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A ‘new urbanist’ middle school takes shape in Austin

K-12 Schools

A ‘new urbanist’ middle school takes shape in Austin

Design-build delivery, still rare for Texas school construction, fit expeditiously for this project.


By John Caulfield, Senior Editor | December 27, 2021
The Austin Independent School District is building a middle school for the Mueller master-planned community. Images: LPA
The Austin Independent School District is involved in 19 projects, including a new middle school for the master-planned community Mueller. Images: LPA

Mueller is a 700-acre master-planned community located three miles from Austin, Texas, on what had been the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport that dated back to the late 1920s.

A public-private partnership between the City of Austin’s Economic Development Department and Catellus Development Corporation, Mueller, upon its build out within the next decade, will encompass at least 6,900 homes and apartments, a 42-acre mixed-use town center known as Aldrich Street, 5.5 million sf of commercial space, 750,000 sf of retail space, a medical center, film studio, children’s museum, an 83,000-sf grocery store, and 140 acres of parks and open spaces.

In support of this “new urbanist” environment, the Austin Independent School District—which already owns a performing arts center that opened within Mueller in early 2015—last August started construction on a 130,000-sf Middle School on 10 acres along the northeast section of the city and Mueller, that will double as a hub that links the school to this community’s neighborhoods. The middle school, with an 800-student capacity for 6th through 8th graders, is expected to be ready to accept students and teachers in August 2023.

The new middle school “will contribute to the fabric of the community,” predicts Kate Mraw, ALEP, RID, LEED AP BD+C, principal and design director for LPA, the architect on this project. The school will connect to Mueller’s bike and hiking trails, and offer a park and other public spaces on its premises. And because it will draw students from beyond the immediate neighborhood, it will bring greater diversity into the community.

A QUICKER WAY TO BUILD SCHOOLS

LPA and Coleman Landscape Architects are working with Joeris General Contractors, which the Austin ISD hired to spearhead this design-build project.

Burton Hackney, Vice President of Central Texas for Joeris General Contractors, tells BD+C that while the design-build delivery method is still the exception for building schools in the Lone Star State, “after the bond passed, [the district] needed a way to get some schools up quickly.” The Mueller project is one of 19 new constructions and modernizations that the Austin ISD is engaged in, funded by a $1 billion bond that voters passed in late 2017.

Hackney, an Austin native, says the airport redevelopment has long been thought of locally as “sacred space.” At one time, a new elementary school was on the table. But, he recalls, the district’s circumstances changed: at the time the bond was floated, more than 1,000 middle school students had been leaving the region from nearby charter schools, according to the ISD’s Facility Master Plan.

This is Joeris’ second design-build project for the district. Hackney says his firm’s culture “aligns” with that delivery method because it emphasizes lean principles. “We didn’t have to go through the value-engineering process because the GC was involved in all the meetings right from the start,” confirms Mraw.

DEMOCRATIC DESIGN

Interior of the Austin ISD Middle School at Mueller.
Sustainability was a big factor in the middle school's design.
 

The Building Team is pretty much working from the ISD’s design documents. But the design process also included “a diverse stakeholder group that was heard from,” says Hackney. Catellus had a representative on the architecture team. And Mueller “was very specific about what it wanted,” he states.

During the design phase for the middle school, there were 16 architectural team meetings, four community meetings, and seven neighborhood meetings. The Austin ISD initiated those early talks, which Mraw says focused on “hopes, goals, and dreams,” as well as the importance of sustainability.  

Mueller was the first neighborhood in Texas to earn LEED for Neighborhood Development Stage 3 Gold Certification. All the roofs of the Austin ISD Middle School will be solar ready. Durable and environmentally friendly materials are being used throughout, and 100 percent recycled water will irrigate the site’s vegetation. The school’s design—which takes into account its orientation to the sun—is expected to reduce energy use by 32 percent from a baseline standard.

The school design also pays homage to the original Mueller airport with a large, wing-shaped roof, a gymnasium that resembles an aircraft hangar, and runway-inspired wayfinding graphics throughout the campus.

A NOD TO THE PAST

The school's exterior cladding matches that of the airport's tower.
The school's fiber-cement cladding matches the color and pattern of the airport's still-standing tower.
 

Hackney says there was budgetary discussion, during the design phase, about what kinds of materials to use for the school’s exterior skin to resemble the Art Deco-like pattern of the eight-story airport tower, which is still standing. (The tower’s dark and light blue panels were restored several years ago.) The agreed-upon material is an integral-colored fiber cement panel made by the manufacturer TAKTL.

According to LPA, other exterior building materials are being used, too, including brick masonry veneer, a perforated and corrugated white metal screen, and anodized aluminum for the metal soffit and roof fascia panels.

The school’s roof and stacking also went through some changes to address budgetary concerns. The project’s total cost is $53.2 million, of which $45.5 million is for construction.

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