Sustainable Schools

What's Old Is New Again

Sustainable school design


In 2016, the 21st century school fund, the Center for Green Schools and the National Council on School Facilities issued an updated report on the “State of our Schools.” They found that over the last 20 years, more than 100,000 of our existing schools had become “woefully inadequate and even unsafe.” Their call to action pointed toward facilities that could positively impact health and wellness, conserve resources, and reconcile inequity in facilities investment. Most importantly, taking action would positively impact educational outcomes.

In responding to this call, we cannot rely solely on new construction. Most of the 21st century’s school inventory already exists and accordingly, the greatest facilities impact on children’s education can be realized through strategies that ensure the continued success of buildings that were built 50, 75 and even 100 years ago. Often written off as hopelessly programmatically and technologically obsolete, many of these buildings can instead transform into exciting and forward-thinking 21st-century learning environments that — as noted architectural historian Vincent Scully — “can inspire a conversation between generations, across time.”

Roosevelt Senior High School in Washington, D.C., is a perfect example. Relocated to its current site in 1932, Roosevelt’s campus today is comprised of four interconnected buildings. The three original buildings, a central academic block and flanking theater and gymnasium buildings, were built in a monumental Georgian style that many now would consider true “civic architecture.” However, vagaries of style, trends in educational delivery, urban unrest, and ill-conceived notions of energy efficiency conspired against the campus. In 1977, several nearly windowless additions diminished virtually all of the qualities that underpinned the original design. Most egregiously, the historic front door was abandoned in favor of a modest entrance hidden on the back of the building near the loading dock. The symbolism was clear to all. These buildings had failed, and exacerbated by a subsequent generation of deferred maintenance, the campus entered the 21st century “woefully inadequate.”

Transforming Roosevelt Senior High School into a sustainable, high-performance learning environment required a focus on two complementary goals. The first was to undo the damage done to the original design. The 1932 buildings had great DNA; natural light and views were essential to their architecture. Our design reopened the 1932 courtyard that had been infilled, inviting daylight back into spaces including the cafeteria that had fallen dark. Windowless additions were opened up with new fenestration, skylights, and clerestories, creating daylit spaces that rival those in the 1932 buildings. Wood floors and architectural details were uncovered, restored, and recreated to honor the history and tradition of this school and create a distinctive learning ambiance. This process culminated in the restoration of the front door and the two frescos by noted depression era artist Nelson Rosenberg that had been painted over and long forgotten.

The second goal was to modernize. While restoring the integrity of the original design, the campus had to readily support modern educational curricula and pedagogies, accommodate two co-located schools, act as a community center after hours, and meet contemporary energy and stormwater criteria. While pulling all of these disparate requirements together, the modernization transformed the central courtyard into the heart of the campus. Now sheltered by skylights featuring 10,000 square feet of electrochromic glass that automatically adjusts to minimize heat gain and glare, the courtyard is suffused in natural light and has become the crossroads of the campus. New and more ambitious stormwater requirements in the city also presented opportunities to engage the students in more active and experiential learning. The reopened smaller courtyard became the “Waterworks” — where students can engage the rain as it cascades from the roofs, down a terraced series of rain gardens, to arrive into three cisterns before being reused in the building’s bathrooms. This once obsolescent campus is now pending LEED for Schools Platinum certification.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Authors

Sean O'Donnell AIA, LEED-AP, is a principal and practice area leader of primary and secondary education with Perkins Eastman in New York.

Mary R. Rankin AIA, LEED-AP, is an associate principal and managing director of Perkins Eastman DC.