The Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) School Facilities Standards for Construction, effective for buildings designed or constructed after November 1, 2021, offer flexibility in design plans but include new requirements that pose additional considerations for districts already on tight budgets.
As school districts face escalating costs and inflationary pressures within their bond programs, they are also navigating new standards enacted last year by the state that likely will add scrutiny to every square foot of construction.
The Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) School Facilities Standards for Construction, effective for buildings designed or constructed after November 1, 2021, offer flexibility in design plans but include new requirements that pose additional considerations for districts already on tight budgets. The updated standards include:
- Increasing the minimum size for new middle school science laboratories.
- Determining the per-pupil square footage for special education classrooms.
- Requiring safety and security updates.
“Construction has never been as expensive as it is now,” said Gary Marek, facility consultant for TASB Facility Services. “It’s a scary time.”
In some cases, the cost to build a new school building is topping out at around $500 per square foot, more than double the amount from a decade ago and an increase of about 60% from just a year ago. With that type of increase, many districts are looking at ways to save money without cutting back on quality or limiting future flexibility.
Some districts have even had to scale back construction plans or are considering allocating more funding to their construction programs to account for increased costs.
Amid these challenges, the new TEA standards give districts some additional flexibility on educational area room sizes, Marek said. Space requirements for gyms and libraries remain unchanged. Special education classrooms must provide a minimum of 45 square feet per student, which could mean larger classrooms.
Specifically, districts must elect one of two methods of compliance established for adequacy of instructional spaces. The default is quantitative unless the district’s board of trustees has approved a policy that allows for innovative or non-traditional uses of instructional spaces. One example of a non-traditional use would be a school that opts for smaller classrooms in favor of breakout or collaborative spaces elsewhere.
“After studying the new space requirements and putting together some example designs, it appears that the new standards will not require districts to build larger schools,” Marek said. “And if districts are thoughtful and careful with their flexible designs, some small reductions in campus size could be attained.”
He cited the example of a high school with 1,000 students, designed for a capacity of 25 students per classroom. Under the old standards, a typical school design would total about 106,248 square feet.
Using the new standards, however, districts may choose one of four flexibility levels in their design: L1, L2, L3, L4. The lowest level (L1) is the simplest, with the highest (L4) representing the most complex.
“If a district designs a new school using traditional room sizes, the new standards would result in a size of about 105,710 square feet. With a L1 or L2 design, the overall size of the school could be reduced to as small as 95,710 square feet,” Marek said, “and the L3/L4 design could be reduced to be as small as 99,810 square feet.”
He noted, however, that to attain these smaller sizes, “districts would need to sacrifice significant square footage from spaces used by vocational and fine arts programs among others, which may not be a desirable solution.”
Regardless of the compliance method used, the standards require districts to implement an increase in the space minimum of middle school science laboratories.
Safety and security
Other key updates include new safety and security updates stemming from the passage of Senate Bill 11 in 2019, including the development of a multi-hazard plan to ensure adequate communications technology and infrastructure during an emergency as well as access control standards.
Marek noted that most districts are already complying with those updated security and safety standards.
“While on the surface, the new safety and security standards appear to create significant new requirements, they actually reflect practices that most school districts have already put in place over the last 10 years or so,” he said. “Thus, they don’t create an overwhelming new burden for the districts.”
Although the new standards provide some flexibility on educational area room sizes, Marek said a district “should proceed cautiously before using room sizes that are smaller than traditional designs. There’s a temptation to make classrooms smaller, but you don’t design for right now. You think long-range.”
Bond programs usually challenge districts to think about how they are building for the future and projected student enrollment. As part of the new standards, school districts are required to develop and maintain a long-range facility plan, as well as educational specifications for instructional facilities. That plan must be presented to the board of trustees and made available to the architect or design professional for the project. It’s also required to be updated every five years.
In addition, the new standards require school districts to use inclusive design, which allows for even more accessibility for students and staff.
Understanding the impact
To better understand the impacts of the new School Facilities Standards for Construction, TASB reached out to the architectural firm Claycomb Associates for its perspective. The following answers were provided by Jeffrey Floyd, Principal and Director of Design for Claycomb Associates:
What kinds of questions have districts and/or architects had about the new TEA Facility Standards?
Within our firm and with our partner districts, the conversations have centered around potential impacts. We are constantly evolving design solutions through feedback and collaboration. These new standards provide another opportunity to both evaluate and redefine our norms. None of the changes appear to have a negative impact at this point. However, until the new standards are proven amidst daily school operations, it is also too soon to highlight the positives.
Are they prompting any changes to the designs of school buildings?
We know that preparing students today for the jobs of tomorrow requires a great deal of flexibility. We also understand that 21st century learning depends as much on school facilities as it does on curriculum. These new standards give districts the ability to adapt educational spaces as needed. While they provide a framework to work within, they ultimately allow districts the freedom to move their communities into the future.
If not, what are districts considering these days for school design amid rapidly escalating construction costs?
The basic needs of school facilities — classrooms, cafeterias, athletics, fine arts, etc. — remain unchanged. Therefore, design in some respect remains unchanged as well. However, as costs increase and product availability decreases, our focus on finding alternatives that do not sacrifice functionality or quality has become even greater.
Is there a trend to smaller buildings/square footage to help mitigate the costs? If not, why?
As a design group, we are always helping districts find a balance between educational effectiveness and financial efficiency. While limited budgets are nothing new, we are seeing financial constraints continue to grow. Still, we have to consider the educational impact when making design decisions. We do not want to unnecessarily create an environment that adds stress to staff and students.
Do most districts already have long-range facility plans and ed specs approved as part of the planning for a bond?
When we partner with a district, there are many steps that take place before design ever begins. One of them is stakeholder input. Through the Facility Advisory Committees we help facilitate, consensus is reached regarding needs, priorities, and potential solutions. Recommendations for additions, renovations, and/or new facilities are then presented to the district’s Board of Trustees, which could lead to a bond election.
What is inclusive design and how is that being included in new school designs?
Inclusive design is not only creating spaces that meet the needs of the whole child—social, emotional, physical, etc. It is also ensuring equal access to all learning environments by all students.
This article was first published on April 25, 2022 on TASB.