Building Blueprints (Facilities In Focus)

Performing Dual Roles

joint-use space for students and the community

Now more than ever, large gathering spaces in today’s primary schools must support and accommodate a wide variety of programs and activities without difficult set-up efforts or costly modifications to the space as it is made ready for various performances. This is especially true when these same spaces are used jointly by the community, as is the case at the new International Baccalaureate Charter Oak International Academy in West Hartford, Conn., which is expected to be complete in time for the 2016-2017 school year.

An intra-district magnet school, Charter Oak Academy is deeply rooted in the culture of the West Hartford community, which the ultimate design acknowledges through its distinctive circular form while its program and the organization of the spaces reflect the principles of the global International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (PYP). As such, it was critical that the design the community during the planning phases to synthesize with the facility goals and requirements of its rigorous IB curriculum.

When the time came to design the auditorium, one of the spaces to be jointly used by the community, the majority of the community communicated a desire for a dedicated sloped-floor auditorium space, versus a multipurpose cafeteria with a performance platform. As the auditorium will host music, dance, lectures, intimate recitals, and full orchestral concerts by students and faculty, it will also host performances organized and performed by community groups and regional professionals.

Architects, theater, lighting, and acoustical consultants must address increasing demands on facilities to not only accommodate these various performances, performers, and events, but also to achieve a high-quality experience for performers and audiences that range in age. Moreover, since operational costs are of great concern to schools, these spaces must be capable of adapting to various configurations without substantive labor or setup expenses, often within the same afternoon timeframe.

planning for community use space

Since these spaces are schools and not strictly performance venues, these auditoriums must provide students with an educational experience demonstrating lighting techniques, sound amplification, multi-media projection, and scenecraft to a span of student age groups.

As Charter Oak Academy serves elementary school-aged children, the design team developed a classic sloped floor auditorium utilizing continental seating that provides accessibility to all areas of the house and stage without the need for lifts or ramps. Acoustics in the auditorium supports both amplified and unamplified word and music events, as well as a variety of dramatic and dance events. To accomplish this successfully, the auditorium is equipped with trackmounted retractable acoustic curtains. In accordance with performance requirements, these curtains are located at the rear and side walls with additional stage reflective panels that can be deployed and tuned to appropriate absorptive or reflective surfaces. Additionally, the acoustical curtains can be drawn or extended as needed to tune a room without using any special equipment.

Good sight lines and clear and unobstructed views to all stage areas are mandatory for families experiencing their children’s performances or events, often for the first time. Providing adequately sized stage space for dance movement, entering and exiting, instruments, riser systems, props, and scenery backdrops all combine to create a memorable performance experience for both students and family members. Where possible, the house should remain somewhat neutral, emphasizing the performers, stage sets, and lighting as the main foci and attraction. However, a memorable experience can include unique features of the auditorium that also enhance the functional flexibility of the space.

For example, Charter Oak’s design includes a large, proscenium-sized, bi-folding glass partition located at the rear of the stage. Not only does the glass partition provide natural light and the option of using the natural environment outside as a scene backdrop, but it also provides the opportunity for opening up the rear of the stage to give access to an outdoor amphitheater and seating located within a circular courtyard. The actual school itself can become the stage set for certain performances; lighting and other props can be set up within the courtyard to create unique and creative scenes. In essence, this design provides opportunities to set up performances for indoor and/or outdoor environments.

As mentioned previously, the auditorium stage curtains can be drawn to provide light control and acoustical tuning to make various stage set-ups easy and economical. Lighting systems are dead-hung from black-iron piping and include integral retractable mechanisms. This allows for lighting design and repositioning to be performed without the need for galleries, catwalks, or long ladders, making them much more accessible and useable for students.

joint-use space for students and the community

Comfortable seating also plays a large role in the look and feel of a school auditorium. In this case, the design team and owner elected to use custom-fabricated bench seating that would accommodate a large number of students for daily use and a smaller number of adults for use during after-hours or special community events.

When designed for joint use by the community, auditoriums must also prioritize flexibility and adaptability in addition to the requirements of the curriculum. Besides school-sponsored venues, we often see local performers and others booking the performance space for public and private events. Often these smaller spaces are the only ones that make sense economically and are recognized more as a “public service” than as a viable financial venture; regardless, proceeds from a joint-use facility must be carefully planned so that each party has clearly defined rights and responsibility in utilizing the shared school and community spaces. Moreover, issues such as availability, responsibility for set-up and break-down, insurance, utility usage, and, most importantly, other spaces beyond the auditorium that may be needed as “greenrooms,” restrooms, and changing areas, make-up etc, can spread the areas involved in a performance beyond the obvious main lobby, toilets, auditorium, and stage areas. A well-written Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) can avoid confusion or misunderstanding regarding rights and responsibilities of outside parties and school administrators.

Charter Oak Academy’s auditorium utilizes many techniques and systems that make the space flexible, adaptable, and suitable for a wide range of venues and functions. As an IB Primary Year Programme (PYP) school, young students interested in learning about theater craft or performances can experience and learn about the variety of room set-ups, techniques, and equipment necessary to accommodate different types of events, each with its own requirements for lighting, acoustics, scenery, and props.

Comprised of great public places inside and out, Charter Oak Academy is an example of a high-performance, 21st-century school that supports not only the educational program, but the community as well. Purposeful joint-use spaces such as this auditorium provide an opportunity for the community to come together for a variety of purposes. For the students of Charter Oak, this collaborative experience can potentially lead to a lifetime appreciation for the arts and foster career aspirations for their future.

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

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