Thought Leadership

Catalyst For Change: Insights Into Optimizing 21st Century School Renovation and Revitalizing Communities

By Meredith Sullivan, Senior Associate / Architect at Design Collective
Published Apr 1, 2019
Featured in ASBO Conference 2019

Today, outdated infrastructure is forcing many school systems to renovate or build new schools. At the same time, pedagogies have evolved toward project-based and group-based learning – rather than predominantly lecture-style classes – driving innovative design changes in educational facilities at all levels.

Educational infrastructure in Baltimore City offers a prime example. For Baltimore City Public Schools, their aging educational facilities, often 50 years old or older, reached critical priority as schools were in desperate need of upgrades. During extreme weather conditions, students are often sent home due to a lack of adequate heat and air conditioning.

These circumstances led to a partnership between Baltimore City Public Schools and the Maryland Stadium Authority, based on a Memorandum of Understanding with the City of Baltimore in 2010, following 1.1 billion dollars of funding over 10 years from the State of Maryland.

In 2015, Baltimore City Schools and the Maryland Stadium Authority launched multiple specific school renovation projects, including Pimlico Elementary/Middle School and Arlington Elementary School. These two school renovation projects, which started at the same time, are on the same project schedule and located within a mile of each other.

The project team was tasked with bringing the schools into the 21st century in terms of technological readiness, flexible design for today’s pedagogy, and sustainability, all within the context of available funding. With a great need for after-school programs and other activities outside school hours, community engagement is also a central focus.

Here are insights.

Challenges + Considerations

Equipping schools with the technology required to engage in 21st century pedagogical practices can be expensive, while many districts face budget constraints.

Prioritization becomes key to fund allocation, ensuring that proper safety protocols and other necessary elements are included in the design.

At the same time, each school serves a different student population and has different renovation needs, so a tailored approach helps to identify and set the most appropriate priorities for each project.


Budget considerations are at the forefront of any public project. In Baltimore City, there is a limited pool of funding available to serve over 20 schools for renovations, so thoughtful decision-making is key to optimizing resources. Priorities become clear, as form follows function in guiding design decisions. At Arlington and Pimlico, the project team concentrated a larger portion of the budget on educational spaces as building designs using simple brick with store front windows, reduce costs and keep construction efficient.

Decisions related to multiple sources of funding also factor into project budget challenges. As an example, at Arlington, an early childhood center connected to the school receives private funding from the Weinberg Foundation. This required careful budget tracking to use the combined School and private funds to address the shared requirements, including a separate entry and other security issues for the early childhood portion.


As with most school projects today, technology is playing a significant role. While not a “one-to-one” district, Baltimore City is working to increase the availability of computer tools. Schools are now equipped with Wi-Fi to connect a wide range of devices and classrooms including projectors and smart boards. Wherever possible, the design team is incorporating non-programmed spaces where students can engage in group work, as modern pedagogy is increasingly shifting in the direction of collaborative projects aided by technology.


The changing face of education in the 21st century informs many design decisions today on renovation projects across the country. Flexible solutions allow districts to get more mileage out of their funding, with spaces that can be adapted to different uses as technology continues to evolve.

At Arlington, educational leaders and the design team are especially challenged to retrofit 21st century spaces into the existing floorplan. Arlington’s floor plan was a single-loaded corridor which made finding good locations for collaboration spaces, that were accessible for multiple instructors, particularly difficult.

Schools now often include outdoor spaces for instruction, making landscape architecture more important than ever before. The emphasis is on providing spaces for outdoor classes and making the site itself a teaching tool, including teaching gardens, storm water management and bio-retention areas as well as other sustainable features.

At Pimlico, one of the existing buildings, originally constructed in 1910, had been vacant for a long time. A new formal entry next to the historic facade was created to serve as a new face for the school while the addition to the back of the building became more playful by integrating a “learning lawn” with open spaces and benches that promote outdoor informal gatherings for students. The site includes pre-cast pods where three to four students can sit and work together. The color scheme is bright and uplifting, with primary colors and year-round planting, creating a palette that looks exciting all year round – a boon to an otherwise struggling neighborhood.

The popularity of project-based learning is also leading to a rise in maker spaces, a uniquely modern concept that requires specific design considerations. For example, a technology lab within Pimlico features moveable furniture and power/data cord rails in the ceiling to support quick and easy reconfigurations that cater to a variety of project-based, hands-on learning activities.

