How to select an architect—and get the school you’ve always dreamed of

Shopping for an architect to design your school requires a focus on two things: function and comprehensiveness.

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_ Most people searching for an architect are doing so for the first time.
_ It can be daunting not knowing what to look for when selecting your architect.
_ Focus on functional design and comprehensiveness above all else.

What was the last thing you bought? A cup of fresh coffee? A tank of gas? A new pair of shoes?

Chances are, it wasn’t something you bought for the first time—you had some idea of what to expect in the buying process. You knew if you were getting what you paid for. Each of us gets years of practice buying these everyday items.

But choosing an architect to design a school or campus is a rare event for most education leaders. Uncertainty is everywhere. How do you know who’s reputable? How do you compare architects? What does an architect even do? These are big questions for such a high-stakes decision.

The good news is, searching for the right architect doesn’t have to be stressful. Armed with some good first principles, you’ll be able to avoid the predatory architects who just want to dazzle you, and focus instead on the ones who can deliver an effective design that supports your students and learning model.

What the best architecture gives you

Here’s a misconception: The only job of our physical surroundings is looking pretty. In fact, a mountain of research (and likely your own experiences) have shown that spaces have a profound effect on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors on a moment-by-moment basis. 

For example, it’s no coincidence that cold, clinical hospital rooms make us anxious and uncomfortable, just as it’s no coincidence that places of worship are designed for us to feel connected to something larger than ourselves.

Architecture affects educational outcomes, too. In one study, students in classrooms with more natural light performed up to 25% better on tests of math and reading than students in darker or artificially lit rooms.

smart child solving test with diagrams
Research has shown that where students learn affects how they learn.

This means architecture is much more than the facade of the building. We define architecture as every component of a building interior and exterior and in its vicinity. It’s the lighting, the acoustics, the furniture, the colors, the layout, the air flow, the textures, the embedded technology, and much more. 

Each of these elements either supports or detracts, in real-time, from the purpose of that space. Imagine trying to study in a pitch-black library while intercom static was blasting at full volume. Would you care how nice the stonework was outside?

Great educational architecture blends each separate element to create a fully functional space that guides students and faculty to support goals and needs. The trouble is, not every architect can give you those things. 

That’s why, when you shop for an architect, you still need to…

Pick an architect who puts function over form

It’s not enough to find an architect who will “bundle” the various elements of a learning environment and call their offerings “white glove” or “full-service.” Bundles may deceive you. 

Many architects you’ll come across are only there to give you input on the structure of your school. Or they’ll give you basic interior design advice. They’ll talk about the style and the aesthetics, and feed you lines about how the colors and textures “support your school’s brand.” Frankly, it’s nonsense. 

Many of these designs are pulled straight from trends popularized on Instagram or Pinterest, with little thought given to if the space will be enjoyable to use or help you in any way. (Plus, tastes change. If you design based on today’s trends, will you still like the space 5 or 10 years from now?)

Typical schools are built based on cost and efficiency, without a focus on learning or outcomes.

Instead, look for a space built around your needs. The first priority is solving real problems. To make sure your architect can do this, bring this list of questions with you to your next consultation. Pay close attention to how the architect answers each one:

  • How do you start your design process?
  • How do you involve stakeholders throughout the design process?
  • What’s your process for tailoring the design to our needs and learning model?
  • When you’re designing a space, what elements do you consider and how do you align them to our pedagogy?
  • In what ways have your past projects helped educators achieve the outcomes they wanted?
  • How do you know if one of your learning spaces is successful?

If the answers to these questions don’t feel satisfying—because they don’t make clear how your space will work for students and staff, and what specific elements are doing that work—you’ll know you haven’t found the right architect yet.

Get everything you need

So what kind of architect should you look for? 

It’s simple. You want to find someone who 1) puts function over form and 2) applies that functional thinking across all the various architectural elements of a learning environment—the layout, air flow, acoustics, lighting, and so on—not just a handful. 

Otherwise, you’ll end up with an incomplete space. It will either be fully designed, but only in terms of its visual appeal, or it will be functional but only in certain places. Ideally, you want each element to play some role in supporting students to achieve their goals.

When you’re comparing one designer to the next, and you look at price, consider if it’s truly apples to apples. Are both designers offering to design the total environment (including acoustics, graphics, furniture, lighting, etc.), or is one of the designers only tackling a portion and then you’ll be on your own to find other professionals to take care of those other parts of the space?

To shop for an architect wisely, consider all those details up front. That’s the expert who will design something for you that will support your students as they grow and develop, and ensure each school day moves your organization closer to where it wants to be.