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School Construction 2004

August 12, 2004

A second wind for historic schools

  • Renovations are cheaper and more effective than you think
    BLRB Architects

    Many people equate old schools with substandard schools and presume they are too expensive to renovate and therefore should be replaced.

     community commons
    Image courtesy of BLRB Architects
    Garfield High School’s old assembly hall will be transformed into a three-story student and community commons that will serve as the social heart of the school.

    Too often, insurmountable deficiencies are perceived, such as programmatic inadequacies, fire and life-safety code compliance and handicap accessibility. These issues are used as reasons to demolish a valued school when in fact these requirements can usually be met at a reasonable cost.

    Furthermore, historic schools, if thoughtfully and carefully rehabilitated, will not only support a first-class 21st-century education but will also provide features, characteristics, qualities and values that are lacking or unaffordable in new schools.

    Sense of place

    Saving historic schools helps retain a real sense of history. Through sensitive design there is an opportunity to celebrate and display the school's legacy as well as the community's history. By doing so, the facility itself becomes a teaching tool that adds relevance to student learning.

    Historic neighborhood schools typically have a strong sense of place within their communities — a quality that is very difficult to recreate and is quite often lost in a replacement school. They ofttimes serve as more than a place of learning but as a place for community activities, gatherings and celebrations. A true community center.

    Quality of construction

    There is a special quality, a superior aesthetic to historic school architecture that is truly inspiring and worth our collective efforts to save and restore.

    Most schools constructed during the 1900s to the 1940s were viewed by society not only as places to educate our youth but as important civic architecture. They helped define communities and evoked a sense of community pride. To that end, schools were designed with a sense of stature and prominence and built to pass the test of time.

    Within these historic schools, we find grand and magnificent spaces, once awe-inspiring, that cannot be easily or affordably replicated today. However, through careful and meticulous restoration efforts, we can bring back their lost grandeur and beauty.

    As a school architect, I believe quality of space impacts student achievement and teacher performance. The quality of the learning environment within historic schools is often quite difficult to equal in contemporary school architecture. From tall ceilings to large operable windows that fill the classroom with daylight to eloquent architectural detailing, the learning environment within a historic school is uniquely charming and enriching.

    21st-century education

     Greenwood Elementary
    Photo courtesy of BLRB Architects
    Historic schools such as Seattle’s Greenwood Elementary are often regarded as important civic architecture that help define their communities and evoke local pride. A $16 million renovation and addition at the school was completed in 2002.

    Perhaps the most challenging issue regarding the rehabilitation of historic schools is assuring clients that their facility can support 21st-century educational programs and needs.

    Educational reform is sweeping our country — due, in part, to the federal "No Child Left Behind" law. Our state's WASL testing reinforces this reform while organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation further champion the cause.

    Today, reform has translated into pedagogical and organizational concepts such as:

    Personalized learning environment:

    • Small learning communities

    • Schools within schools

    • Academic academies

    Collaborative environment:

    • Project rooms

    • Staff planning and offices

    • Community spaces

    Student-centered environment:

    • Formal and informal social spaces

    Technology-rich environment:

    • Intranet and Internet access

    • Wireless technology

    • Multimedia production

    Garfield High School

    Currently, BLRB Architects is working with Seattle Public Schools and the local community to transform Garfield High School, originally built in 1923, into a state-of-the-art school.

    When completed in 2008, renovation of the historic-landmark building will dramatically alter the traditional educational environment currently found within its 82-year-old brick walls.

    Four small learning communities will be created, each housing approximately 400 students. Each learning community will accommodate interdisciplinary education, teaming, project-based learning and self-directed learning.

    This transformation of the educational environment is designed to not only support Garfield's strong academic program but, more important, to eliminate anonymity and build a strong sense of community among students and staff.

    The original, centrally located assembly hall will be transformed into a three-story daylighted student and community commons. This space will serve as the "social heart" of the school, functioning as a central gathering space that will physically and socially knit the school together.

    The information commons or "academic heart" of the school will reside on the second floor overlooking the central commons. This technology-rich space, an adaptive reuse of the original boys' and girls' gymnasiums, will serve as a valuable educational and community resource.

    The Garfield High School project is just one example of how we can celebrate our community's architectural heritage while creating a high-quality 21st-century educational facility.

    Saving our community's historic schools is important. Their value and contribution to the quality of our lives and to the enhancement of our children's education demands our attention and best efforts.

    Tom Bates is managing principal of BLRB Architects in Tacoma.

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