Value engineering frequently endangers American education. This claim may seem far-fetched, but a strong argument can be made that many common value engineering decisions have harmful effects on school building quality that also adversely impact our children’s learning experience.

These days, the term "value engineering" often seems a misnomer when applied to school construction projects. Value engineering is supposed to identify a decision making process where the owner and the design/construction team controls costs while maintaining the building’s long-term value. Unfortunately, construction managers frequently present value engineering choices that shorten school buildings’ life spans, lead to a higher incidence of building component failure and have a negative impact on education.

We, as school designers, repeatedly witness some value engineering decisions that we prefer to call mistakes. They include discarding central air conditioning systems in favor of unit ventilators in each classroom. Not only does this lead to shorter equipment life and higher maintenance costs (breakdowns are common and each unit must be separately serviced), but unit ventilators are noisy and can seriously degrade classroom acoustics.

The acoustical environment is a frequent victim of value engineering. Special acoustical treatments, such as sound-absorbing concrete block specified for a gym, often are canceled as part of a cost-cutting agenda. The result is a din that makes it harder for schoolchildren in nearby learning spaces to hear what their teachers are saying.

Value engineering also affects children’s eyes as well as their ears. Standard recessed lighting fixtures often are substituted for pendant fixtures that provide indirect lighting. The downlight fluorescent fixtures are cheaper but cause glare, impeding students’ ability to read computer screens and significantly reducing the legibility of increasingly popular whiteboards.

Too often, owners do not consider the long-term, life cycle detriment of their value engineering choices. Concrete block interior walls commonly are replaced with damage-prone drywall and low-quality paints are substituted for more durable epoxy paints. Decisions like these all but guarantee higher maintenance costs. And when maintenance dollars are tight, the substituted materials and finishes may deteriorate even more quickly, further compromising the school environment.

Responding to complex project needs with a rational yet spirited design is a real challenge for any architect. Slashing costs without maintaining quality is easy and requires little imagination. Yet, for some CMs, the guiding principle seems to be that whatever can be removed from the design should be removed. Canopies meant to provide weather protection for children traveling to and from buses? Gone. Sunscreens that reduce interior heat loads and decrease glare inside classrooms? Forget about it.


Granted, these cuts do save money and the CM often is hailed as a hero by the local school building committee. Because they are usually opposed to sacrificing even a square foot of program space, building committees and boards of education are happy to hear about any other way to reduce initial costs.

But all too often, CMs do not help architects fully describe the downside of these choices, which usually are made so late in the design process that there is no time to debate the pros and cons. We think this approach is irresponsible, not just to decision makers but to kids and their education.


CMs should not be at odds with school designers on these issues. Architects who create public school buildings are well aware of the overriding importance of cost in new school construction. We do not seek to produce opulent "Taj Mahals," but within budget limits try to design high-quality, durable and expressive buildings that will serve a community for years. At the very least, CMs owe their clients a thorough explanation of the repercussions of their value engineering recommendations.

Jeffrey A. Sells is design leader of the educational studio of architectural and engineering firm Fletcher-Thompson Inc., Shelton, Conn.
Timothy P. Cohen is a project designer for Fletcher-Thompson.