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With Design Competition, the Los Angeles Unified School District Looks for Prefab Solutions

To upgrade their facilities and replace portable classrooms, Los Angeles asks for modular pre-fabricated schools flexible enough to respond to their site and environment

By Nalina Moses

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) isn't afraid of innovation. In 2009, the school district unveiled Central Los Angeles High School #9, a campus for the visual and performing arts designed by Austrian architects Coop Himmelb(l)au. Its buildings were rendered in an exuberant, Deconstructivist style, with sloping walls, cantilevered volumes, and a twisting exterior staircase. Now it seems as if the city is ready to bring some bold design energy to the rest of its schools.

Anticipating funds from a $7 billion bond for educational improvement that may become available in 2014, LAUSD is developing a master plan for new structures and enhancements. Searching for fresh ideas, it initiated two design competitions in June 2010. The first was for a flexible prototype for a 25,000 to 30,000-square-foot education building that could house various LAUSD programs such as a charter school, a small learning community center, or administrative offices. The second was a prototype for a 6,000 to 8,000-square-foot classroom building that could replace some of the existing 5,100 portable classrooms currently used throughout the city. In the spirit of innovation, the agency suspended its own stringent design requirements.

Three prototypes

While the competitions drew 81 entries from around the world, the three schemes that LAUSD selected in December 2010 for implementation came from local firms. Gonzalez Goodale Architects (GGA) in Pasadena and Hodgetts + Fung (H+F) in Culver City won for their educational building prototypes, while Swift Lee Office (SLO) in Los Angeles won for its classroom building. Now, half a year later, these firms are busy completing feasibility studies and design development for the first prototypes.

The winning prototype for the educational building from GGA breaks the school into smaller two- and three-story blocks. These blocks can house classrooms, service spaces, and public facilities, and are connected by slender, open-air steel staircases and corridors. GGA principal David Goodale, AIA, in an email interview described the building as "a series of pavilions strung along a thread of bridges." These modular building blocks and connecting passages can be combined in a near-infinite variety of ways to meet programmatic requirements and site conditions.

The blocks will be constructed from a steel frame with steel connections for simplified engineering and assembly. It can be clad with modular prefabricated panels in a variety of materials including curtain wall glazing, metal, cement board, and recycled wood. A distinctive butterfly roof with raised corners (which conceals banks of photovoltaic panels) opens interiors to the sky. As described in the GGA competition narrative, “There's a thesis here that students need a place that opens out to nature, to the sky, to the city; a place that supports expansive dreaming."

The winning prototype for the educational building from SLO shapes a simple two-story mass with long billboard-like facades. Its open interior can be fitted out to accommodate a 500-student school, library, gymnasium, or community center. One key to the design is its programmatic flexibility, which ensures that the structure can be fitted out easily to meet current and future LAUSD needs. Because SLO has designed many LAUSD school enhancement and transitional projects, they're aware of the structural, mechanical, and spatial shortcomings of older buildings. "From the beginning, our goal was very clear--” wrote SLO Principal Gloria Lee in an email interview, “To design an economical, healthy, well-lit, high performing, and flexible prototype school building."

The SLO prototype is designed to be LEED-certified and to consume net-zero energy, requirements that were not part of the competition brief, but that SLO felt were integral to the school's viability. The building will be assembled from a pre-engineered steel frame and wrapped with a double cladding system that provides an interior wall and an exterior "solar wall" consisting of reflectors and shading devices that regulate light and heat. The result is a school building with a dynamic layered facade that engages the scale of the street while also responding to its surroundings. As Lee explains: "The real intent is for the prototype to be able to take in the site conditions and respond to its context with specificity. If necessary, the building can be a backdrop or a signature building."  

The winning prototype for the 6,000-square-foot school from H+F, called "Building Blocks," locates classrooms within repeating bays of an arching fiberglass roof structure. In an email interview H+F principal Craig Hodgetts, FAIA, explains that the inspiration for this unique form was more technical than gestural. The structural fiberglass panels have a double curvature so that they shape a self-supporting stressed skin. The curved shell has unique acoustical properties, so that the high end above the teachers’ stations provides an "acoustic reflector," and the lower segment above the student's seats provides acoustic absorbance.

The modular fiberglass roof shells will be lined up like ribs to shape classrooms, gathering spaces, and support spaces. These rows, in turn, will be arranged to give shape to the entire school. Clerestories and skylights will bring natural light inside. The smooth outer skin of the fiberglass panels will provide a durable, maintenance-free surface that can be customized with computer-generated graphics. Overall, the intention is to shape a learning environment that's energetic and engaging.

Strong and supple

All three firms are completing feasibility studies to assist LAUSD in selecting sites for the construction of at least one building for each prototype. The architects are also completing design development drawings and refining details to prepare their prototypes for a broader roll-out. The agency has already secured funding for construction, so the first prototype schools might be completed in the fall of 2013.

The new LAUSD school prototypes go far beyond traditional notions of design to suggest new ways of planning and construction. These new schools will not be--like Central Los Angeles High School #9--monumental structures tied to an architect's singular vision, but adaptations of a strong, supple prototype that are prefabricated, but finely tuned to each particular school's site and needs.


The Gonzalez Goodale Architects prototype.
Image courtesy of Gonzalez
Goodale Architects, 2010.

The Swift Lee Office prototype.
Image courtesy of Swift Lee Office, 2010.

The Hodgetts + Fung prototype.
Image courtesy of Hodgetts + Fung, 2010.


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