Case Study: School Renovations

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Extreme Recycling: Repurposing Commercial Space as a School

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Case Study: School Renovations

  1. 1. Case Study: School Renovations For charter and pilot schools, finding an appropriate building is a daunting challenge, so many of these alternative programs start in storefronts or vacant schools. With a mandate to grow in order to demonstrate viability, charter schools often need to outgrow their space within an established window of time. When they do, the ideal facility may not await, however. Charter and pilot schools must exercise imagination—sometimes extreme—in securing a permanent home, since a new building is usually beyond their financial reach. Concealed within this apparent obstacle is an opportunity. Two schools, Hill View Montessori Public Charter School and Greater Egleston Community High School, addressed this challenge by repurposing existing industrial spaces. With Studio G Architects, both schools were transformed on tight budgets and schedules into environments that facilitate the schools’ dynamic programs and grow with them into the future. ©CharlesMayer ©GreigCranna s t u d i o a r c h i t e c t s Extreme Recycling Repurposing Commercial Space as a School
  2. 2. Designing a Prepared Environment Hill View Montessori Charter School opened in 2004 with 122 students in grades K-3 in the former Bartlett School in downtown Haverhill. By 2008, the school was nearing full enrollment of 300 kids in grades K-8 but had long since outgrown its original facility: Its kindergarten and middle school programs operated in auxiliary sites, and they had nowhere to put the 8th grade class in the 2010-2011 academic year. These conditions launched the search for a building large enough to put the entire school under one roof. The building committee, led by Executive Director Janet Begin and Operations Director Andrea Kwiatkowski, was fortunate to identify a vacant 52,000-sf former manufacturing facility on seven acres, convenient to major highways and a few miles from their original location. Having just received news of their charter renewal, the discovery of the building was fortuitous, as it would allow the school to fully implement their charter in a building that could accommodate 100% enrollment. At the same time, it presented significant challenges to configure the cavernous space into the intimately-scaled classrooms and flexible multi-purpose spaces critical for true Montessori instruction. The school spent $2.7 million to acquire the facility, leaving a meager $750,000 ($20/sf) to bring it up to code and repurpose it for academic use. The challenge was clear: Exercise restraint in applying these scarce resources, so that each decision meets the project’s tight schedule and enhances the day-to-day function of the building. One hallmark of Montessori education is creative and collaborative problem-solving; the other is a ‘prepared environment’, one in which classroom materials encourage self-directed experiential learning. Led by Studio G Architects, the school applied Montessori Methods to the complex task of creating a ‘prepared environment.’ In transforming a manufacturing building into a school, much of the school’s budget was absorbed in completely redesigning its fire alarm and sprinkler systems, as well as upgrading the HVAC, with little left over for softening the building’s industrial character. Instead, the school fully embraced the concept of adaptive reuse. The building’s steel structure and system infrastructure are exposed to encourage children’s observation of the building fabric, and existing demountable partitions carve classrooms from the cavernous space. The design also plays up its assets, including dramatizing the soaring Client Charter Public School Hill View Montessori Location Haverhill, MA Size 52,000-SF Cost/SF $20 Completed 2010 Client Urban Edge/GECHS Location Roxbury, MA Size 15,000-SF Cost/SF $147 Completed 2002 building sustainable communitiesstudio g architects “The ‘prepared environment’ is central to Montessori, and part of our responsibility to the kids is to teach them about respecting the environment by making use of the resources that are already available,” Janet Begin said. “We want the kids to come away with a tangible example of ingenuity and flexibility in the face of a complex problem.” ©JosephSt.Pierre
  3. 3. ©JosephSt.Pierre staircase in the reception area with new balusters built and installed by parents, and locating the art room in an upper level classroom that thrusts into the landscape and inhabits the tree canopy. “It’s the little things that are so exciting,” said Kwiatkowski. Although cost efficient, these small moves inject warmth and specificity into the otherwise utilitarian space. Beyond these simple gestures, the real transformation of the space is in the open plan with generous circulation that clusters classrooms according to Montessori’s philosophy of multi-age learning communities. Kindergarten occupies the first floor, along an axis known as “Main Street.” Middle schoolers also inhabit this level in a loosely contained zone that incorporates a flexible lounge for group study or lunch with nearby breakout rooms for structured lessons. Pairs of lower and upper elementary classrooms occupy the upper level. This organization enables older students to model behavior and skills for younger learners. For instance, the