Facilities (Learning Spaces)

Appearance Does Matter

School Exterior: Kennedy-Curry Middle School

PHOTO © JUD HAGGARD

A special outside can communicate the pursuit of excellence on the inside. At least that’s the case for various K-12 schools with highly distinctive and functional exteriors. Three recent school projects in disparate locales illustrate the point.

Take for example the concrete sphere bollards in front of Kennedy-Curry Middle School in Dallas, Texas. They are a functional, creative way to boost curb appeal, define the building’s front plaza, and to help provide safety and security.

That’s how Richard Chi of PBK Architects, which designed the new Kennedy-Curry, describes the bollards, just a small but distinctive feature of a major renovation and expansion, which doubled the pre-existing building’s size.

According to Chi, his design team had a productive design charrette with district officials who pointed out material preferences as well as a broader notion that the new building needed to have a distinctive presence and be a source of pride for the community. The exterior had to help achieve that goal while also referencing local construction in an affordable manner — the locally produced, commonly used brick of the pre-existing façade, masonry and some metal panels all pointed the way.

Ideas, materials and forms converge at the main entry of Kennedy-Curry: a high metal colonnade, a brick façade, a zigzagging metal overhang as well as a glass-and-steel entry atrium, a main door beneath a canopy, and above it all: a great, sloping metal roof. The end result: a project that brings the facility forward, “celebrates the school and fits the context,” Chi adds.

In a very different setting, the exterior of GEMS World Academy Lower School, a high-rise structure in Chicago, presents very different solutions. The design, by bKL Architecture, “with its playful façade…provides an aesthetic contrast with the context of an otherwise neutral neighborhood of high-rise residential and commercial buildings,” says bKL’s Lynne Sorkin. That façade features “interlacing colored metal panel and varied types of glass,” combining these and other elements to create “a strong presence,” she explains.

Sorkin says, “With a combination of high-performing Low-E glass and insulated metal panels we were able to achieve a cohesive exterior design, address a range of interior functions, provide an abundance of natural light and limit thermal heat gain.” The architectural firm worked with WMA Consulting Engineers to integrate components such as insulated glazing units and the aforementioned metal panels, high-performance lighting systems, energy-efficient walls and roofs, among others, to come up with a building that is visually compelling as well as pragmatic.

School Exterior: Track and Field

PHOTO © EWING SOM

Take the exterior glass for example, for which the designers designed a frit pattern that enables several things simultaneously of relevance to a key space behind the glass. As Sorkin continues, “two of GEMS’ façades incorporate high-impact glass with a silk-screened pattern that covers 60 percent of the surface at a 6th level Multipurpose Room. Use of the frit cuts down on glare, without the use of shades, and enables the space to be used for athletic functions, with only a subtle change in appearance to the exterior.” Viewed from the outside, the room is a corner glass box atop metal paneled sections — the façade’s continuity is emphasized with a vertical red panel that continues from the floor below. The set piece also relates to stairwells behind exterior glass. And there, too, the exterior is articulated thematically and very practically. Sorkin describes the approach: “integration of glass at stairwells provides students and staff with a frame of reference to the exterior and improves way finding as students move from floor to floor. Through a sun study, our team confirmed that the positioning of the stairs at the north elevation combined with the shading effects of surrounding buildings would limit solar heat gain to these spaces.” Put another way, the design acknowledges what happens inside and what is located outside.

School building exteriors can reach out, so to speak, in terms of their functions and impressions, to the surrounding streetscape and community. As Sorkin describes, such exteriors, when in urban settings, “can be designed in response to setback requirements, established building datum lines, color palettes and other features.” She adds that “distinct entrances assist with way finding and the integration of signage, whether mounted directly on the building or as a site feature can provide guidance while reinforcing the school’s ‘brand’.”

Elsewhere, a signature exterior for a new school has also been gaining attention: the Kathleen Grimm School for Leadership & Sustainability, or P.S. 62, on New York City’s Staten Island. Architect Jon Cicconi of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, described how constraints of budget and the goals of the client, the New York City School Construction Authority, spurred the effort to design an unusually efficient and distinctive exterior for the 68,000-square-foot public school for 444 pre K-5 youngsters.

The authority emphasized the need for durable materials throughout, including the exterior, and stipulated a net zero energy standard for Grimm, which is being used as a test case for, as indicated, durability and energy sustainability. According to Cicconi, the typical route would been to construct a brick exterior with a cavity wall, insulation and waterproofing behind it. The standard system also has masonry ties, which he pointed out is a weak point for air infiltration. Instead, the designers opted for a system comprised of vertically standing precast panels with no ties. With nothing puncturing the air barrier but windows, the textured panel system provides efficiency as well as aesthetic needs, he explains.

Innovative School Exterior

PHOTO © 2016 WAYNE CABLE

Additionally, the building’s orientation provided a low-tech step toward efficiency: classroom spaces face north or south, positions that are easier to protect from the heat of daylight. Along that line, there are few windows to the east and west, areas of the school that mostly contain mechanical and storage spaces. Those north and south façades are about 30 percent windows, while the east and west façades are about 7 percent windows.

Elsewhere along the exterior, photovoltaic panels are matter-of-factly placed —“we didn’t try to hide them,” Cicconi says — with the building, in fact, providing a canopy for the panels. And that canopy helpfully provides shade for a playground area. Among other features on the outside of the building, according to Cicconi: site furniture, such as benches with bright colors that help extend the theme of the building, whose window frames provide pops of color along the façades.

As the architect sees it, the client’s requirements sparked creativity that has resulted, in part, in Grimm’s signature, high-performance exterior. Cicconi, speaking of those requirements, says, “We tried to find design opportunities in those things,” and in so doing, “we could create a form to optimize and synthesize” a number of energy efficient and durable features.

Back at Kennedy-Curry in Texas, other features, like the aforementioned sphere bollards, can extend a building’s and a campus’ identity outward in other ways. And it can sometimes be achieved with panache and a touch of logical whimsy. For example, how about sphere bollards that resemble basketballs, baseballs, and golf and soccer balls for campus sports complexes? Suppliers including Belson Outdoors, Markstaar and Quick Crete Products Corp. offer those. But at Kennedy-Curry, the forms are subtler, with a color for the globes foreshadowing the red brick of the building façade beyond.

At the risk of projecting too much, one can perhaps imagine the functional line of barriers as suggesting planets and stars, which in turn could suggest the sphere of the school setting itself, a universe of discoveries, or the world of opportunities enabled by education. Be that as it may, taking extra steps on the outside can indeed suggest or more explicitly communicate learning and excellence on the inside.

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

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