Assessing Your Space Needs

Brought to you by: Capital Impact Partners’ The Answer Key and IFF

  • Before You Start
  • Build it Yourself or Hire a Developer
  • Concept and Planning
  • Creating & Managing Your Team
  • Site Selection
  • Design and Pre-Construction
  • Financing
  • Construction
  • A feasibility study determines whether or not you should proceed with a facility change, whereas a needs assessment analyzes the scope of your school’s facility needs, including a good estimate of how much space you’ll require, calculated in usable net square feet. You also can use a needs assessment to guide the site selection. Often, a charter school’s stakeholders agree on the need for a facility, but not on how much space is needed or how the space should be used. We strongly recommend hiring an experienced project manager to assist with the analysis of the school’s needs and to later help with the site selection. Some school architect companies might provide a needs analysis as part of their service.

    During the needs assessment process, it is advantageous to visit other charter schools. How are their programs integrated from the perspective of the facility’s space and design? What are some of the best design features? How did they find and fund their facility? By conducting site visits, your team can elicit creative ideas about what you like and don’t like, and begin formulating a “wish list” of design features for your project.

    It’s common for charter schools to utilize existing facilities or shared spaces. Setting your charter school within an existing community can encourage development of the surrounding area and provide a stronger sense of community and a collaborative learning environment. Your school can serve as a community hub. As you go through your facility needs assessment, be both creative and realistic when addressing your wish list.

    How to Determine Space Needs

    You can use multiple approaches to calculate square footage for your facility. Your school will want to figure out a minimum and maximum range of space needed to allow for flexibility when selecting a site. The Needs Assessment Worksheet provided in Essential Resources can help you analyze your school’s requirements. In general, your team should consider the following items when determining your needs:

    (1) Gross Square Footage

    A ballpark estimate of gross square footage will guide your site selection by providing a general idea of the minimum and maximum square footage of potential sites. Estimate gross square footage by multiplying the number of students by 60 to 120 square feet, or by adding up the number of classrooms needed and multiplying by 750 to 1,000 square feet per classroom (assuming a class size of 25 students). Then add an estimate of office storage and other non-academic space (most schools use 40 to 55% of the square footage for non-academic uses). Note that these are rough guidelines. Your jurisdiction may require a certain square footage per student. Requirements also may vary depending on the grade level.

    Most important to your ultimate plans is assessing your total internal and external square footage. Internal space includes classrooms, special purpose rooms, gym, cafeteria, library, etc. External needs include parking, traffic flow, and outside play areas. Be sure to look at local requirements regarding parking, environmental impact, and other areas when assessing your facility needs.

    (2) Bathrooms and Common Areas

    The Needs Assessment Worksheet estimates you should dedicate about 30% of your facilities space to bathrooms for students and staff, and other areas, like hallways. Consult Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations as well as local codes, but at a minimum plan on at least one bathroom fixture for every 30 students, and one bathroom for every eight to 10 staff members.  

    (3) Non-Academic Space

    Large spaces like gyms and cafeterias can be very expensive. Some schools save on this cost by incorporating multipurpose rooms into their plans — areas that can be used as gyms, cafeterias, for assemblies, or other general purposes.

    (4) Expansion Plans

    Incorporate planned growth in enrollment into space needs.

    (5) Playground

    Estimate what type of outdoor play areas you’ll need. Leave open the option of using nearby parks, recreation centers, etc.

    (6) Parking

    Parking space for staff, students, and visitors will vary depending on access to public transportation. A rough guideline for an elementary school would be one space per staff member, plus one for every 50 students (for visitors). Also check ADA guidelines for the required number of handicap spaces.

    (7) Other Needs

    It is important to consider other less tangible issues when identifying your charter school’s facility needs. This list is not exhaustive or applicable in every situation.

