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Educational Architecture and Stakeholder Engagement

By Jane Crowhurst
Educational Architecture and Stakeholder Engagement

Educational architectural projects that open with an extensive, detailed briefing phase lead to effective and efficient learning environments. A most vital aspect of this briefing phase is stakeholder engagement.
Only a comprehensive and inclusive stakeholder engagement process enables an architect to fully understand a school, its educational philosophy, its strategic drivers, its culture, and its future shape.
As an architect, I find stakeholder engagement a fascinating, challenging, and rewarding process, and believe that the quality of this process has a direct impact on success.
Ideally, all end-users of a physical environment should be consulted through a combination of strategic and operational interviews, workshops, focus groups, and/or questionnaires. How is a school functioning within its current environment, and how might it function in the future?
In the course of my work with international schools, I have found that the very act of consulting stakeholders, of giving them a voice and the opportunity to influence and prepare for the changes to their learning environment, creates tremendous buy-in and enthusiasm. For many it is a very cathartic process, and often other issues not necessarily directly related to architecture come to light.
Architecture is a very powerful instrument for creating and supporting change. Creating new and improved educational environments is exciting, has obvious benefits, and will be embraced by many. However, it also involves a degree of upheaval and uncertainty.
To mitigate this, consider continuing stakeholder engagement beyond the briefing phase by involving, consulting, and informing stakeholders throughout the duration of a project. This requires the creation of an effective communication and consultation plan and the provision for stakeholders to envision and test their new environment through pilot studies and mock-ups.
Expectations can thereby be managed, avoiding surprises or disappointments; this process also develops commitment and support, and allows a leadership team, staff, students, and parents alike to take ownership of a project. The collaborative aspect also ensures that a project is less easily compromised by individual interests.
In my experience, all stakeholders, including very young students, have an innate understanding of what may be achievable and tend to have conservative expectations.
Stakeholder Engagement is the foundation for successful design and not the design process itself. A good architect brings to bear his or her own professional knowledge and experience, and is able to skilfully and seamlessly incorporate stakeholder outcomes into the design process.
I am continually impressed by the insightful comments, passion, and high level of commitment from stakeholders: from intense discussions with 9-year-olds, to secondary students’ considered responses to a lengthy questionnaire, to teachers’ dedication after school hours. I would highly recommend stakeholder engagement for all schools undertaking renovation, re-building, or new building projects.
Ms. Crowhurst leads the Zurich office of tp bennett, a global architectural practice which has completed over 100 schools. She is also an experienced international school trustee.

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