Mainly dormant since the onset of the recession, new construction in the education sector looks to be one of the most promising sources of work for architects in 2015, top local professionals say.

“There hasn’t been that much capital investment in schools since, probably, the early 2000s, with the primary focus since then just passing bonds to keep the doors open,” said Timothy Dufault, president-elect of the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects and CEO of Minneapolis-based Cuningham Group. “There’s quite a bit of built-up need that’s going to have to be met.”

That need is being prompted not only because of the aging and outmoded nature of current school facilities, but also by population growth and shifting racial and income diversity among families. The Metropolitan Council forecasts the Twin Cities area’s population will jump from 2.85 million in 2010 to 3.67 million by 2040, with the number of working-age people of color more than doubling, from 317,000 to 730,000.

Those looming numbers are spurring school administrators to think hard about how they will deliver education to meet changing needs going forward, from providing an emphasis on technology to coping with language and cultural barriers. In most cases, new or modified facilities are part of the answer, Dufault said.

The economic rebound has school leaders betting now is the time to propose referendums for long-needed capital improvements. And that’s generating significant new work for architects. One example is the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District, which is going before voters Feb. 24 requesting $65 million for a building program that would realign its entire system, as well as a $2.5 million-per-year “technology levy” to equip classrooms and students with the latest gear.

The building program would include new additions to Burnsville High School, which would be modified to house grades 9-12 rather than just 10-12 as it is currently configured.

“We’re seeing quite a bit of new activity in the K-through-12 marketplace, but the higher education marketplace is going to be a little bit more difficult,” Dufault cautioned, citing the political shift in the Minnesota Legislature where the Republican Party has gained control of the House of Representatives.

Historically opposed to the capital bonding measures that fund higher-ed building projects, the GOP shift in the House has architects thinking the $1 billion bonding bill approved by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Mark Dayton last year may be the last of its magnitude for a while.

“It’s hard to say whether there will be a continued focus on such investment at the state level,” he said.

Matt Johnson, senior vice president and director of architecture for Minnetonka-based Welsh Architecture, agreed that the education marketplace is helping to perk up the industry.

For four years during the recession, work on public schools pretty much came to a standstill, but that equation is changing, he said.

“We’re past the [gubernatorial] election, and certainly at least two years of strong economy activity are predictable at this point, so I think people are in the mood to move forward and invest in the schools,” Johnson said.

Welsh, for example, is working with the Minneapolis School District on its $18 million recommissioning of Franklin Middle School on the North Side, which is part of a five-year plan to cope with an expected enrollment surge and a move back toward neighborhood-based schooling.

“It shows how emerging policies and higher enrollments are driving new work in the K-12 market,” he said.

Meanwhile, the continuing boom in private and charter schools is also creating work for architects.

“There is an increased demand for alternative education opportunities,” Johnson said. “Right now, we have three or four charter schools that looking at trying to do something this year. One reason for that is that idle industrial space is very inexpensive now and it’s not hard to convert such space into a charter school.”

 

Don Jacobson is a freelance writer in St. Paul and former editor of the Minnesota Real Estate Journal.