Where the Children Came First

The Takoma Educational Center had become a fixture in its neighborhood near the northernmost corner of Washington, although not particularly inspiring. Built in the late-1960s, the school was originally designed to the then-popular school-without-walls open-plan concept. Despite that pedagogical moniker, interior space was poorly lighted and lacked connectivity to the out-of-doors.

The old school was gutted by fire in 2010.

Still, Principal Rikki Hunt Taylor worked hard to make the school, as she says, “a cool place to be.” But, on the evening of December 22, 2010, during a roof renovation, a mislaid torch sent the school up in flames. Everyone got out safely, including Principal Taylor, who was in the school working late, but the school was gutted.

D.C. Public School officials worked quickly to accommodate the students, erecting a tent outside the burned shell from which to bus the children to a recently closed school across town. By February 2011, they put out a request for proposals for a design/build team that could rush-deliver a new facility by January 2012.

The new entryway form comes from a wish for more windows and a floor plan aligned with the gym. Photo by Julia Rochelle.

Jump forward in time exactly one year from the fire to December 22, 2011, and the dedication ceremony of a completely renovated school with new life and a renewed mission to its pK-8 students. With Mayor Vincent Gray in attendance, Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson lauded the new Takoma Educational Campus as a state-of-the-art facility, “one of the best in the city.”

The proposal from Turner Construction and Fanning/Howey had been selected in April 2011. How in the world did their combined team do what they did: assemble complete schematic drawings in a month to house the city’s only Catalyst Arts Integration elementary program and construct it in seven months in a way that it could satisfy demanding and often-changing programmatic requirements and still be in a position to pursue LEED® Gold?

A close-knit D/B team

Commitment to the goal began with the city school system, which worked with other city officials to redirect $21 million quickly from already-approved funds. In addition, Turner Construction and Fanning/Howey had worked with D.C. Schools and each other in the past and were able to demonstrate that they shared the client’s commitment to this project.

“One of the biggest challenges to developing that original proposal,” recalls Fanning/Howey Managing Principal Edwin R. Schmidt, AIA, “was that we had to lock ourselves into a room and not let anybody out until we had a design. We brought together Fanning/Howey engineers from one part of the country, Turner people from their offices, and our planners and designers with D.C. schools experience. In one week, we did what normally takes a couple of months. It was a totally different education planning model than I had ever been involved with before.”

Associate architect Bryant Mitchell and engineer-of-record Global Engineering Solutions (GES) soon joined the team for the accelerated design development in close cooperation with school officials.

“You gather inspiration from different places,” Schmidt says. “Principal Taylor—who was desperately trying not to break into tears as we visited the burned-out-shell of a building—told us the old building had looked like a prison. It even had the name Educational Center. When we asked for her vision for a new facility, she said she wanted a bright, airy, open campus. And we latched onto that vision of an entirely new culture for the school.” The school district eventually changed the school’s name from Center to Campus in parallel with that mission.

The design process

One of the first elements of bringing light into the building and opening it up visually to the community was to take a flat, rather uninviting front façade and thrust the windows outward, creating a new grid for the entire building interior.
“Those window prisms, which you see now punctuating the front wall, effectively thrust the school outward. While they capture light they also capture the attention of the students and the community,” Schmidt says. “As we developed the design, we tried to stay at the conceptual level for as long as possible. One of the most critical components of a successful fast-track design/build project is dialogue. We wanted to establish the mission, vision, and concepts with the client representatives and get buy-in to those concepts because we knew certain lesser details might change. For instance, because we were looking at it as a unified campus, a lot of the geometry of the school building plan came from the juxtaposition of the adjacent gymnasium. When we rotated the classrooms to match the gym grid, it allowed us to thrust the internal plan out to the exterior of the building. We embraced that geometry as we continued design development.”

The new school features a well-equipped media room. Photo by Julia Rochelle.

The sequencing of the process may have been out of the norm, but the level of service was not, Schmidt says: “There’s a misconception that when you do design/build you’re cutting out parts of the process. You don’t cut out anything, you simply order it differently. We were already punching out the windows while we were still deciding finishes. And that’s one aspect of this particular process where our close relation with Turner worked to the client’s benefit in both time and cost. We had a color scheme set for colored-glass columns of windows, for instance. By working with the contractor, we were able to see where we wouldn’t need colored glass in certain panels because they were going to be backed by opaque spandrels anyway, and we could get the illusion of color using a less expensive clear tempered glass over colored spandrels. We maintained the design concept and saved money that could go to other components, such as terrazzo flooring that would, in turn, save the client money in life-cycle cost.”

Building modeling assistance

“When we saw that the fire had ravaged the building, we decided to replace the entire mechanical/electrical/plumbing system,” says GES Associate Principal Essi Najafi.

