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  • Anne Frank - split view of front porch (left) and cafeteria (right) - photo by Kevin Burton

The End of Cells & Bells: School Design in the 21st Century


San Antonio (Bexar Co.) – A few years ago, a question posed at a design charette for a new kind of charter school went like this–what would a school look like if it dropped the assumption that all learning started and ended with a classroom.

As the participants grappled with that concept they realized that a school could function around a “heart” that would be much more multifaceted than the typical classroom.

“We settled on the traditional Texan notion of ‘The Plaza.’ The Plaza would be a place that students first encountered as they walked into the school and it would be a richly designed environment where a wide variety of learning experiences could happen simultaneously,” said the authors of “The Language of School Design,” a publication of the principals of Fielding Nair International, (FNI) a multi-national architectural firm that has become the recognized leader of innovative school design.

While the American team is based in Lutz, Florida and Minneapolis, Minnesota, they are referring to a school campus in San Antonio that has the distinction of being a first of its kind, a “heart” model that they hope will spread worldwide. The authors–Prakash Nair, Randall Fielding and Jeffery Lackney–added a chapter on Anne Frank Inspire Academy to their third edition and asserted it would be the first school they have ever encountered that could be scored a “10:10,” meaning it is a “10” on the educational best practices scale and a “10” on the best architectural design to complement the educational practice.

FNI designed the school in collaboration with RVK Architects. The designers describe The Plaza as akin to a hotel lobby with many activities happening at once, “and yet there is a healthy buzz and energy in the space that is infectious and exciting. Where would students rather learn, in a hotel lobby Starbucks kind of place or in a box squeezed into a seat with 25 other students listening to a teacher?”

The 17,000-square-foot Inspire Academy opened in August 2014 and recently completed its first school year. It has no classrooms, explains superintendent Bruce Rockstroh. Students are not grouped into platoons to be assigned to one teacher. Instead, the six teachers on campus function as facilitators to the entire 150-student body.

If students move away from The Plaza, it is because the specific task that has attracted their attention involves a specialization that is better accomplished in one of the auxiliary sectors of the school, such as a Da Vinci Studio (a science and arts lab), or the Media Lab with its array of computers.

On the second story, there is a lecture theater where students orally present the findings of their study. Children can work independently or collaboratively, Rockstroh said. They still perform the state standards, but the learning emphasis is goal oriented based on an inquiry method. Children are asked questions and they must go find the answers and explain the results of their effort.

There is also a learning studio, a seminar room, a nook called “The Nest” where children can read, and a yoga and dance studio with a specially designed suspended floor.

Teachers don’t have offices or desks. Students don’t have assigned desks, but they have work spaces.

It’s plain to see as Rockstroh walks around and surveys the building that he is as in awe of the finished product today as when he was the first opened the school.

“What you’ll see throughout the school is a lot of natural light. The architects are super big on children having lots of light pouring into the space. Not only that, there’s eight outdoor learning spaces. Think of your kid going to school; except for the playground (recreation period), you don’t think of them going outside,” Rockstroh said.

One of the outdoor learning spaces is a treehouse built by Pete Nelson of the cable channel Animal Planet’s “Treehouse Masters” fame.

“Pete came down, walked the property. He found this 200-year-old oak tree. We have Internet out here so kids can bring a reader. It’s great,” Rockstroh said. The treehouse includes a wooden and fiberglass slide that is 24 feet long and 16 feet high.

One of the concerns Rockstroh and the FNI architects had about the school’s design was that it be cost competitive. “Otherwise, their schools, no matter how successful, would be dismissed as being too expensive and the model would have difficulties replicating and scaling up,” the book authors cautioned.

Substantial costs savings were realized through the genius of The Plaza design, where every other space was an extension.

“Up to 30 percent of a traditional school is unusable instructional space. It’s hallways. It’s corridors. There’s not a single hallway in this school. You walk into The Plaza and all the classrooms go off The Plaza. We built a smaller footprint,” Rockstroh said. There’s less maintenance cost, less heating and cooling cost than there would be for a comparable 150 student population facility.

The cost to open the middle school was $6 million, a price tag Rockstroh said was expensive. However, that included the challenges associated with building on raw and rugged farmland. Berms had to be installed along the frontage to muffle the sounds from Bandera Road, a heavily trafficked highway.

“It took longer than we thought. There was no sewer, no water. We had a minimum of electrical access. We had to bring everything onto the property. There was a delay because of a well on the property that we had to scope and cap. Stuff like that was non-stop,” Rockstroh said.

Anne Frank is also the first of three schools being built on the 5-acre site. The elementary school, which opens this month–also for 150 students–was built for $3 million. Construction is underway for a high school that will open in the fall of 2016.

