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High-Tech High

High-Tech High

Chicago college preparatory school is a model of technical sophistication

By By Gordon Wright, Editor | August 11, 2010
This article first appeared in the 200203 issue of BD+C.

"A challenging program on an incredibly visible site. An outstanding environment for learning." These capsule comments about Chicago's new Walter Payton College Preparatory High School by Richard Mann highlight its immediately obvious attributes. Mann is a principal of Mann, Gin, Dubin & Frazier, the school's architect of record.

The school is named in honor of the late Walter Payton, running back for the Chicago Bears, who died in 1999. The commemoration honors Payton's leadership as well as his role as a special education teacher.

Payton Prep offers a math, science and world language curriculum and draws college prep students from throughout the city. The school's high-tech appearance is conveyed by its signature feature, a four-story atrium punctuated by castellated plate roof girders. This is the view that the school conveys to thousands of daily train riders who see it from elevated tracks just a block away. The four-acre site is less than two miles north of downtown Chicago.

Security and community issues were important considerations addressed in the design of the school, which opened in August 2000. These were resolved by dividing the building into separate elements. A four-story Academic Wing contains the major teaching spaces, including classrooms, laboratories and small lecture halls. The Public Wing contains administrative facilities, an educational resource center, kitchen and dining facilities, a large lecture hall, practice gymnasium, and classrooms for specialty subjects.

The challenge of linking these elements to create a compact campus was resolved by an atrium that serves as an internal "street." It is narrowest at its east end, where the school's main entrance is located, and widens as it extends westward. This trapezoidal shape, combined with its four-story height, creates a large open space that is extensively used by students. The initial plan to make the atrium walls parallel was modified to inject excitement into the space and to take advantage of afternoon natural light that floods into the west end of it. The main entrance is monitored from a security station in the atrium.

The Academic Wing's technology distinguishes Payton as one of the country's most sophisticated high schools, claim offices. All classrooms and laboratories have raised access flooring to accommodate the use of computers. Laptops, which plug into ethernet ports in the floor, are available to all classes.

Interconnection flexibility

Providing the flexibility to reconfigure the Category 5 cabling was the primary reason for incorporating the access floor system, notes David Tufte, project manager for mechanical/electrical/plumbing engineer Primera Engineers, Chicago. HVAC air distribution is overhead. Tufte says the underfloor space was not used as an air plenum because the Chicago Building Code requires that cabling be encased in conduit instead of being routed in an open cable tray. Additionally, the 6-in.-high raised floor did not provide enough clearance to divide the underfloor space into two plenums — one for air and the other for cabling.

The 21 classrooms in the Academic Wing are 900-sq.-ft. flexible spaces with gypsum board walls between them. Windows on the west side of the school are triple-glazed to reduce the noise of passing trains.

The atrium is fulfilling its intended function of building community among students, according to Payton Principal Gail Ward. Besides serving as a congregation space, the atrium is used for academic exhibits and dances. Table tennis and foosball tables on its first floor are popular lunchtime attractions, and exercise equipment is located on the second level. Drawing particular praise from students are the twin open stairways in the center of the atrium, which facilitate efficient movement between classes. Observing that stairways are frequently a breeding ground for disciplinary problems, Ward says that since Payton's stairs are not hidden in the corners of the building, it is unnecessary to monitor them with security cameras.

As the length of the atrium roof girders gradually increases, they had to be precisely detailed to assure that they would be correctly fabricated, says Farhad Rezai, principal in charge with structural engineer Rubinos & Mesia Engineers, Chicago. The atrium tops out just below the 80-ft. height that triggers the high-rise provisions of the city building code.

The soaring atrium achieves its intended goal of fostering student interaction. Two wide, curved stairways facilitate movement between classes.

The atrium roof consists of a double-barrel truss ceiling that creates an offset of 3.8 degrees between the Public Wing and the Academic Wing. This provided a challenge for general contractor Michuda Construction of Chicago. Limited availability of iron workers necessitated erection of the two wings before the atrium roof trusses, requiring precise alignment.

The team that designed Payton was led by Chicago-based architect DeStefano and Partners, which served from 1996 to 2000 as managing architect for a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) capital improvement program. The program provides more than $2.5 billion for the district's first major new construction and renovation program in more than 30 years, funding nearly 50 new schools and major additions. CPS coordinates the simultaneous design and construction of multiple schools and additions on an aggressive schedule within budgetary constraints and according to its own design standards.

The program developed by the managing architect proposes an educational program in conjunction with CPS, formalizes the site documentation and prepares a transfer package that includes 50 percent complete construction documents and specifications for assignment to a prequalified architect of record. This fast-track process reduced the design and construction time for a new school to 20 to 22 months, compared with the old 30 to 36 months. Because of its tight site, Payton is not regarded as a prototype for other school projects, although some of its features are considered models for other new high schools. The delivery system DeStefano developed included two prototypes for elementary schools — a courtyard plan for larger sites and a linear plan for small sites.

Payton High School’s exteriors are clad with brick.

The firm withdrew from consideration for continued involvement in the program after the managing architect's scope of services and fee structure were modified, according to CEO James DeStefano. The ambitious CPS program has been substantially reduced because of funding shortfalls in the 432,000-student district.

Because DeStefano had been hired as the project's architect prior to the implementation of the master architect/architect of record program, the transfer package for Payton included drawings that were 75 percent complete.

Reflecting on the school's design and construction, Ward observes, "We worked as a team of 'hard hats,' contributing ideas with proud results. It was such a privilege to have been a team player on the project."

Construction Costs

General requirements $2,202,721
Site work 981,393
Concrete 1,214,173
Masonry 5,281,847
Metals 1,865,362
Wood and plastics 427,669
Thermal and moisture protection 840,466
Doors and windows 1,626,685
Finishes 1,520,247
Specialties 752,879
Equipment 311,481
Furnishings 607,887
Special construction 269,286
Conveying systems 102,000
Mechanical 3,863,647
Electrical 3,091,673
TOTAL $24,959,416

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