This proved to be a big help in getting LEED credits, too, which were always at the back of design-team members’ minds, even though D.C. did not have an accreditation requirement until midway through the project. “The component of sustainability is very important with all projects,” Schmidt explains. “As with a lot of elements for design and construction professionals, we have reached a point at which sustainability always comes into the overall outlook from the outset. When D.C. made a requirement for LEED Silver certification for public buildings, the client came to us to ask whether we could do that. We were able to tell them we’d already been considering it. Then they asked: ‘Well, how about Gold?’”

“Even if we had been able to reuse the original system as it had been when intact, it really would not have helped us in getting those credits that we ended up needing to get up to at least Silver,” Najafi says. “We did life-cycle-cost analysis and energy modeling at the initial concept phase to determine what our HVAC-system options would be. The client chose to go with a variable refrigerant flow system, which saved them money up-front over an equivalent typical system and earned a lot more LEED points.” The VRF system, which pumps heat as needed among internal spaces, is also more thermally comfortable and energy-efficient than other systems more common in the U.S.

“Through the preliminary planning sessions, we were also able to develop an equipment schedule earlier than usual to shorten purchasing lead times,” Najafi continues. “It gave a lot of energy to the project when the contractor had systems selected and ready to deliver when they needed it. This was really a great team that we had developed.”

The non-rectilinear layout of the building also involved careful coordination among the design/build team members. BIM software helped considerably. “We used the 2013 Revit MEP version, and Turner was able to take our model and pre-fabricate components. To bring the whole project together, we used NavisWorks, which also turned out to be seamless and successful,” Najafi says.

Using new technologies occasionally creates its own misdirection, though, as Schmidt recalls: “There was one meeting where we were all evaluating the building model. Someone had coordinated the structural and MEP systems. As it turned out, the sprinkler lines had U-bends in them to avoid any cuts in the beams. That all seemed very elegant until someone asked: ‘How are you going to drain that sprinkler system?’ You can sometimes get so wrapped up in the BIM software clash detection—loving the technology—that you can forget the functionality of the design system itself.”

New amenities for learning

Even the cafeteria is bright and airy. Photo by Julia Rochelle.

The new 119,000-sf school occupies a 2.3-acre site and accommodates 450 students with two classes per grade. In addition to improved natural lighting, indoor air quality, acoustic control, and thermal comfort, the new facility includes enhanced arts integration. As of September 2011, it has become the sole elementary Catalyst Arts Integration School in D.C. Among the areas it now fully supports are tutoring, wellness and fitness, sports, guided recess and conflict resolution, and arts and culture programs such as Shakespeare Steps Out, Architects in Schools, Embassy Adoption, and Washington Animal Protection.

Arranged in small academic clusters, the design facilitates flexibility for a variety of instructional methods and a sense of community among students and teachers in a safe, well-supervised environment. The school has its pre-kindergarten classrooms on the first floor with their own entrance. And special-educational facilities are located throughout the building to support inclusion of all students in a unified school family.

“Designing this facility to accommodate the arts-integration program was helpful to us, too, as we were reconfiguring the building to optimize the perimeter window access,” Schmidt says. “We could use the deep spaces that aren’t necessarily adjacent to perimeter windows for those dance, music, and choral support spaces that work without windows. If this had been an academic center with no need for those spaces, it would have taken much more time to devise the means to have adequate natural lighting throughout. The client’s vision worked really well with the nature of the existing shell we had to work with so quickly.”

“It reflects our vision, it reflects our mission, and I’m just pleased and thrilled. So are the kids and so are the parents,” Principal Taylor says.

Schmidt confirms the student excitement: “Because of the breakneck speed of construction, we couldn’t bring the kids to the school for a hardhat day, as we usually would. So we did virtual hardhat days where one of our staff walked through the building with a laptop broadcasting to them from hotspots. At one part of a video we made, someone says to the kids ‘look we’re going into your new science lab,’ and the kids are cheering. When we showed that to Chancellor Henderson, she said ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fifth-grade boy cheering for a classroom.’

“There was a lot of ‘I can’t believe we did it,’” Schmidt says. “There was no negative attitude within the team. You didn’t ask about it, you just did it. That attitude went from the children taking the bus every morning to the architects and engineers adjusting to constant changes and the construction teams working three shifts around the clock.

“Initially, we were wondering whether it would have been physically possible to do the project at all. Once you realize you can walk, then you wonder whether you can jog. And once you can jog, you wonder whether you can sprint. Once you’re sprinting, you wonder whether you can do a marathon. We continued to challenge ourselves in our success.
“At the end of the job, three of us from Fanning/Howey painted a mural on one of the walls. We don’t do that on projects we have years to complete. I guess sometimes, when you’ve crossed the finish line and can look back, you just get a little cocky.”

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