“We are committed to try and build these cost efficiently. After this first one, we got smarter about how we’re building. For instance, this school has custom windows. Every window. For the elementary school, we used stock windows. It looks the same, but they’re fixed sizes,” he said.

Turner Construction Company has the construction manager for the Inspire Academy projects.

Cells and Bells

Anyone over 40 years of age would barely recognize many of the schools being constructed today. For most of the 20th century, schools had a rectangular design where columns of uniformly sized rectangular or square shaped rooms (the cells) opened into halls and the start of each course subject was announced with bells. This was known as the Ford Model because it came from the factory production method.

The failings of the Ford Model were that it presumed all students are ready to learn the same thing at the same time, that teachers could be all things (mentor, lecturer, caregiver), and that learning is passive and occurs under teacher control. However, learning is not one dimensional or linear, but multifaceted and holistic. Educators have moved toward other models, such as learning studios or learning suites; their objective being that teachers have the flexibility to provide different types of learning environments simultaneously.

There are a multitude of floor plan designs that break away from cell and bells. There are L-shaped rooms that allow for three centers of activity, rooms with movable walls to allow two teachers to collaborate by periodically merging two studios. If there is no common wall to move, they may join classes in outdoor terraces or expanded halls (mini-plazas).

Camelot Elementary in San Antonio’s Northeast Independent School District provides numerous examples on how learning studios have taken over. The school originally built in the 1960s went through a major expansion this year.

The addition to Camelot is a hybrid between the Ford Model and learning studios. While the rooms generally have a uniform box shape, student desks have pentagonal tops, thus allowing students to move their desks to form teams or work individually. Blackboards, chalk and erasers were replaced with computer graphic display Smartboards. There is natural and soft lighting to ease strain on the eyes and help with focus. There is a pair of boy/girl restrooms for every two rooms, making it easier for teachers to track students’ movement. The width of halls vary, with circular mini-plazas placed at interspersed along the way so that teachers can merge two classes for certain subjects.

Like other public schools, Camelot must contend with large and ever growing student populations. For years, NEISD coped with Camelot’s growth by adding nine portable buildings on land once used for recreation. A year prior to beginning construction, playground equipment and portables were removed to make way for 47,500 square feet of new construction. The $15.25 million project ($12.25 million was for construction) included 1,645 square feet in renovations, and created 19 new classrooms to accommodate nearly 400 students.

NEISD is particularly proud of the fact that the last three bond-funded construction campaigns have included substantial monies to retire portable buildings.

Ticking off their negatives, project manager Chris Narendorf of O’Connell Roberston explained, “They require students to leave the school environment. They’re really designed to be temporary by they’re often in place 10 to 15-plus years. Oftentimes, they’re undersized. There are potential health issues with indoor air quality.”

From Design to Construction

The Camelot project was a Competitive Sealed Proposal and Bartlett Cocke General Contractors was awarded the project. The design process took 15 months, about three to five months longer than what might be expected for a job of this size, Narendorf said. The reason for that is NEISD’s practice of getting the designs 100 percent completed before construction begins.

Jorge Cabello, NEISD’s senior director of construction planning and design, said there is a tendency in the industry to submit bid packages that are missing details.

“Subcontractors, based on their interpretation of the architect’s work, make certain assumptions and it affects their bid. We’ve found that if we give more time to the design team and spread out the phases we’re going to get a better bid package,” Cabello said.

James Anderson, vice president of operations for Bartlett Cocke’s South Texas region, said incorrect assumptions can cause delays and add cost. The quality of a bid package also affects the contractor’s ability to attract certain subcontractors and suppliers.

“As your subcontractors and suppliers are becoming more and more busy, they’re becoming more selective,” Anderson said. “You want it to be an attractive project for them, and when they come and they see a bunch of addenda, they may not bid. I’ve seen kind of a trend to not just have addenda, but also to have post-bid addenda.”

Cabello added, “It didn’t take much to convince the design community on this extended design period. They saw the value of spending the time up-front.”

Another consideration for putting more effort into pre-construction work is technology. With higher energy efficiency standards and the more advanced communication systems–both in the classroom and administration–there is more conduit and piping in schools today than there was even five years ago, Narendorf said.

Another aspect of the project that could portend a trend in future projects is the collaboration between NEISD and the city of San Antonio to share park space.

The SPARK program (short for School Park) is a concept that began in Houston to address that lack of recreational facilities in the inner city, Cabello said. The city needed land for playgrounds but there was none to be had.

“The municipality decided they would partner with schools. Schools have land. It was a win-win, because the school districts needed funds for new playground equipment,” Cabello said.

