Fluvanna Realizes Its Plan for the Future

By Jennifer Pullinger and Douglas Gordon

Fluvanna is a moderately sized county for Virginia insofar as population goes. Nonetheless, it has tremendous plans for the future of its schools.

Fluvanna has a bright new high school. Photo by Chris Cunningham.

The central-Virginia rural community’s  secondary education program is already well-regarded, having earned a place on the 2012 U.S. News & World Report list of top schools in the country, with a third of its students participating in advanced placement programs. And that ranking was based on the performance of students attending a 1970s-era school facility. Now, with a brand new high school as of this year, designed by BCWH, the future is wide open. “We call this our new beginning,” says Fluvanna High School Principal James Barlow.

The community’s planning process began more than a decade ago, notes BCWH Principal Roger D. Richardson, AIA. Projections at the time presented the county with two options: build a smaller supplemental school or build a larger and expandable new replacement facility. The county chose the latter. The high school is programmed and designed as a community focal point serving county residents as well.

The new building has four levels with 70 instructional spaces, including labs, accommodating 1,500 students. It can expand to 1,750 students over the next decade, through the incremental addition of classrooms, and still maintain the target student/teacher ratio of 22/1. Core areas—such as the two-story library, food services areas, and auditorium—are already sized to accommodate that expansion. The building is master planned to be able to grow to 2,500 students through more extensive additions, such as enlarging the dining commons area.

Ultimately, the high school is just one part of a cascade of physical improvements to the county’s school system. To accommodate the anticipated growth in the number of intermediate and elementary students, the plan is to renovate the old high school into a middle school and convert the middle school to provide space for elementary students.

Programming for the school

The interior palette includes the school colors. Photo by Jennifer Pullinger.

Things have changed quite a bit in the past 40 years since the county built the last high school, and Fluvanna residents embraced an outlook that the rate of progress will only increase into the future. The building needed to anticipate inevitable (albeit unknowable) changes in ever area from curriculum diversity to student/teacher/technology interaction.

“We’ve been working with Fluvanna for 20 years now,” Richardson says. “We have a pretty strong relationship with the school board and understand their vision for the future. From that base, we undertook a planning process that went on for close to a year and involved school administrators, faculty, students, and community representatives. The resulting plan and vision aligned the core curriculum and career and technical education programs to support diverse learning needs and a universal pursuit of excellence and commitment to life-long learning.”

In addition to the design applications the BCWH team spent time watching how students and faculty interact daily. Taken as a whole, the design team organized a school of the present yet for the future; one where students are not necessarily bound to the physical facility as we perceive it today.

“The biggest challenge is always the budget,” Richardson says. “When this project started a dozen years ago, the projection was $40 million. By 2006, when the project was ready to go, costs were up, and, with all the things the stakeholders wanted to achieve, the estimate was closer to $64 million. Debate and evaluation ensued, and the ultimate number came to $57 million.”

Some savings came from the project coming on line just as the market hit its downturn. Another change was the Davis-Bacon Act. The county paid for the school through bonds, and the architect and county worked together to document those elements of the project eligible for American Reinvestment Act funds, which carried zero financing charge. “By spending $600,000, the county was able to save an additional $1.5 million,” Richardson notes. “And any funds we were able to save went toward facilities the client had moved to its alternative needs list.”

A collection of learning communities

Desks are readily reconfigured. Photo by Chris Cunningham.

Size was a definite design factor in determining the layout of the school. Students have to be able to move within the facilities within a reasonable timeframe, so the design subdivides the high school into communities, which allows the students to share core areas and migrate to particular areas as needed for their individual educational path.
“We initially broke it into three communities, with a fourth possible for the future,” Richardson explains: world health, global communications, and technology. So a student in the health sciences would get access to all core curriculum—math, English, and social studies—then also have adjacent access to science, nursing, emergency medical technical, and health and human science facilities. Global communications would, for their part, connect to technology in communications, broadcast, and journalism areas.

“The other thing the future plan embraces,” Richardson continues, “is that these students are tomorrow’s leaders. To prepare them to be independent and collaborative, we needed to provide appropriate spaces: small, individual ones for independent work, small-group collaborative areas, and large inter-disciplinary places. To encourage collaboration among students, the design team had to change our own thinking. For example, instead of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), we see the adjacency-planning acronym as STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math), which excites us as architects, particularly, because it explores all those applications involving visual information.”

In addition to group working areas, such as the learning libraries—two-tiered spaces similar to college learning areas with sound systems that allow all students to hear the teacher and participate—there is a main library that facilitates research through shelved books as well as electronically accessed information. The library features a coffee bar, which the planning committee found particularly appealing as a way to attract students, and has ready access to common spaces.

Students arrive in the morning along a terraced, landscaped courtyard that also provides outside gathering places. On their way to locker bays, they pass the highly visible performing, culinary, and fine arts and building-trades facilities. (Taking lockers out of the circulation area reduces hallway congestion.)

The school now boasts a gymnasium that seats 2,000 for basketball and volleyball. There is also an auxiliary gym, which the school was able to afford by realizing savings elsewhere. Directly accessible from the outside, it can be used by the community, the same as a fitness center at the front of the school. Outside, near the field house with its locker rooms and refreshment amenities are the competition fields and football stadium with artificial turf, another of the additive alternates.

Resource efficiency

The entrance makes a statement of welcome. Photo by Chris Cunningham.

This building currently is tracking LEED Gold. It provides lots of natural light in every instructional space, which have light controls to dim mechanical lighting automatically, as appropriate, along the window (brighter) and corridor (dimmer) sides of rooms. Exterior shading devices reflect glare-free light onto room surfaces. Classrooms are environmentally sound, safe, comfortable, and efficient so they do not distract from learning by being uncomfortable.
This will be more energy-efficient than the old school. “It’s a bigger building, though,” Richardson says, “so whether it consumes less energy overall is yet to be seen. We’ve also taken the step to control lighting with motion detectors. And the roof reflects heat rather than absorbs it and is well insulated to further reduce heat transfer.”

Other elements include “green housekeeping” guidelines for environmentally sensitive cleaning products and practices. For instance, the building features linoleum tile, an attractive, renewable material that is readily cleaned with a wet mop. “That’s a green housekeeping approach because you don’t have to use chemicals that would go into the storm water system,” Richardson explains. “A number of the products we’ve used are renewable with high recycled-material content. The outside of the building is trimmed with long-lasting aluminum-composite metal panels manufactured from up to 90-percent post-consumer recycled material.

“The idea behind LEED certification was not to get a plaque on the wall. It was to be a good example, with the building serving as a teaching tool to everyone about how to behave in the larger community. With integrated recycling and containers distributed everywhere throughout, the building will inspire a culture of conservation because it shows that a building’s performance depends, in part, on how its occupants behave.

“Overall, this is one of the most advanced and innovative high school instructional environments in Virginia,” Richardson says. “In fact, there is talk of having partnerships with nearby higher-education institutions, which would use the building after hours as satellite learning facilities.”

It’s a nice place to be, too, adds Fluvanna School System Director of Secondary Instruction Brenda Gilliam: “The spaces in the new school are so welcoming, open, and filled with the natural light. The really great thing is that the experiences the kids have in the classroom are very similar to what they will face in the real world. Walking through the campus, you get a tremendous feeling of walking through a college campus.”

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