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Anatomy of a school construction project

Glen Allen High School, Henrico County’s newest school building, opened in September 2010.

(Editor’s note: This article marks the debut of a new section in eSchool News, called Building Excellence, that will provide news and information to help school and district leaders as they plan, design, construct, and equip leading-edge facilities.)

Before a ribbon is sliced by comically oversized scissors, before a brick is laid or an architect is chosen, before voters approve funding for a sparkling new school building, there is only a plan.

The doors to a new school are thrown open by students, parents, and teachers many years after economic and population growth call for more classrooms in a city, town, or county. Researchers and planners use a district’s public relations apparatus to start talks with residents, myriad public forums are held, committees are formed, reports are issued, school boundaries are rearranged, architectural firms are interviewed, and finally, sometimes after five years, construction begins.

Two or three years after the first piece of sod is laid, the school opens.

Even in the nation’s slumping economy, while local and state government budgets are cut to the bone, U.S. schools and colleges are expected to spend $74 billion on renovation and construction in 2012 and $85 billion in 2013, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau projections.

Spending on school construction and renovation has dipped since the economic downturn that began in 2008, and there is some concern among superintendents that school construction funds for projects over the next decade will come with—at the very least—nominal tax increases that must be approved by a majority of voters.

That’s why officials are determined to keep the public involved and to avoid the kind of top-down approach that could alienate neighbors, parents, school board members, and state legislators.

School division officials, local planners, and other decision makers from Henrico County Public Schools, a district of 48,000 students in 71 schools north of Richmond, Va., recently guided eSchool News editors through the construction of Glen Allen High School, the county’s newest school building, which opened in September 2010.

In the process, they shared the lessons they have learned from completing many such construction projects—and the secrets of their success.

“It was really an incredibly complex and participatory process on behalf of a lot of people before it ever even got to the school board,” Henrico County Superintendent Patrick Russo said of the long process to plan and fund Glen Allen High School, now home to 1,100 students and 80 staff members. “People would be surprised by what goes into it.”

Projecting when, where, and why a new school is needed

Once new neighborhoods are built and businesses open, it’s too late.

Henrico school division policy makers and number crunchers said they work closely with county planners to determine where a new school building will be needed once economic development brings tens of thousands of new residents into a part of the 300,000-person county.

Renovations and additions to existing school buildings are a reasonable short-term fix, but when population is set to boom, nothing but a new school will do, said Penny Blumenthal, director of planning and research for HCPS until she retired this summer.

Glen Allen High School was planned for the middle of the county because population near the center of Henrico was expected to rise steadily, while the edges of the county were projected to remain stable. Blumenthal said Henrico’s eight existing high schools were bursting at the seams.

“We knew we needed a long-term fix,” she said. “We need to see sustained growth in an area before [a new school project is considered], and that’s exactly what we saw.”

For more school construction news and information, see:

Building Excellence

Tiffany Hinton, director of the county school division’s Department of Research and Planning, said once Henrico officials determine that a new school will be needed, county planners and district personnel identify several potential building locations, or tracts. After a close examination of each site—including its proximity to wetlands—the sites are ranked by planner preference.

The county uses ArcGIS, a designing and managing software, to map out exactly where a new school would be constructed, taking several scenarios into account, Hinton said.

She added that, as recently as 2008, Henrico planning officials evaluated more than 70 attendance boundaries at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

Land for a new high school had been bought decades before Glen Allen High School was even a sketch in planners’ notebooks. Like most local school systems, HCPS purchased the property that is now Glen Allen in anticipation of economic and population growth.

With the property in hand and the population projections confirmed, a bond referendum was offered to Henrico voters, who say yes or no to borrowing money for the project. Henrico County has a Triple-A credit rating, meaning massive loans for major construction projects come with rock-bottom interest rates.

That’s why, as Assistant Superintendent for Finance Kevin Smith said, the success rate of school-related bond referendums in the county is “very good.”

“[Voters] know that it will be a collaborative effort that never stops,” Smith said, reasoning that community leaders have come to trust HCPS for its inclusive process in the construction of new schools like Glen Allen. “They know people are going to come together, and that it won’t just be the architecture firm that makes this happen.”

School construction for the people, by the people

Once funding for Glen Allen High School was secured, school system officials sought architectural firms through a coordinated advertising campaign in print and online. Requests for Proposals (RFPs) were submitted, and decision makers soon were reviewing detailed plans drawn up by firms with experience in school construction and renovation.

HCPS selected a firm, Richmond-based Moseley Architects, in 2007, three years before Glen Allen was scheduled to open.