San Antonio approached NEISD, which in turn chose Camelot to be the northeast Bexar County’s first SPARK site. In 2014, as part of preparation for the 2015 expansion, playground equipment was relocated and new equipment added along with a quarter-mile walking trail and pavilion. The park has a separate gated entrance for the general public.

“The park is going to be open every day during daylight hours, except the community cannot use it during school hours,” Cabello said.

Safe and Secure

Expansion of the Camelot school afforded O’Connell Robertson the opportunity to upgrade safety and security features. One issue involved traffic, since both bus and parent vehicles were using the same drive-through on Ray Bon Drive. Administration was moved to face Merlin Drive around the corner and this would also become the exclusive entrance for parents dropping of children.

The drop-off is configured so that students exit directly to the curb of a broad sidewalk that is under a canopy that protects them from sun and rain. The canopy roof has a galvanized steel ceiling that prevents birds from perching and nesting on the crossbeams.

The new main entrance has a glassed in lobby with double doors that only open to incoming students and staff during morning drop-off, Narendorf explained. Any other time of day, visitors must go through a side door to administration and undergo a background security check. A nurse station is located beside the security station so the adults coming to pick up ill students need not go any further.

In addition, the 6-foot high perimeter fencing was upgraded to close any gaps.

Workforce Ready by CATE

Innovation in education hasn’t stopped at middle school. San Antonio Independent School District has reinvented vocational education. The district’s Brackenridge High School grabbed the attention of Education Week with the August 2014 opening of its Career and Technology Education (CATE) building.

“The new building has generated an increase of over 20 percent of students enrolled in career courses. Numbers have risen drastically from 70 to over 90 percent at Brackenridge, and are anticipated to continually climb,” wrote Matthew Lynch, dean of the school of education, psychology and interdisciplinary studies at Virginia Union University. “I hope more schools have the ability to offer career courses in a fashion similar to those in San Antonio. These courses have countless benefits because they immerse and engage students in a way the typical classroom setting cannot, and encourage students to learn through daily, concrete experiences. I do hope that high school graduates still choose to attend college – but this is an excellent way to test out particular careers at an even younger age.”

Roxanne Rosales, SAISD’s executive director of advance academics, was instrumental in the scope and design of the CATE building, which is the largest and first of several modernized CATE facilities rising on SAISD high school campuses.

Rosales wanted an environment that not only had learning studio concepts but the ambience and equipment one would expect in a state-of-the-art work place. She managed to eliminate the school’s colors–no small feat–in favor of white and gray walls, the steel and glass of corporate buildings, concrete floors and ceilings with exposed piping and air ducts.

“It just looks so much better,” Rosales opined. “It looks more like a business and that’s what we wanted it to look like.”

A three-story, 80,000-square-foot building, the CATE facility handles 1,000 students per period, about half of the high school’s population. There are courses in print publishing, fashion design, television and radio broadcasting, cooking, cosmetology, hotel hospitality, and computer animation. It also houses the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program.

The printing and copier shop operates year-round and students take orders not just from within the school district but from small business owners. Cosmetology students can exit the program licensed by the state and ready, finances notwithstanding, to open their own salon. All of the courses are set up to prepare students to enter the workforce directly or advance to a university program.

Rosales points to the triangular desks in a computer lab, which was set up to have students face each other and work as a team.

“When they go to work, they’re going to work in a team. You’ve got to figure out how to get along with people,” Rosales said.

The fashion design area is perhaps the most spacious. Students have access to sewing stations, large tables for laying out and cutting fabric, ironing stations and a laundry.

There is also a breakout area with ample seating and charging stations for electronic devices.

“I see media kids out here a lot, filming and doing interviews. I see English teachers putting their kids here and use it for a reading circle,” Rosales said.

SAISD spokeswoman Andi Rodriguez admired its “amorphous” nature. Since the seats can be moved, she said, “It’s just what you need it to be.” Rodriguez said the layout of the CATE building has the feel of work but also of college.

“That was our goal with this,” Rosales said. “When you go to a college campus, you see kids hanging out at the library, all over the place, but they’re doing work. We did try to put this sort of space (the breakout space) in other schools and we got a lot of push-back from principals. They’re like, “Oh, no, you can’t have any free space like that.’ It’s turned out good. If you give kids a chance, they’re going to live up to it.”

Students have generally expressed great pride of place. They respect the CATE building and after one year of operation there’s been no vandalism, she emphasized.

The development team for Brackenridge’s CATE building included architect firms Stantec and AG Associates and general contractors Guido Construction and Sundt. Sundt employee owner Ben Martin said construction costs came to $16.5 million.

