Towards a New Paradigm of Learning: Renovating for Career and Technical Education (CTE) Programs

Last century’s model of high school typically included two tracks: an academic path that prepared students for college, and a vocational path that prepared students to enter directly into the workforce after graduation. Today’s economy demands greater flexibility and broader options, and our 21st century models of education recognize that all students benefit from hands-on learning. Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs offer this flexibility and real-world skills development, giving all students a head start on the future with coursework which transfers to college, technical college, or the workforce.

Popular CTE programs include cosmetology, culinary arts, carpentry, digital fabrication, automotive repair, plumbing, electrical, and mechanical trades; often, industry and higher education partners collaborate on the curriculum and instruction to create engaging programs. School districts nationwide are incorporating CTE programs as a vital part of the high school curriculum, and are looking for creative solutions for school facilities to support this unique learning environment.

In designing for new construction, many schools are creating CTE spaces as an integrated part of the design and construction process. Renovations of existing buildings, however, always come with a unique set of challenges, and adding state-of-the-art facilities to accommodate these advanced programs and associated equipment requires close coordination and a tool kit of strategies. The nation’s K-12 building stock includes facilities that may date back to the 1950’s or, in some cases, earlier. Codes have changed over the years, as have construction materials and methods; many existing schools have code exceptions which have been “grandfathered in” but require updating for a new era of issues. Navigating the building code can be far more complex for a renovation than for new construction.

The process of renovating a building for CTE programs begins with a thorough review of existing documents, which includes an onsite survey of existing conditions to verify construction type, materials, code issues, alterations, or any maintenance needs which may impact the design. The discovery phase and a detailed site analysis will help the design team determine the unique approach for the school in question.

Specialized spaces for CTE programs may require large and complex equipment including kitchen vent hoods, digital fabrication equipment, carpentry shop tools, welders, and automotive lifts. Designing the required spaces, providing the necessary clearances and power sources, providing adequate ventilation, designing safe circulation, and incorporating tool storage all require a great deal of coordination with the school district, equipment vendors, and engineers to facilitate a smooth installation and safe teaching environment.

It’s important for the architect to clarify responsibility for selecting, ordering, and installing each piece of equipment at the outset.  Real-time coordination with engineers is also critical to success: detailing power and exhaust mechanisms, ideally with built-in flexibility to accommodate changing equipment or programs over time, can save time and avoid costly changes in the field.

For programs such as culinary arts education, gaining real-world experience is a key part of learning. The ability to apply skills by sharing food with others is a very important (and very popular) part of the hospitality industry. Mock restaurant spaces allow students to work with large quantities of ingredients, practice techniques on a large scale, and study restaurant finances. This practical application of skills, however, requires an advanced permitting process that involves food design consultants and much higher level of scrutiny from the local jurisdiction, so the extra layer of regulation should be built into the schedule and budget.

The complexities of retrofitting existing schools for CTE programs may be substantial, but these projects can reap huge dividends in terms of preparing students for success in an evolving economy.

About Devki

Devki Wright, AIA, LEED AP B+C, has a passion for sustainable design and a diverse set of skills in educational and commercial projects. Devki, who earned a Bachelor of Environmental Design from NCSU and a Master of Architecture from UNCC, joined LS3P’s Charlotte office in 2015. She co-founded Charlotte’s Emerging Professionals Committee for the U.S. Green Building Council, and serves as a firmwide resource as Chair of LS3P’s Green Team.

Devki’s notable recent work includes serving as Project Manager and/or Project Architect on a series of Career and Technical Education (CTE) renovations for the Charlotte Mecklenburg School System. Her portfolio also includes a high school in Cabarrus County, NC; middle school for the Fort Mill School District; and the Appalachian State Health Science Complex in Boone, NC.