The Key to Designing Specialty Spaces

With the development of new, better and more holistic teaching methods, the design of the learning spaces has become increasingly more important. The need for specialty spaces has created the opportunity for some very creative and effective spaces in a number of our schools. In this cover article, we present several examples of five unique spaces from various parts of the country with some background from the architects, designers or planners who created them.

Multipurpose Athletic Facilities
Flexible spaces that go beyond the classroom.


In today's evolving academic environment, flexible learning space has emerged as an international trend in educational design. Along with classroom space, many architects, including those at SHW Group, have begun to expand this trend into other learning spaces, including athletic facilities.

Highland Park Independent School District's Multipurpose Activities Center in Dallas, Texas, is one such example. Whereas many indoor athletic facilities primarily serve the needs of the football team, HPISD, the Highland Park Sports Club and high school athletic directors all envisioned a facility that could accommodate a variety of athletic teams or student groups.

In response to this goal, SHW Group designed a flexible space to meet the needs of as many as 22 different student groups ranging from football to drill team to power lifting, and which allows multiple groups to practice simultaneously.

The finished product is a 60,307-square-foot, state-of-the-art multipurpose facility that protects its users from sun, rain and lightning and provides its users with a central athletic practice and performance facility.

Thes flexible design strategy centers on a mid-field divider curtain that can be lowered to split the space into two areas. Additional features include a 90-yard artificial turf playing surface with field lines for both football and soccer; a drop-down end zone net with field goal post markings for football; and drop-down batting cages that can be used for baseball, softball or golf.

Fans and louvers installed in the exterior walls provide ample ventilation, eliminating the need for a heating or cooling system and dramatically decreasing energy costs.

Since its completion in July 2010, HPISD's Multipurpose Activities Center has served its function effectively. On any given afternoon, the facility is buzzing with activity as teams hone their athletic skills, adapting the space for their individual needs.

Good news travels fast, and it didn’t take long for Super Bowl XLV planners to reserve the space as a backup practice facility for the NFL teams that will face off in February 2011 in nearby Arlington, Texas.

Jonathan Aldis is a principal-in-charge for SHW Group.


Media Centers
Designing spaces that serve the students and the community.

Modern media center designs are flexible for various functions and user groups, ranging from individual learning and quiet research to large group activity and community social events. Effective media centers are a hub of activity, they are considered dynamic and centrally located.

The 12,680-square-foot media center at Metea Valley High School in Aurora, Ill., fits both definitions. It embodies the academic and physical nexus of the new 3,000-student high school. 

During the planning phase, DLR Group and Indian Prairie School District discovered the new media center should serve both the student body and surrounding community. At 464,200 square feet, the scale of the school directed positioning the media center toward the perimeter of the building for easy community access. Locating the space near the academic core supported student use. 

The final solution suits both students and community. Students identify the media center as the heart of the school. Branching out from this core are the four academic wings that serve the student-centered 21st century school. Two large courtyards flank the media center, establishing the freedom for students to move outdoors in a secure space. The courtyard design floods the media center with natural light.

To provide community access to the media center, main entries are located at each of the four corners of the space, effectively positioning the media center adjacent to the building perimeter. True to its dual purposes, Metea Valley High School’s media center is a place of peaceful reflection and activity. It is a central place for gathering, and is a perfect spot for individual or group learning. It is the place to be.

Dennis Bane, AIA, LEED-AP, is a principal with DLR Group in Overland Park, Kan.


Music Room Design: What Not to Leave Out

Music education is an investment that begins with creating specialized rooms for music rehearsal and performance. These are unique spaces that function almost as musical instruments themselves and their look, sound and “feel” have a great impact on the perceived quality of a school’s program as well as its results.

When asked what things are most often overlooked by schools when designing new music spaces, Craig Jameson one of the principals at Parallax Associates, in Culver City, Calif., offered the following list.

Getting the Room Shape Right
There is an art to shaping walls and ceilings to assure that sound is distributed evenly. Parallel and concave surfaces should be avoided since these tend to concentrate sound into specific areas and cause interfering reflections.

Providing Acoustical Separations

Adjacent rooms can be a source of unwanted noise in the music room. Special construction techniques are available that create barriers to sound travelling both in and out. These techniques include special assemblies for walls, ceilings and floors.

Developing Appropriate Internal Acoustics
Depending on the room’s specific use, criteria must be set for how it will sound. This is where a skilled acoustical engineer is of immense value. The engineer sets acoustical standards, specifies and locates finish materials to meet the standards, and tests the room when it’s complete to assure success.

