An important aspect of any renovation or construction project is community involvement. However, this opportunity for engaging individuals in the design process is often set aside or completely overlooked. It’s hard to say why because architects and contractors can benefit from being involved in meaningful ways with local stakeholders and impacted neighbors. Community and client participation helps the project team understand everyone’s needs and create designs that best reflect their culture, aspirations and dreams.
For school projects, one way to connect with community is by presenting the design and construction process to teachers and administrators, area residents, and students and their families. Experience shows you can even involve them, tapping into the wealth of creativity found in every individual, including people without any formal design or building experience. As architects and project leaders, we can help unleash that energy in productive and useful ways. At the same time, it removes the shroud of mystery around building and renovation work.Based on this idea—as well as a desire to help children learn about architecture, engineering and construction—the New Haven, Conn.-based architecture, art and advisory firm Svigals + Partners, in partnership with the New Haven School Construction Program, launched the KidsBuild! program more than two decades ago. KidsBuild! initially emerged as a means to educate primary and secondary schoolchildren about how their educational environments were being conceived, built and maintained. The formal program evolved from a creative engagement process that Svigals + Partners has long employed with project client groups, extending similar ideas to the students anticipating new and renovated facilities of their own.
KidsBuild! Is Born
The ideas behind launching a student engagement program also had roots in the creation of New Haven’s first-ever School-Based Building Advisory Committee, or SBBAC, in the mid-1990s. “At the time, there was heightened interest in neighborhood-focused schools,” notes New Haven Schools program manager Carolina Cudemus, adding that this trend helped lay the groundwork for community involve- ment. The SBBACs (one is created for each school building project) had the mission to ensure ample engagement of families, parents, teachers, community and others in the design and construction process behind their proposed school facilities. The committees would also help guide the school building process so it would be deeply based in their neighborhoods and the particular needs of their communities.
“Starting in 1995, these SBBACs gave birth to schools rooted in their neighbor- hoods and the particular needs of their communities,” says Julia McFadden, AIA, an architect and associate principal with Svigals + Partners. “Working on the Edgewood School project, a 48,000-square-foot renovation and expansion of a 1923 existing building that we completed in 1999, our team created a process template that shaped a nearly $2 billion school construction program, and we saw an opportunity in this to expand the involvement of the students themselves.”
With interest from the school, parents and the district, the project team developed several lasting and valuable dimensions to KidsBuild!, starting with some basic precepts. These included:
Throughout the design and construction of each school, groups of students from various grade levels participate in a series of workshops that explore the design process. These workshops could offer students of all grade levels the opportunity to collaborate and tap their creativity through hands-on activities and organized site visits.
Kids naturally mentor each other. By allowing students in different grades to work together—which typically would not happen—barriers could be broken down and creative potential would flourish. It also could set the stage for mentorships between students to arise.
Because KidsBuild! immerses children in the design process and they also learn about and even participate in ongoing building maintenance, they could become stewards of their own school facilities. This would help them learn to responsibly care for their schools; it exposes younger students to learning about these important values, too. It helps them become better environmental stewards in their own homes, as well, turning off lights when not in the room, closing shades to limit heat gain in the house in warm summer months, recycling and the like.
PHOTOS: courtesy Svigals + Partners