    • Geographic Focus: Identify preferred areas to locate. Your school should be readily accessible to the charter school’s target student demographics.
    • Accessibility: Determine accessibility for school buses, public transportation, parking, and parental drop-off, as well as for people with disabilities. Proximity to Related Entities: Seek locations near affiliated entities (e.g., cultural or educational institutions).
    • Proximity to Related Entities: Seek locations near affiliated entities (e.g., cultural or educational institutions).
    • Curriculum-Specific Needs: Consider special needs related to the school’s theme or mission (e.g., drafting areas for an architectural school, labs for a science school).
    • Technology Needs: Weigh the need for a computer lab and for wiring the school properly for technology use.
    • Sustainability: Design standards emphasize building strategies that promote healthy and productive learning environments. These sustainability measures at the outset may result in long-term cost savings all while reducing environmental impact.

    Identify Constraints

    Identifying potential constraints during the needs assessment stage will reduce last-minute surprises (e.g., inability to open the school or get financing). Additionally, when you approach a lender they will ask you to provide the following information:


    Estimate the amount of time it will take to complete your facility project. Figure out deadlines for opening the school, as well as milestones you must reach (such as obtaining a certificate of occupancy) in the interim. Working backward, estimate how long it will take to open the school: orienting teachers, decorating classrooms, receiving furniture and equipment, finishing cosmetic repairs, completing major construction projects, obtaining building permits, obtaining zoning variances, preparing architectural drawings, getting site control, securing financing, and locating an appropriate site. Leave ample time for each step. A project manager can help you estimate how long design and construction work will take.

    Rules and Regulations

    Find out the compliance issues for your local jurisdiction (e.g., building codes, zoning restrictions, ADA requirements). Sources of information on local rules and regulations include your project manager, other charter operators, charter school associations/resource centers, architects, and non-profit developers. Local officials may interpret zoning rules and building codes differently, resulting in different answers to the same question. The final answer may not be available until you go through an inspection or zoning hearing. However, it is important to be aware of the types of concerns that may arise. For instance, if building codes require outside air in every classroom, this may impact the selection of a facility with classrooms that have no windows. You would need to understand the costs involved in remedying this situation, such as installing air vents. Learn the local regulations ahead of time to plan for or avoid costly installations, such as traffic lights.  

    Building Permit Process

    Cities require that you obtain a building permit before starting construction. Begin the building permit process early and stay alert to the timing of permits so you have them approved when you receive your construction loan. Your project manager and/or architect can assist with the process. Check with your city’s planning department, as permit requirements and timelines vary by city, and will depend on the scope of your project. You’ll need information about your zoning use district to know what is allowed for a project in your zone. Prepare and submit all necessary permit application materials, and pay required fees. For some permits, you’ll need your project design under way and documented to submit your permit application for review. For your permit to be approved, assume you will need neighborhood notification and public hearings. The public hearing can take 60 to 90 days to be scheduled on the public calendar and for the hearing to take place. Once construction has started, inspections are required to ensure your project is in accordance with the permits issued.


    Meet with your accountant, business manager, or financial advisor to determine how much is available for facility expenses. As you go through these questions, be sure to include your findings in your preliminary capital budget.

    • What is your school currently spending on facilities and operating expenses?
    • How much money do you have for facility expenses without impairing school operation cash flow?
    • How much will you need to raise or borrow (for upfront and ongoing costs)?
    • If you’re eligible for start-up funds, are there restrictions on their use?

    Talk to foundations, politicians, and lenders. It is critical to know what funding sources are available before starting the site selection phase. There may be more or fewer resources available than you expect.

    Related link in Essential Resources: Needs Assessment Worksheet

    Legal Disclaimer:

    Nothing in this material should be construed as investment, financial, brokerage, or legal advice. Moreover, the facts and circumstances relating to your particular project may result in material changes in the processes, outcomes, and expenses described herein. Consult with your own professional advisors, including your financial advisors, accountants, and attorneys, before attempting to consummate any transaction described in this material.