Including Critical Support Features
Sometimes, fundamental program needs are forgotten in the design process — even items as obvious as:
  • a generous number of power outlets;
  • a flexible lighting system to support different rehearsal/performance scenarios;
  • private practice rooms;
  • a variety of storage spaces for instruments, risers, chairs, music stands, etc.;
  • integrated audio-visual systems; and
  • generous counter space with sinks for cleaning instruments.

Keeping these points in mind when planning new music facilities can help schools avoid common mistakes and get the inspiring results they are hoping for.

Craig Jameson, AIA, is one of the founding principals of Parallax Associates in Culver City, Calif.


Outdoor Classrooms
Inspirational spaces that encourage relaxed, interactive learning.


For its 40th anniversary, Atlanta’s Galloway School decided to erect a memorial to its late founder, and approached artist Martin Dawe of CherryLion Studios. For inspiration, they offered a quote from founder Elliot Galloway: “Teaching is like sitting on a log, with the student on one end and the teacher on the other.” Dawe is known for creating sensitive, impressionistic portrait sculptures, mostly for public locations, and has a passion for making his works interactive. So rather than a simple statue on a pedestal, he gave the school an inhabitable outdoor room.

Dawe likens “Elliot’s Circle,” which was unveiled last May, to a campfire ring. “The notion is to encourage storytelling,” Dawe says. It consists of nine concrete “logs.” Seated on one is a life-size cast bronze sculpture of Galloway, book in one hand, mug in the other. Facing him from another log is the figure of a student, modeled not to be gender- or ethnicity-specific. The entire flagstone-paved piece is 14 feet in diameter – intimate, but still big enough for use as a classroom. (Classes at the private school typically have a dozen students.) The brass log ends are engraved in spirals, suggesting tree rings, with the names of every Galloway alumnus; funds for the project were raised entirely from alumni.    

Installed on the campus’ front lawn, “Elliot’s Circle” was an instant hit with students and teachers. “The sculpture is accessible in an obvious way,” says Dawe. “It can be touched. You can engage it. More subtly, the angle of Elliot’s neck and shoulders, the tilt of his head, even the placement of his feet were thought out to encourage the viewer to join him. In fact, the log on which he’s seated has enough room for a kid to nestle right beside him.” 

Jonathan Lerner is an Atlanta-based writer who specializes in the built environment and learning spaces.

High-Performance Auditoriums

Conventional wisdom assumes that multi-purpose flexibility in auditoriums necessitates average technical quality for all. That is no longer the case. New ideas in design, technology and equipment can create a high performance venue with excellent acoustics, lighting and technical support for a variety of performance types.

It is often difficult for schools and community groups to pay for separate, specialized performing arts venues that meet performers and educators expectations for high-performance spaces with outstanding technical qualities. By pooling resources and planning carefully, school districts and communities can build shared facilities that provide for the needs of all users without sacrificing performance.

An interactive design process, including stakeholders from all school and community performing groups, can create a dialogue and define the common needs of all. This process allows the client and designers to find the exact balance between specificity and flexibility. What are the needs for music, drama, lectures, meetings and all other potential uses? The process defines the audience size, acoustic characteristics, technical equipment and support spaces for each activity, and finds the common denominators.

At Northfield Middle School this design process defined the need for a performance space that emphasized musical performance and assembly for audiences of up to 700. The community need for dramatic performances were met at a larger shared hall. The resulting concert hall did not need a proscenium, fly-loft or orchestra pit. The volume of the stage and audience chamber is combined, improving acoustic intimacy. The adjustable orchestra shell accommodates solo, ensemble and full band and orchestra performances.

The Sami Bedell Performing Arts Center goes beyond the school district and local community to serve a regional need. The facility was planned to seat one thousand to accommodate festivals, concert tours and “Off Broadway” traveling shows. The solution was to plan a flexible complex with both a performance hall and a black box theater. The large hall has one thousand seats and utilizes tunable technologies to achieve different acoustic qualities for superb music and spoken word performances. Its “Road House” style stage and amenities make it a professional quality theater that can accommodate nearly any production. The multi-purpose black box is designed for experimental drama, musical ensembles, dance and as a “second stage” rehearsal space.

Steven Miller, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is a principal at Perkins+Will in the education practice.
Andrew Kordon is a project manager at Perkins+Will.


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