Due to the growing population density of U.S. cities, the subject of vertical schools, formerly reserved for the most extreme cases of urbanism such as New York City, are making their way into areas that have no familiarity with the concept.

School districts in smaller cities, and even some suburbs, must now ask themselves an important question: Why, and how, to go vertical?  

Urban versus suburban schools

Our urban centers are becoming more and more populous as residents flock back in droves. As a result, increasing numbers of people are becoming priced out of city centers and are moving to what we have traditionally called suburbs. The suburbs closest to city centers are slowly becoming denser, and the lines between urban and suburban are being blurred.  
At the same time, there are plenty of non-economic reasons why people choose to live outside of traditional urban areas. Access to open land is a major component of suburbs’ livability; suburban schools with a lot of land provide many amenities we often take for granted, such as a large football field and stadium, a separate baseball field, tennis courts, running track, swimming pool, and many other resources that families in less dense neighborhoods don’t want to go without.  
Both urban and suburban school districts have seen enormous enrollment growth in recent years, bringing schools to capacity. If every jurisdiction had limitless amounts of land on which to build new schools, this would not be a big issue. However, in certain areas of our country, and most certainly in the Washington, DC region, land is becoming scarce. Vertical schools provide a solution that can increase a school’s capacity while occupying a smaller footprint. 

A diagram showing census tracts in the DC area classified by housing density.

Up not out

Once a jurisdiction determines that a school needs to be built up as opposed to out, additional decisions need to be made. In our experience, we have found that there can be conflict when the community expects suburban school amenities in an increasingly urban area. If the building is going vertical, the site will most likely not accommodate a large field, double gyms or pools. When building a vertical school, an alternative approach to accommodate those programs will need to be developed. The following questions can help a building committee clarify the planning process: 

  • Which outdoor recreation or educational facilities are essential to successfully implement our curriculum?
  • Does the community surrounding the school have any facilities that could be shared by the school population?
  • Can we accommodate some of the more traditional outdoor programming differently, to affect our building footprint - for example, using roofs, terraces, or courtyards as functional outdoor spaces?

Additional concerns include local building and zoning codes, which will determine the building’s maximum height. Sustainability, which will be discussed in one of the next installments of this series, is also an important factor; green initiatives such as building re-use and limiting the footprint of the built environment are all relevant reasons to go vertical. 
How can we satisfy everyone? Our next installment will look at some examples and solutions in how to organize vertical schools.