11/10/2010 01:10 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Schools: They're Not Just for Students Anymore!

"Buildings should be good neighbors"--Paul Thiry

As the art and science of architecture have evolved over the years, one of the most important changes has been the understanding that buildings are more than bricks and mortar. At its best, architecture adds vibrancy and life to the community. Buildings don't simply occupy space on a landscape--they transform it. And in the process of that change, they enhance the quality of life not only for the people who interact and use the buildings on a daily basis, but for entire communities and populations.

As an architect who specializes in public facilities, particularly schools, I enjoy the challenge of creating buildings that reflect the energy and purpose of the communities they serve. More than 10 years ago, for example, I led a design team that was responsible for three elementary schools in Richmond, Virginia. All three were based on a new prototype design that created clusters at the various grade levels, a large media center and generous cafeteria and gymnasium areas. The decision to duplicate a single design allowed for efficiencies in materials, construction and operations. That being said, one was very different.

The Blackwell Elementary School was one of the earliest schools established in the city of Richmond. The old eight room section located on the corner of Seventeenth and Maury Streets was opened in September, 1888 as the combined Maury Elementary School and Manchester High School. Like many schools, the facility underwent several major rebuilding programs; first in 1916, again in 1951, and once more in 1967, before it finally outgrew its footprint and saw a new, multi-million dollar state of the art facility built on the site in 1999.

Our design for that school included a larger gymnasium, community classrooms, offices, storage areas and a separate entrance that provided an identifiable "front door", registration counter and recreation center offices.

The idea was simple and sound; pool the allocation of resources that were to be spent within the neighborhood in an efficient and mutually beneficial way. Envision a community revitalization that goes beyond schools. In this way, everyone wins; achieving the economy of a single construction contract and ancillary benefits to city schools and city parks and recreation.

The idea is not a new one. When you travel through a number of large urban school districts in older cities and towns, you will find large community assets incorporated within the original designs.

How integral can a school renovation become to the life and culture of a community? Well, recently my firm finished conducting a renovation and addition to the historic Phelps High School, in Washington DC. Not long after, a wedding party approached the new principal to see if they could hold their ceremony in the school's dramatic, sky-lit atrium space!

A school as a wedding venue? Why not?

The point is that our communities are in need of new / renovated schools, libraries, community clinics, theatres, recreation centers and community centers. And if the reason that we cannot combine these facilities is because we cannot work out the shared use agreements, then we need smarter people working on the problems.

Security and access control must be a primary concern when we co-mingle populations. The challenge to the school system, and their building and design teams, is to make it easier to "get past no" and find a way to fulfill the ambitions the community. What could have been a deal breaker should be a design challenge.

How can a town's library fit into a school's collection, and serve the public at large while meeting the academic requirements of students? What does it require to expand the utility of a school's swimming pool in terms of separate entrances, shower and locker facilities as well as community hours of operations? We need to adapt to the mind-set of seeing logistical challenges instead of arguments against schools as centers of the community, to be used not only by students but by everyone.

That's just what happened in Medina, Ohio. When the school district was looking at expanding the high school, they focused on creating value-based partnerships with the community. The resulting project included a 100,000-square-foot Community Recreation Center that is attached to the high school, but is open for use by local residents (they purchase memberships, just like a regular rec. center).

The City of Medina provided $7.5 million to fund the center, as part of the larger $66 million high school expansion project. The Performing Arts Center hosts both school events as well as community arts performances, and tour dates by professional music, dance and theater troupes.

What's more, Medina General Hospital uses the Recreation Center as a satellite office for their Physical Therapy program. Medina Cable Access has a partnership with the district to provide educational programming and new updates. There is even a television studio next to the media center where students develop local programming and work with professional staff.

All this transformation of cultural and civic life--because of a building!

It's happening more and more often--schools are being renovated and built to play integral roles in the daily life and growth of our neighborhoods. Something similar may be happening where you live--if so, you might want to start going to the meetings and joining the conversations that are turning that school down the street into a proud community resource--or maybe even a great place for a wedding!