One of the unique aspects to the job was the input Rosales and teachers had, particularly with regard to interior finish and furnishings, equipment and the space dedicated for certain courses. Where architects get guidance from school districts, most such decisions are normally made by facilities management people.

The CATE building was a Construction Manager at Risk project, a delivery method Martin said he preferred because it allows the project team to work out budget problems before construction.

“What they were designing, we felt comfortable we could deliver. CMAR requires that you work collaboratively and help deliver a project that meets the intent of its user,” Martin said.

In considering the open ceiling industrial look Rosales wanted, Martin said the lack of a drop ceiling required installing piping and duct work in a way that was architecturally pleasing. In addition to a layout pleasing to the eye, everything was painted white.

“Normally, you don’t paint conduit, plumbing pipes and ductwork,” he said.

Upcoming School Projects Around the State:

Cornerstone Church is about to embark on a major building project for its Cornerstone Christian Schools. Kirk Kistner, Bartlett Cocke’s vice president of marketing and business development, said the church has acquired a 37-acre site near The Rim at Loop 1604 and Interstate 10.

Project ID 2015-1C48: Plans are to develop in phases, beginning with construction of an elementary school with capacity for about 1,500 students, a middle school that could house about 1,200 students, and athletic facilities.

The site plan includes a high school competition level gymnasium, football field and track, baseball field, and softball field. There will be a dormitory for students that live outside the Bexar County area.

“Cost for Phase I is in the $80 million to $85 million range,” Kistner said.

Phase II would be construction of a high school, but there is no design or construction schedule for that.

Barltett Cocke began taking subcontractor bids July 28 for the first bid package which involves extensive site work. T.J. Rogers, vice president of estimating, said topography is very uneven. There is a 50-foot change of elevation on the site and milling of limestone will be required, with cutting in one area of as much as 35 feet down. Another area will require fillings.

“There is somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 cubic yards of rock that will be milled and re-placed on other locations on the site,” Rogers said.

Milling should begin in September and continue for about five to six months. Phase I construction will take about two years to complete, he said.

The designs for the facilities, which are being prepared by Wigodsky Architects, are expected to be finalized in the fourth quarter of this year, Kistner said.

Austin ISD – Future High School – Project ID 2015-1C09 – As of June, Austin ISD is considering buying land in south Austin for a future high school to alleviate crowding at Bowie High School.

Comal ISD – New Middle School #7 – Project ID 2015-19A1 – An estimated $94 million from a $150 million bond package approved May 9 will go toward the construction of two middle schools. The RFQ for A/E services was due June 24.

Dayton ISD – Woodrow Wilson Junior High School Phase 2 – Project ID 2015-2422 – Additions and renovations to the existing high school in Dayton. Work includes construction of 20 new general purpose classrooms, four new science classrooms, a new practice gymnasium, two security vestibules and conversion of existing CTE and kitchen areas into a sixth grade common area and serving line. Estimated cost is $11 million.

Falls City ISD – New Ag Shop and Practice Field – Project ID 2015-232A – Construction of a new 8,122 sq. ft. agriculture shop with classroom and offices space, restrooms and finishes, and also includes a new 31,540 sq. ft. natural grass practice field with irrigation. Estimated cost is $2.5 million.

Klein ISD – Elementary Schools #33 and #34 (Harris County) – Project ID 2015-1753 and Project ID 2015-1754 – Two elementary schools to be paid for by a bond passed in May.

New Caney ISD – Early College High School – Project ID 2015-258B – This school will be in design phase through Spring 2016. Construction is to follow soon after and reach completion summer of 2017.

Montgomery ISD – New Elementary School – Project ID 2015-1769 – One of the first projects to be addressed from a $256.75 million bond approved in May is a PK-5 elementary to be built at Keenan Cutoff Road.

Pflugerville ISD – New Timmerman Elementary School and District Stadium – Project ID 2015-049B – Work will consist of the new construction of Timmerman (approx. 59,121 sq. ft.) and the District Stadium (approx. 77,749 sq. ft.) at estimated cost of $41 million.

Randolph ISD – Request for Qualifications for Design Build services for New Gymnasium and Cafeteria at Randolph Air Force Base – Project ID 2015-22F5 – for construction of a proposed 25,000 sq. ft. gymnasium and cafeteria. Estimated cost is $4.7 million.


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By |2018-04-18T15:15:59-05:00July 31st, 2015|Industry News|

About the Author:

Adolfo Pesquera (Reporter/Editor) is a veteran news journalist. He has worked for Hearst Corp., American Lawyer Media, News Corp and Freedom Communications. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines across the USA. He is a journalism graduate of UT-RGV. He writes, edits and creates digital pages for VBX.

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