Building the county’s newest high school wouldn’t take three years—the firm needed time to gather community concerns and incorporate those shared priorities into its final plan for Glen Allen’s design.

HCPS officials and experts from Moseley Architecture hosted a design charrette soon after Moseley won the contract for Glen Allen. With dozens of civic leaders, local PTA members, and residents from neighborhoods near the Glen Allen site, architects invited participants to call out any and all concerns and priorities.

Words and phrases were jotted down for all to see, and architects invited charrette participants to place stickers next to the concerns they considered most pertinent.

For more school construction news and information, see:

Building Excellence

“No one can say anything wrong,” said William Riggs III, vice president for Moseley Architects. “We call it idea mining, because issues emerge that some people wouldn’t have thought of on their own. Bringing people together like that is critical in creating a mission statement for us.”

The charrette, which included input from educational specialists, athletic directors, and HCPS principals, concluded with a detailed analysis of how a large property is whittled down after athletic fields are built, wetlands are taken into account, and room is reserved for parking lots.

“At the end of the day, we have stakeholder consent through and through,” Riggs said.

Webcams were installed at the Glen Allen construction site, providing real-time updates for anyone with an internet connection who wanted to see the building in its various stages of construction. Ed Buzzelli, assistant superintendent for operations, said the webcam was useful until the latter stages of the project.

“Eventually,” Buzzelli said with a laugh, “you could only see the wall.”

Rallying support for a school project that will change a community for generations first requires a shift in expectations among residents who keep a close eye on the drawn-out process, said Mychael Dickerson, executive director of HCPS’s community outreach.

“People think they’re going to have to react to a plan, but you have to let them know they’re going to make the plan,” he said. “That’s unique. That’s something you don’t see all over the country, and that made the process as successful as it was. Even if people aren’t totally happy with the way things are going, they had input and they knew the plans were coming from them and not from the central office. That, I think, was key.”

The pains of redistricting

Glen Allen High School’s design process went smoothly, HCPS officials agreed, but like any school system that dedicates years to accommodating projected population booms, Henrico planners had to move students from the county’s other high schools to bring those schools back to capacity while filling their brand-new building.

Redistricting will always be contentious and fraught with community outcry, Blumenthal said, but maintaining a transparent approach helps avoid long-standing tension between neighborhoods and the school division.

In 2007, HCPS received thousands of eMails from parents and local residents weighing in on the various redistricting scenarios.

Henrico residents applied to serve on committees that would review when, how, and why students from the other eight high schools would be moved to Glen Allen when it opened in fall 2010.

For more school construction news and information, see:

Building Excellence

Seventy-five people were chosen to serve on three redistricting committees. The final plans for redistricting were submitted 10 months after the committees were formed.

“That was the most important part of our community involvement,” Blumenthal said.

Russo, the county superintendent, said inter-community squabbles and tense exchanges with school system administrators are par for the course in redistricting talks, which can be lengthy and sometimes dominated by lobbying on behalf of neighborhoods or existing schools.

“It’s a situation where you sort of cringe and hope it doesn’t happen,” Russo said, “but when this many people are involved in a project of this size and magnitude, at the end of the day, it’s bound to happen.”

Effects of a lagging economy

Securing funding for school construction and renovation isn’t nearly as easy as it was in the heady days of the early and mid-2000s, HCPS officials said. That could mean schools will have to operate over capacity for a few years, but administrators were confident that sustained openness and honesty with voters would lead to school additions and new buildings over the next decade.

School construction across the U.S. has risen steadily since 1995, peaking in 2005 and leveling off in 2011, according to School Planning & Management’s 16th Annual School Construction Report.

The per-student costs of building a school from the ground up are staggering. High schools, for example, cost more than $30,000 per student, according to SP&M.

The average U.S. high school costs $188 per square foot, up from $100 per square foot in the mid-1990s. The priciest school projects cost upwards of $550 per square foot.

School construction money has continued to flow to new high schools, like Glen Allen, in recent years. Forty-eight percent of all construction money was allocated for high schools in 2011, according to national statistics, while 18 percent was reserved for middle schools and 33 percent was used for elementary schools.

Smith said bond referendums come along every five years in a decent economy. In the post-2008 U.S. economy, many school systems, including HCPS, have seen that five-year window “pushed out a little bit,” Smith said.

Russo said Henrico’s next school construction project won’t start until 2014 at the earliest.

“It’s not the easiest time to [fund] major construction projects right now,” Russo said of future schools needed in Henrico. “But we’ll continue to make every effort to keep up with this area’s growth. We have a great team here, and I trust them to do that.”

For more school construction news and information, see:

Building Excellence

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