulness.

Many of you reading this article attended a school built in the 1950s or 1960s, some of us when the school was new. Technology to us was a mechanical pencil or a calculator, not a cell phone, laptop computer, or the Internet. For today’s student, technology and multi-tasking are a way of life. Recent advances in technology and its integration into the classroom have changed not only teaching and learning but the type of spaces being built. Studies support the fact that learning facilitated through hands-on and experimental projects improves student performance. New classroom designs focus on collaborative, active, and flexible space. Gone are the days of neat rows of desks nailed to the floor or teachers standing in the front of the classroom lecturing to students. Today’s classrooms are easily reconfigured, and the furnishings are flexible (and often times mobile) to meet our ever-changing needs. In some cases, traditional classrooms have disappeared altogether, being replaced with personalized learning environments designed to handle a variety of teaching/learning styles; large-group or small-group instruction; or quiet, individual, or social space.

In many new schools, not only do the teachers teach but so do the buildings. The idea of “buildings-as-a-teaching-tool” became popular in the past decade along with a growing interest in sustainability and green school design. For example, building dashboards or digital displays in the lobby allow the monitoring of real-time building performance data that can be integrated into the curriculum and teaching students more about energy, water, healthy living, and social responsibility. But using the building as a teaching tool is not the only advantage of building green. From an environmental standpoint, green schools can reduce the impact of natural resource consumption and can help turn back the clock on climate change. From a health standpoint, improved day lighting and better indoor air quality enhances occupant comfort and health and improves absenteeism, productivity, and performance. From a financial standpoint, districts benefit from a reduction in liability and litigation risks, lower utility costs, and reduced operating costs.

Greening America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits
, a national review of 30 green schools, reported the costs of building green to be 2% (about $3 per square foot) more than that of building a conventional school. They also found the financial savings to be $70 per square foot, 20 times as high as the cost of going green. Another study on green schools sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, American Institute of Architects, American Lung Association, Federation of American Scientists, and the USGBC found that going green would save an average school $100,000 each year in energy costs alone—enough to hire two full-time teachers, purchase 5,000 textbooks, or buy 500 new computers. The energy savings alone make green a viable option for schools.

The $24.5 billion we spent last year building schools may seem like a lot of money, and many of you are asking the question: “Do the facilities where students learn really make a difference?” The answer to that question is YES and here is why:

  • ACHIEVEMENT: Studies show that student achievement is linked with building quality. High student achievement is associated with newer buildings, updated and properly maintained buildings, improved lighting, thermal comfort, and indoor air quality. (The Walls Speak)

    In a number of studies, test scores were as much as 11 percentile points lower in substandard buildings as compared with above-standard buildings.
  • ATTENDANCE: Students who attend schools with environmental hazards that impact indoor air quality, such as poor ventilation systems and inadequate lighting, are more likely to miss class and therefore to lose learning opportunities. (Healthy Schools Network)
  • BEHAVIOR: The physical characteristics of learning environments can affect students emotionally, with important behavioral consequences. Environments that produce “positive emotional states can be expected to facilitate learning.” Such environments encourage positive interaction among students, resulting in safer schools. (Learning Spaces)
  • SAFETY: Crime sprouts from a disorderly environment plagued by broken windows, graffiti, and similar disruptions because criminals get the message that “no one cares what happened here.” ( Wilson, Broken Windows)
  • STAFF: Poor facilities contribute to the high turnover rates endemic to central urban school districts; in turn, high teacher turnover leads to increased recruitment and training efforts that drain schools of financial and human capital, both of which are essential to educational success. (21st Century School Fund/Ford Foundation)

Learning can and does occur virtually anywhere. This, however, does not relieve us of our responsibility to provide a safe, healthy environment in which all students can learn and all teachers can teach. Learning can happen in buildings that are in poor condition, but learning is greatly enhanced when the facility supports the students’ needs and values the teachers as professionals. The real question to ask is not if facilities matter, but if students can succeed in spite of the facility, what level of success can be reached if we remove the roadblocks?


Deb Moore is the Executive Editor/Publisher of School Planning & Management. Prior to joining SP&M, Moore spent 20 years with the Council of Educational Facility Planners, International. She has also served as Arizona Site-Coordinator for the U.S. Department of Education's Forums on School Construction and Modernization, as Industry Liaison Coordinator for the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, and as a board member for CEFPI-SW and the NSSEA. Deb can be reached at