Make the best site choice for your charter school
Posted on May 6, 2021
By Hollis + Miller Architects

Lease an old office building? Buy a vacant church or rent the empty Toys R Us? Build from the ground up?

While a new charter school is often a chance to pioneer a unique curriculum or an innovative educational practice, administrators and board members often face a number of practical challenges related to the physical space. Classrooms and learning environments can make renovations of an existing building tricky, and not every space can successfully adapt.

Budget constraints add to the challenge as well, as most charter schools can typically devote only about 15% of available funds to the physical facility (as compared to more than 20% for most traditional public schools). Those building new are also forced to squeeze every penny, reports Robert Cassidy for Building Design + Construction:

“For charter construction, figure you’ll have 65-70% of the space and 65-70% of the budget per square foot that you’d have with a comparable public school … Can it be done? Yes.”

Ground-up or renovation?

The work to find your next charter home starts early in the process by first conducting a thorough evaluation of existing buildings available for purchase or lease, and/or open land for new construction. For existing buildings, many different types of structures have been successfully adapted to charter schools, including vacant public school buildings, warehouses, old big box stores, former car dealerships, assisted living facilities, strip malls, old bowling alleys, grocery stores, etc. However, as you’re evaluating these spaces, consider the following elements that may affect how easily they can be adapted:

  • Building code issues, such as corridor widths, quantity of restrooms, stair widths, current zoning, etc.
  • ADA accessibility
  • Fire sprinklers and alarm systems
  • Parking spaces
  • Structural elements
  • Student drop-off areas

It may also be a good idea to consider a design that allows you to complete the work in phases, and consider a lease with an option to purchase, explains Karl Jentoft, principal with TenSquare LLC, a national charter school support organization:

“Charters move a lot in the first five years. They get into that first building and start growing, and then it becomes a question of how to get over the finish line into a new building … These jobs need to be planned with alternatives that can be added or removed based on the budget. There’s no second bite of the apple. You can’t go back to the school board for more money.”

For ground-up construction, evaluate the following areas:

  • Site access from surrounding streets, turning access, type of street and traffic volume
  • Access to utilities on site
  • Site drainage, including indications of high-volume drainage and strategies to mitigate the situation
  • Indications of existing easements
  • Existing soil conditions (with a geotechnical report)
Colorado Military Academy, a charter in Colorado Springs, is housed in a former office building.
Evaluate the benefits of both options

The decision between building new or adapting an existing structure may be a simple budget decision, but many factors may be in play. New construction often provides you with more control over variables in the process (which often means you’re more likely to keep the project within budget). Plus, your architect can more easily design the exact facility with your unique needs in mind. And if you’re already operating, a new build will be less likely to disrupt your normal school routine.

On the flip side, renovation may be your best option to choose the exact neighborhood you wish to serve (especially if vacant land is scarce). And renovations can often be a less expensive option, especially if you’re able to find a structure with a sound roof, mechanical systems and structural integrity. Just beware of those hidden surprises – which can both add costs and cause delays – you may not be aware of until you start the work.

Pick a partner who can help you pick

While site selection can seem daunting, your partner team – including an architect with experience in the charter school realm – can be a valuable resource. In addition to helping you prioritize your needs for the school, your architect can work with you to determine the various functional uses of a new building as well as provide design options that align with the space you choose.

An experienced architect can also spot potential zoning or regulatory red flags, and then make design adjustments to accommodate for those. Your architectural partner will also hire and oversee the other team members, such as structural engineers, plumbers, civil engineers, etc., and supervise those experts throughout construction.

Remember, the best architectural partner is one with experience not only with charter school projects but charter school projects in your particular state, as various laws and regulations can sometimes impact design. And a local architect also brings extensive experience in your particular market’s real estate environment, which comes in handy when you’re dealing with local zoning issues or knowing who to call to overcome a specific hurdle.

We love working with charter schools to better understand your curriculum, students and community—to provide a remarkable experience for your students through brain-based lessons and innovative classroom design. When you’re ready to take the next step and choose your future home, we’re ready to design the future with you.

Chris Heinz is a partner at Hollis + Miller Architects, an integrated architecture firm that designs the future of learning environments, including charter, public and private K-12 schools, as well as higher education institutions. Share your thoughts on Facebook, LinkedIn or on Twitter @HollisandMiller.

Make the best site choice for your charter school