proximity of the middle school to the kindergarten classrooms allows the older kids to conduct math or reading comprehension lessons with the five-year-olds. The school imagines further improvements of the building, but the highly functional plan and the master plan developed by Studio G ensure that Hill View won’t duplicate efforts on future projects. The Answer Was Right in Front of Us What happens when you have all of the same factors driving a move, but no suitable building is available? This was the situation Greater Egleston Community High School faced when the success and popularity of their unique program, which supports former drop-outs or young parents in completing high school, demanded expansion. Their existing space could hardly accommodate their current population and programming needs, let alone any additional students. The lack of daylight, inadequate ventilation, and claustrophobic circulation made the school inhospitable and denigrated the program. “Many said it would be impossible for us to transform this former industrial building into a school within our tight time and financial constraints,” noted Janet Begin. “Our short term mission was to get students and staff into a comfortable and functional building as quickly as possible…Mission accomplished!”
  4. 4. After searching for alternative sites, the school decided to stay put and hired Studio G Architects. Renovation of their 10,000-sf space would not allow them to expand the program or adequately serve existing students, but an attached car barn provided an unlikely solution. Vacant for many years, the car barn, with an additional 5,000-sf of area could fulfill all of the school’s unmet needs for administrative offices, a dedicated art room, darkroom, demonstration kitchen, an all-school gathering place, and performance space. GECHS negotiated with their landlord, community developer Urban Edge, to take over the car barn and renovate it with the rest of their space. This was only the beginning of the creative problem-solving required to transform the rabbit-warren of small rooms and dark corridors into the bright and airy space the school imagined. Two factors complicated the distribution of classrooms in the original portion of the building: It was not handicapped accessible, and its square footprint meant that some classrooms would be at the building interior, without direct access to sunlight. Although an elevator would have been a suitable option for the first obstacle, installing one gobbled up too much of the budget, and it meant that the school would share an entrance with the local branch of the YMCA, rather than a welcoming dedicated entry. Instead, Studio G Architects proposed inserting an entrance at the car barn, which abuts a quiet side street rather than the main thoroughfare, and is therefore more secure. This solution also set up the interior sequence of spaces and circulation. The halls form a continuous loop from the entry, through the classroom wing, into the multi-purpose space, and back to the entry. A lift at the entry negotiates the half-flight of stairs leading up to the classrooms; at the opposite end of the connection between the classroom level and the car barn, stadium seating beside the stairs creates a natural hangout during lunch or after school. To improve daylight levels in classrooms, and reduce the need for mechanical lighting, the design borrows daylight from the perimeter classrooms to light the hallways, while interior classrooms receive borrowed light through glass block walls and recycled skylights. Glass block provides visual and acoustical separation from the hallway, and conserves resources, as it requires neither frame nor finish. Other environmentally-friendly and cost-conscious solutions include a system of interior partitions clad in homasote that reduce the quantity of gypsum board required to finish the classrooms, while also insulating for sound, and reusing the barn’s existing concrete floor. building sustainable communities www.studio-g-architects.com ©CharlesMayer “Sometimes making sustainable choices is as simple as using materials in an unexpected way, or using fewer of them,” remarked Gail Sullivan, Principal of Studio G Architects. “This often yields a cost- savings, which is music to the ears of the head of a charter or independent school.” studio g architects Renovation Tips If your school is contemplating repurposing an existing building as your new schoolhouse, here are some ideas to consider: 1) Involve an architect early in the process to assist you in developing a space program and criteria for site selection, and in testing the feasibility of a building before you sign a lease or a sales agreement. There are often hidden costs in retrofits, particularly with building systems and code compliance. You don’t want to be surprised with major unforeseen costs like structural upgrades, new sprinkler systems or new utilities. 2) Learn as much as you can about the nature of the former building use to inform your decision about the suitability of the building. Office buildings or warehouses often present fewer complications to retrofitting than manufacturing facilities. 3) Stay nimble during construction. More often than not, renovations and conversions present unforeseen challenges. Clear and constant communication between the client, architect and contractor facilitates speedy responses and effective solution and a speedy completion.

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