For new school, design follows function - at $48 million cost

Plan for Northern High calls for utility, few frills

Howard County

October 06, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

In Howard County, nearly $50 million buys 185 houses or the county's newest high school, which experts say isn't particularly special by today's standards.

"There's not all that much that's ultra-glamorous about it," said architect Michael Lahowin, whose firm created the design for the county's proposed, multimillion-dollar 12th high school. "All these spaces seem pretty routine from school to school."

Plans for Northern High School, set to open next year, are based on the Reservoir High School model (which was based on Long Reach High School) and include similar features: discipline clustering, a darkroom, a TV studio and three floors to accommodate 1,400 students.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article in Sunday's Howard County edition of The Sun about plans for the new Northern High School, the proposed opening date was incorrect. The school is expected to open in the fall of 2005.
The Sun regrets the error.

"We're basically trying to meet the needs of the 21st century," said Yale Stenzler, executive director of the state's public school construction program, "so schools will have current technology and lots of modern conveniences."

Last week, the Board of Education approved the design and estimated the total project cost at a staggering $48 million. That includes furnishings, which alone will cost about $3.5 million. Project-manager fees will run about $6 million, and planning fees will be nearly $2.4 million.

Construction accounts for the bulk, though, and is estimated to cost about $34 million, which Lahowin said is par for the course.

"That comes in at $137 per square foot," said Lahowin, "which is actually under the state guideline of $155 per foot."

To determine a reasonable cost projection for new schools, Stenzler's team averages current school construction costs, adjusts for inflation and presents a cap for builders and school boards to use, in this case $155 per square foot of building space.

Boards of education determine how big a school will be.

Howard County's school board handed Lahowin's Annapolis firm, TCA Architects, a 2-inch-thick manual of its requests and specifications for the Long Reach prototype, which serves about 1,500 students and cost just over $20 million to construct in the mid-1990s.

To create the Northern plan, which gives the school about 250,000 square feet of space on its 32-acre Marriottsville site, adjustments were made to the prototype to accommodate the new school's needs.

"They think all of this out," Lahowin said. "Their education specification lists all the spaces in there by square footage. It tells the philosophy of the space, the size of the groups that are going to be in that space, right down to how much chalkboard space they'll need. ... It all adds up to a total area."

The architects then develop plans for the most efficient - read "inexpensive" - way to make it all happen, and Lahowin said Howard County is ahead of the pack in that regard.

"Howard can build two schools for the price of one," Lahowin said. "Other counties are struggling to figure out how they do it, but they just stay away from the very elaborate finishes and elaborate designs."

TCA avoided fancy roof angles, complicated architectural shapes and wide window openings in developing Howard's high school plans and concentrated on simple patterns that Lahowin said are an "honest reflection of the functions behind the walls."

Even the mall-like, three-story atriums in the newer schools are there because they improve the circulation flow throughout the buildings, not because they're cool to view.

"Need drives the design," Stenzler said. "Form follows function."

But functions have changed through the years, driven by technology and social movements.

Home economics is now routinely called family and consumer sciences. Industrial arts - shop class - is now technology education. Even physical education has gotten a face lift as trends have developed, Stenzler said.

"Now they have ballet studios and other activities," he said. "Drama programs have changed. Morning exercises over the PA system have changed. Now they may have a TV studio in the building."

One of the more substantial changes in high schools, though, is not in class labeling, but in class clustering, a concept Stenzler said has taken off in the past several years.

Clustering typically keeps ninth-graders together for their first year, giving them a sort of liberal arts education that lets them develop their preferences. Then, as they move through the grades, students choose an area of concentration and take classes within that discipline.

"The idea is to try and have large schools more personalized," Stenzler said, "for teachers to be more focused on a student within individual programs and for the curriculum to be more relevant."

The teaching approach may be different, as well. For example, Stenzler said that in the science cluster, math classes may focus on scientific formulas.

"We're always trying to improve the product," Stenzler said. "We like to think we're on the cutting edge and doing the best to get the most bang for our buck."

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