Process of Optimizing Value

Community support and transparency are essential to a successful renovation. Engaging and educating the community about forthcoming changes and supporting school districts through the transition can enable a project schedule to flow more smoothly. This is especially important for big logistical projects with limited resources and inevitable public scrutiny.


Projects optimize success when they have the support of the community solidly behind them. Actively soliciting and including input from the public directly into the project engenders buy in, starting with allowing community members to voice their concerns and addressing these concerns wherever possible in the project. Knowing where the perceived issues are helps to establish priorities and build consensus among community stakeholders.

Such input can result in features uniquely benefitting the local community. At Pimlico, through  extensive community engagement, the school site also features 3,000 square feet of community space, with a separate entrance for the general public, office and support services, and a food pantry, supporting the concept that this community school would be the first step in a broader revitalization of the Pimlico neighborhood.

Educating during renovation

One of the first questions the team needs to ask is whether they can use existing facilities during construction or if they need to temporarily relocate students on or off-site. Renovations seem less expensive on the face, but the logistical costs of where to put students during renovations can present significant budgetary challenges.

In some cases, students can stay in the school and move to other areas of the building. A phased renovation of this sort requires ample space, which not every existing school facility offers, and the noise and safety risks associated with an active construction site can be disruptive to learning and day-to-day school operations.

In other instances, there are surplus buildings available to the district so that students can be moved off site. While this avoids challenges related to on-site construction, there are communications and logistical challenges that must be considered to make a temporary transition successful.

It is essential to have all the information needed to make an informed decision, and for everyone to be on board with the solution, including the neighbors who will be dealing with traffic and other disruptions.


Budget concerns are another major player in decision-making and prioritization. Material and labor costs have substantially increased in recent years. While these market conditions are outside the control of project planners, the budget needs to account for them. At the same time, additional strategies can be considered to optimize funds:

Confirm square footage

The first step to optimizing the budget is confirming the required square footage to accommodate the educational program. Multipurpose or flexible spaces can provide greater value than more defined programmed spaces. Challenging staff assumptions based on more traditional pedagogical methods can be a difficult yet relevant conversation for academic leaders. The overall total square footage can be reduced by using spaces for multiple purposes and allow funding to be reallocated to other program components.

Validate infrastructure

For example, gas lines to science classrooms can be considered standard design. Yet, as the project team studied lab procedures at Pimlico, they learned that none of the teachers were utilizing gas. Saving costs on such infrastructure, that is outdated or underutilized, can provide fresh revenue streams for new expenditures and technological features.

Be creative with constraining conditions

Creativity is key when developing solutions within the existing constraints of many renovations. For example, a below-grade cafeteria would have window sills above the heads of students. Carving the land away on one side provides a connection to the landscape, views, and daylight.

In another example, an old gymnasium was transformed into a high-volume media center with a gym floor, creating a dynamic space while maintaining the usefulness of the original design. Multi-use spaces and flexible furniture help give the spaces staying power to change and grow with the building and its evolving uses.

At Pimlico, the building had a true sloped-floor auditorium, which is rare in the K-12 world and the team wanted to preserve it. They added practice rooms behind the auditorium, extending its usefulness.

Build responsibly

Another budget allocation is compliance with building certifications, such as LEED. The costs associated with meeting specific LEED requirements for certification are causing educational leaders to look at other sustainable rating systems to guide material selection, indoor air quality features, and other facets of the building. At the state level, decision-makers are examining goals and defining options for responsibly constructed buildings, not necessarily LEED certified.

Catalyst for Change

Solutions that serve students, staff, and the community require a combination of many interrelated components, such as informed decision making and the ability to adapt to changes that emerge throughout the design process.

While designing a new school and starting with a clean slate can be a simpler process, overcoming the challenges involved in a renovation creates a unique inherent value and sense of renewal within the community. The design is about making the most out of what the district has and thoughtfully approaching each building to determine what can be repurposed, and how best to create flexibility in an existing school.

Teams ultimately want to provide leaders a design they can be proud of, both inside and out, as well as a building that instills pride in the students, staff, and community. Schools can be easy to maintain with timeless elements that keep the facilities from looking dated. This is especially poignant when renovating older buildings—creating renovation designs that are flexible and stable enough to carry them through many more years of use, further extending their legacy as a catalyst for change.

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