The Architect/Trustee and the Trustee/Architect

September 7, 2021 by Heidi de Bethmann


Cross Current

Being an architect requires passion, creativity, a well-developed capacity to problem solve, and endless curiosity. I have learned over the last 12 years that being a thoughtful trustee of an independent school requires similar qualities, and that wearing both hats is beneficial to both roles.

The Architect/Trustee

How does being a Trustee make me a better architect? Understanding a project from a client’s perspective, as it is critical to a project’s success.  Architects prioritize design in their work, and sometimes this causes them to be less sensitive to their clients’ concerns.  These concerns are generally schedule (can the project be completed in a way that is least disruptive to the school and its users), budget, and whether the project has the buy-in of the majority of school community members.  All three of these concerns affect the creative design process.  In my opinion, constraints of the project generally lead to the best possible outcome, but some architects are like chefs who do not wish their creativity to be disrupted by outside forces.  A project led by a collaborative and solid team of client, architect, consultants and contractor is destined for success.

I also find it helpful to understanding that each of our school clients already has a full-time job as an administrator/educator.  I keep in mind that they may also not be comfortable in their additional role as client coordinator and furthermore may not be able to understand drawings. 

Additionally, being on the receiving end of a design presentation certainly has an impact of how I and members of my firm might communicate design concepts to my own clients.

The Trustee/Architect

How does being an architect make me a better Trustee? Often, the Chair of a school Building Committee is an architect who is/was a parent at that school.    I am that person at our school, so I try to be a “good client”- let the school’s architect do their job, while helping the Building Committee represent the board/school’s interests and guide (not design!) the project.  In this position, I use my professional knowledge of design and project management to support the team and make sure that the lines of communication are open and that from the client’s side we provide the support needed to shepherd the project to a successful completion.  A successful project is one that is completed on time, within the budget, and most importantly that provides appropriate and inspiring spaces that support the mission of the school.

My passion for designing and improving educational spaces has been fulfilled while wearing the two different hats of architect and trustee.  It is definitely a fluid situation where my experience as an architect informs my trustee/building committee chair role and vice-versa.

Never has this been more apparent than during the pandemic. Finding solutions to provide a safe and effective learning environment for students, faculty and staff of educational facilities has been a huge challenge, not in small part because of the rapidly evolving information about the virus and its effects.

Much has been and continues to be written about how the pandemic will influence trends in education going forward.  One example of this as it relates to design is the need to adapt learning spaces for changing capacity and additional technology that allows for further collaboration within and outside the classroom.  Schools had to invest unexpected and unbudgeted dollars into extensive cleaning/disinfecting, testing, ventilation, and especially technology.  Schools like ours that already had a robust technology plan with devices assigned to individual students were able to pivot to on-line learning relatively seamlessly but others were not so lucky.  This was either the result of lack of funding, planning, or both.  Once we went to hybrid learning, other equipment was required to accommodate both those in the classroom and those at home.  This equipment had to be thoughtfully considered to give all as similar an experience as possible.   Next, if the Delta variant allows, is a fully back to school plan in the fall.  The school will look and feel different though: the spacing requirements mean that some classes will be split in different rooms, some with a teacher, and others with the teacher on a screen.  Spaces that are most appropriate, such as those that require the fewest modifications, are adapted as “overflow classrooms”.  Expanded classroom space will of course create a domino effect that affects other spaces such as collaboration spaces which were previously less scheduled.  There is inevitably a temporary programmatic impact.

The important question that is being discussed in board meetings and architecture firms alike is where do we go from here?  What unexpected opportunities to change the way our students learn have we discovered from the last 18 or so months?  What kind of design and space implications does the exploration of the opportunities have?  Will we need more larger classrooms?  Is there a new model of classroom/collaboration space to be investigated? One thing is certain: flexibility will be the key to moving forward.  Being able to adapt quickly to unforeseen circumstances will continue to be paramount.  In the meantime, schools and their architects must work together to continue to explore and test creative options that work best for them.

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