Anyone over the age of about 30 can't help but be wowed by how much high schools have changed since they last traipsed through the halls. Today's designs and materials are a far cry from the painted cinderblock boxes that many associate with school architecture. The amenities are top-flight, and the technology dazzles.
One of the newest examples is the New Milford (Conn.) High School, a 300,000-sq.-ft. facility that opened last September. It became reality through teamwork that involved not only the building team's designers and contractors, but also the school district, the town building committee, a design subcommittee and the community of New Milford.
The three-story building replaces an existing high school that was no longer adequate. After reviewing space needs and examining its options, the school district determined that a new high school was needed for the freshman through senior classes and to relieve district-wide overcrowding. The plan hinged on passage of a referendum to fund both the new school and renovation of an existing high school for elementary-level classrooms.
The existing school was typical of the 1950s and 1960s - modern for its time, but inadequate for today's needs. Don Fiftal, New Milford High School's principal, says circulation patterns were impeded by its ad hoc additions, and the building's physical condition - including walls, roof, and wiring - was deteriorating. The building could no longer accommodate the projected student enrollment, which is 1,300 currently and is expected to jump by about 1,000 next year.
Moreover, curriculum evolution and new laws intended to serve broader populations created a demand for different kinds of space. Fiftal cites a state requirement to accommodate students with special physical and emotional needs, some of whom need 'life-skills' classrooms equipped with kitchens and laundry facilities. Science labs have become more high-tech. And the demand for athletic facilities has exploded, with the school now accommodating 53 sports teams.
Selling the concept
The mayor and school superintendent spearheaded a campaign for a new school to local officials and the public, which laid the groundwork for passage of a $68 million referendum to fund the plan. 'That working together of the political and school leadership was critical for success,' comments Fiftal, adding that it set the tone for subsequent interaction with the community. The building team briefed interested parties about the design and construction process, and Bridgeport, Conn.-based project architect Fletcher-Thompson Inc. worked with the school staff to identify desired design features and amenities.
Torrington, Conn.-based construction manager O&G Industries Inc., was on board early to help develop a referendum package that voters would eventually approve. O&G evaluated 19 building sites and worked with Fletcher-Thompson to develop costs and a delivery schedule. And community outreach continued: 'We made presentations on closed-circuit TV to public forums, local clubs and community groups,' says Al Daninhirsch, O&G Industries' preconstruction manager.
O&G recommended minor schedule adjustments that allowed the school to open in September, rather than in the middle of the school year. 'We're able to make owners aware of the early decisions that impact the construction process and costs,' Daninhirsch notes. 'One simple adjustment could mean that the foundations go in during the summer, rather than in the dead of winter.'
Accommodating multiple clients
Fletcher-Thompson's design needed to satisfy a number of constituents - the community, the school district, faculty and students. The design team met with school administrators and the teachers to discuss the needs of each department. 'People who will use the building know how it needs to be used,' observes Fletcher-Thompson design architect Jeff Sells. 'We made sure that we had an inclusionary dialogue with them.'
O&G worked closely with Fletcher-Thompson to determine the cost impact of various design alternatives. 'Because we had a fixed budget, there were few variables to play with,' says Daninhirsch. 'It was critical to track costs throughout the design period.'
Accommodating teaching methods that are transitioning between traditional and computer-based approaches was one of Fletcher-Thompson's challenges. This sometimes meant including traditional classroom features and computer workstations. For example, even though information is available electronically to users of the 10,000-sq.-ft. library and media center, space was also allocated for magazines, newspapers, books and microfiche machines.
Special-use areas at New Milford High School include video production studios, a distance learning facility, a world language lab and a remote-controlled science observatory with a weather station.
Cupola adds traditional touch
The design fulfills a desire that the facility echo its traditional New England setting. A cupola requested by a school committee member is one feature that helps to achieve this objective. 'The direction was clearly to evoke some of the feeling of traditional school buildings built around the turn of the last century - something that could be seen as contemporary and technologically advanced, yet looks like a school and refers to traditional elements,' comments Sells.
The inclusion of extensive technology, including 57 computer- and video-equipped classrooms and 14 computer- and video-equipped science labs, raised issues that included the need to provide adequate electrical capacity and to accommodate the heat generated by computers. It also strongly influenced space planning. Sells notes, for example, that computer screens were not placed so that users' backs face a window to minimize glare.
Special-use areas of the school include video production studios, a distance learning facility, a world language laboratory and a remote-controlled science observatory with a weather station. Athletic facilities include a 1,600-seat arena, a 400-seat gymnasium, an aerobic fitness and dance studio, a weight training room, a sports medicine room and a lighting stadium and playing fields. A 750-seat auditorium is equipped with digital lighting.
Colors and graphics, featuring a signature element of rotated squares, enliven interior spaces. 'It was a way of integrating color in a simple design that wouldn't overpower the space, but would be interesting enough to break out of the box a bit,' says Sells. Colors also were used for orientation, with each floor featuring a different color scheme. To minimize the visual impact of long corridors, circulation nodes were introduced at corridor intersections.
A rebate program offered by Northeast Utilities permitted the specification of higher-efficiency equipment, including variable-speed air-handling controls, high-efficiency chillers and energy-efficient lighting. Features such as these are expected to reduce energy consumption by about 25 percent - and yield an annual energy savings of about $100,000 - compared with a comparable facility constructed only to code-mandated energy-efficiency standards.
Cameras deter troublemakers
The current major concern about school security is also addressed in New Milford High School's design. For example, sections of the building can be locked off when not in use, and 75 monitored cameras are located both inside and outside the school. The cameras act as a deterrent to common teenage antics such as scraping a pen along a wall or activating fire alarms, as well as to more serious incidents.
Fiftal believes that the quality and attractiveness of the physical space itself will be a deterrent to misdeeds. 'Students sense that they've been given quality architecture - something that feels very collegiate - and that they're in a special setting,' he says. It is his hope that those feelings will translate into respect, and inspire students' virtuous behavior.
Elyse Umlauf-Garneau is a Chicago-based freelance writer.
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