VIEWPOINT: Cookie-cutter schools: a fatally flawed idea

What would happen if Congress passed a law requiring every U.S. statehouse to use the exact same building design? And that every city hall, every fire station and library must be built from a canned design? Imagine being told that, from now on, every house in the state
would have the exact same design, so homeowners could spend less on design costs.

It sounds crazy to think one design fits all, but that’s exactly what lawmakers are considering for educational facilities. Indiana lawmakers are debating a law that would cost all Hoosier taxpayers millions of dollars to create and continually update multiple stock school plans. School districts would then be required to use one of these plans for new buildings, renovations and expansions.

It’s called the stock-school design, and it was inserted into House Bill 1001 by Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington, who contends it will save taxpayers money. What this will do instead is create more government, strip local communities of the ability to design and build schools that meet specific curriculum and community needs, and likely increase taxpayer spending in the form of increased building costs.

State lawmaker efforts to reduce property taxes should be applauded and encouraged. However, schools are an easy target for lawmakers who want to be perceived as doing something (anything) to reduce property taxes. What we don’t need is additional state bureaucracy. School building projects should be a community issue.

Schools must be designed to meet not only educational needs, but community needs and curriculum needs as well. Not to mention designs that must be conducive to the building site. Land and climate is much different in Brown County than in Gary. It’s short-sighted to believe you can build the same school on completely different sites.

Other issues lawmakers must consider:

Stock designs don’t account for varying curriculum and community needs. For example, some rural Indiana schools have large agricultural programs, while urban and suburban schools may not have an ag program at all. Some schools are designed for specific technology programs. Some schools are designed so they can be used for specific community programs. None of this is accounted for in a stock design.

Design plans have a limited shelf life due to frequently changing code requirements, improved technology, products and materials. Stock plans would have to be revised constantly to account for these changes. This would add new costs to the
state and, thus, the taxpayer.

A stock design will not allow for a cutting-edge school. It will create a school based on minimum standards at a time the state is working to improve the quality of education.

While lawmakers say the plan will save money, it actually could increase costs to taxpayers. For example, the stock school plan amendment wants the state to design the canned schools. There will be different plans for different school enrollments. Architects will have to be hired by the state to design the stock plans. And, architects will then need to be hired by schools to revise the plans based on site conditions.

In 2006, only eight schools were built in the state. Yet lawmakers want to establish a new bureaucracy to create stock designs when only a few districts are considering building.

There is no savings when using cookiecutter design. Indiana has tried it. It didn’t work. In 1951, lawmakers passed a similar stock-plan law. After 20 years, the state designs (paid for by property taxes) were never used, so lawmakers repealed the law. About two dozen states have tried the same thing; it’s never shown success. There’s a reason not a single state in the country has a cookie-cutter design law: It doesn’t work.

Shelly is executive director of the American Institute of Architects for both the Indiana and Indianapolis chapters.

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