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`Big Apple' School Designs Shine

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Because developing one prototype to satisfy the needs of all the districts would take too long, a prototype process emerged. "We decided that we would go with four architects. Each would be given three sites," Diamond says. "Their job was to design a modular, or prototypical, school that could be adapted to the three sites, thereby showing us immediately that their prototype worked."

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TODAY Diamond heads up a school-building program that has 17 schools under construction. Breaking all previous records, the project has moved from idea to mortar and bricks in four years - a fast track given the city's notorious layers of regulation.

Four districts needed schools immediately: District 10 in the Bronx was overcrowded by 6,000 pupils; District 6 in Manhattan was oversubscribed by 4,500 pupils; District 24 in Queens and District 17 in Brooklyn each had 3,600 extra students.

"There was a critical need," Diamond says. "The whole context for this program was `Let's build buildings, and let's build them before the kids graduate.' "

In selecting architects for the program, the Board of Education asked individual designers questions such as: "Do you have children?" "Where do they go to school?" "Where did you go to school?" Most of the architects chosen went to New York City public schools themselves. As Diamond puts it, "We wanted people who wanted to give back to the city."

"Our intent was not to save money," she adds. "Our intent was to save time. As it turned out, we saved a lot of money. We saved a tremendous amount on design fees.... [And] as the contractors out there become more familiar with [the prototypes], they're able to refine their bids."

Midway through the design development process, the New York State legislature stepped in to light a fire under the program. It established the School Construction Authority. This entity was given the power to supercede the maze of limitations and rules that normally beset public construction projects in New York.

"By the time the School Construction Authority was created in '89, [it was] handed six buildings that were 100 percent designed, and another six at 90 percent, so they could hit the ground running," Diamond says. The first schools built under this program are scheduled to open at the end of the year.

The swiftness of the construction contrasts with the deliberate, inclusive approach the board took to the planning process. Rather than trying to speed the planning, Diamond says, "If anything, we extended the time for that because we knew that these buildings would be used over and over again. We had to make sure to get it right."

Diamond and the Board of Education required architects to address the interests of user groups. "We had a team of educators, architects, teachers, students, principals, the unions, the maintenance people together in a room once a week, knocking out the issues," Diamond says.

Architects working on the prototype designs tried to discard preconceptions that stifle changes in school design.

"The building has to be friendly, has to be calm, has to be the right scale," Luaces says. In addition to fitting the scale of the child, the building also has to fit the scale and architectural framework of the neighborhood.

The Gruzen Samton Steinglass buildings feature a plan that basically stays the same from site to site but can be topped by different "hats" to match the architectural style of nearby buildings.

"We wanted these buildings to be beacons - important, permanent-looking structures," Diamond says. "We wanted them to say that to the communities and also fit into their neighborhoods."