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Trend: Creating effective learning environments on challenging sites

Trend: Designing for adaptive reuse of existing buildings

Building a school does not always mean finding 20 pristine acres. Many of the 2007 and 2008 award submissions made innovative use of challenging sites or existing buildings to create new and exciting learning environments in unlikely places, from brownfields to floodplains, from abandoned warehouses to failed malls.

The traditional sense of location may be changing. These schools are located not where the land is, but where the need is. The trend that pushed public schools to the fringes of their communities may be reversing, as greenfields become increasingly scarce and older neighborhoods assert their interests.

Clients are increasingly receptive to adaptive reuse because it often costs less than new construction and it can be difficult to find open space in the right place. Reclaiming land and buildings that have been cast aside—and creating vital educational facilities in their place—enhances community. It is also more sustainable than building new on an empty field.

The benefits of reclaiming non-standard sites and adapting existing buildings can be significant. Even so, it takes the will to find the way. Innovation takes commitment, collaboration and lots of conversation. The revelation of transformative approaches is not an administrative function. It requires leadership and imagination, and architects can offer both.

Because these projects are typically embedded in existing communities or institutions, the best of them have a strong sense of connection to place and many of them represent community partnerships, both of which can create unique challenges for designers.

Some of the most exciting projects are those that adapt non-educational facilities—warehouses or retail outlets—because those spaces offer more open area and free designers from the dimensional limitations of a classroom-based floor plate. However many projects have transformed traditional school facilities into effective new learning environments.

Examples of Innovative Strategies

Cincinnati Public Schools’ Riverview East Academy is perched on stilts on the bank of the Ohio River. It is the result of five years of community involvement, and much of that discussion was about the floodplain. The community insisted on this property because they wanted the green space and because it is in the center of their community. Community partners provide social services at the school, and the school expanded its collection and operating hours to create a community library.

Cristo Rey Jesuit High School occupies a former brownfield adjacent to Minneapolis’ Midtown Greenway, a former railroad corridor. The site required remediation and soils correction, as well as the demolition of three condemned houses and an auto body and repair shop. The result was an innovative learning environment to support an updated vision for a college-preparation program for students of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds from families of low income.

The Rindge School of Technical Arts expanded cross the street into a former automobile showroom to create an engaging, nontraditional learning environment for its Media Arts Studio, a collaborative project involving the City of Cambridge and Cambridge Community Access Television as well as the Cambridge Public Schools. In addition to hands-on professional learning opportunities for students, the center is a life-long learning center for the community.

Christopher Newport University transformed an obsolete 1950s high school into a dramatic center for the performing arts. In addition to instructional and practice spaces, the Ferguson Center for the Performing Arts incorporates three theaters that support the university’s performing arts programs and provide a community venue for professional performances. An elegant, sweeping colonnade hides the high school structure and links the large theaters on either end.

Resources for Architects

American Architectural Foundation - School Design Resources


The AIA and the Committee on Architecture for Education would like to thank the following individuals for contributing their time and expertise to developing these papers through the interview and review process: Jeanne Jackson, AIA, LEED (Partner, VCBO Architecture); Gerald (Butch) Reifert, AIA (Partner, Mahlum Architects); Ronald E. Bogle, Hon. AIA (President & CEO, American Architectural Foundation); John Weekes, AIA (Partner, Dull Olson Weekes Architects); Amy Yurko, AIA (BrainSpaces); Dr. W. Bryan Bowles (Superintendent, Davis School District, UT.


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