The New York City school system is the largest in the nation with 1.1 million students packed into 1,700 schools. Here, land is rare and real estate is the coin of the realm. Architectural firms are challenged to create exciting designs on space-tight lots. But, one firm I worked with parlayed this challenge into becoming a thought leader in urban school design.
How did we do this? Through innovative public relations. With the senior K-12 school architect, I reviewed dozens of schools the firm had designed in the past few years, and we identified themes about planning compact schools. One was to combine separate small schools in one building; another was to share library and science lab spaces in these combined schools; another was to use the basements of city schools for gymnasiums (and first floor windows as clerestories). The list went on. For k-8 schools, architects can design auditoriums with lower ceilings (the children are smaller) which can make room for extra classrooms on the floor above.
We then identified one $60-million K-8 school facility that seemed to embody all these challenges in planning, designing and building urban schools, and I sent a pitch letter and spoke on the phone with the editors of several national design and construction magazines that focused on education. One editor got back and said she wanted to do a Q&A on urban school design, which resulted in a several page interview on the challenges and solutions of urban design -- with photos of the one school.
Lessons learned? If we had focused only on one project and had not approached the editor with the more universal themes, the opportunity for positioning the firm as a thought leader and pioneer in urban design would have been missed.