School buildings are increasingly being recognized as teaching tools in and of themselves, balancing man-made structures with the surrounding natural environment to offer rich opportunities. Today, schools are conceived as multipurpose, making better use of a community’s resources by serving both students and residents. They support a balanced experience that includes the academic, the artistic and the physical aspects of life.

Built into a picturesque wooded hillside outside Pittsburgh, the new South Fayette Township High School is the centerpiece of this growing area’s 100-acre K-12 and community educational campus. After completing a facilities master plan, designers from Hayes Large Architects were charged to create a school that offers students, staff and the community rich and diverse opportunities in fine arts, theater, athletic pursuit and academic accomplishment. The design approach takes the best from the architectural heritage of the Mid-Atlantic region to create a familiar, welcoming look in a setting that celebrates the beautiful natural environment. Yet inside, the building design supports the best possible contemporary education available.

The South Fayette project challenged us on many levels to foster an intimate sense of place, despite the building’s large scale (175,000 sq. ft.); support and reflect the district’s mission to provide students and the community with a balanced learning experience that integrates the academic, the artistic and the physical; help educators transform the district’s academic program through a flexible, adaptive real-world design; and position South Fayette to accommodate increasing enrollment and embrace changes in curriculum that administrators know are imminent.

Using a carefully crafted collaborative design process, the architectural firm conducted a series of interactive work sessions with faculty and the community. The process ensured that the high school design balances the outcomes they identified with our best professional expertise about how to get there — within state guidelines and the district’s budget. The very process of designing the high school challenged educators to consider their future program in terms of all it can be.

Grand Scale With a Feeling of Intimacy

Working in harmony with, rather than in opposition to, the steeply sloping site, the design of the building seamlessly integrates the building’s two levels with grade level access from each floor. The design“parti” further breaks down the large scale of the building into component parts that have a townscape look and feel. Students enter the academic wing at the rear of the building on the lower level. The student entry is adjacent to their own parking lot and a well-landscaped outdoor plaza that promotes socialization in a secure area overlooking the beautiful vistas that surrounds the building. The large upper level visitors’ parking area and community entrance are clearly identified by the convergence of the fine arts and athletic wings at the front of the building. The curved, colonnaded front of the building forms a“catcher’s mitt” that seems to say “enter here.” Designed to enhance building security, guests come directly into the office area so their entrances and exits can be monitored. Entrances to the two upper level sports and fitness and fine arts centers are large enough to support the crowds sporting and performance events attract. The configuration allows community use of the gym and auditorium without disruption to the academic clusters — even during the school day.

Creative attention to design details on the building’s exterior further reduces the building’s scale. The large expanse of masonry is broken into smaller components vertically by pilasters (repeated inside as well) and horizontally by a lower base ground level layer of lighter masonry topped by traditional red brick. Generous use of glass accentuates the community areas and invites visitors into obvious gathering spaces. Pediment-topped entries further articulate community access points. Classrooms offer generous daylight as well, but they are differentiated by more traditionally sized windows set in a repetitive pattern that contrasts with the openness of the more public areas.

Learning and Real Life

The academic intent of the building is to link theoretical learning with practical application. Toward that end, two, two-story grade level clusters in the academic wing (9-10 and 11-12) are further divided into discrete liberal and language arts/social sciences on the upper level and science/ math/technology areas on the lower level.

Classrooms are adjacent to computer labs and linked to group work areas to promote the interrelationship among the disciplines and provide practical application of what is taught in the classroom setting. At the heart of the high school is the library media center. The natural flow of the building’s internal circulation guides students intuitively from the two academic clusters to this hub of information and academic energy.

The same linkages hold true in the fine arts and athletic wings. Peripheral to the 800-seat performance theater are rehearsal and instruction rooms for dance, theater, and vocal and instrumental music. Students learn and perform in a real-world theater complex with state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems, staging equipment and a professional orchestra pit. Community music lovers are as likely to hear the Pittsburgh Symphony as the high school orchestra in this Broadway-like setting. Fitness facilities, locker rooms, refreshment stands and athletic department offices adjacent to the 1,500-seat gymnasium (one of two competitive gyms) separate student activities from community events, thereby supporting both interscholastic athletics and community fitness and recreation programs.

Although the exterior of the building fits harmoniously with the traditional aesthetic of the community, once inside students and staff access the current and future worlds of digital and fiber optic technology. The student video production studio is designed for flexibility and state-of-the-art instruction and production internally and, eventually, into the community. At the dawn of the 21st century, the growing community of South Fayette — students and residents alike — has significantly increased its capacity to access, learn and interact with the world around it.