Re-inventing West Bloomfield High School

If building a brand new advanced-technology high school poses enormous challenges, imagine the difficulties connected to transforming a 30-year-old school building into a technological showcase. That’s what school officials have done at West Bloomfield High School in West Bloomfield, Mich. In the process, the school community has re-energized itself.“We used technology to give the school a heart transplant,” says Jeffrey Boes, an architect with TMP Associates of Bloomfield Hills, the firm that handled the project.

Built in 1971, West Bloomfield’s basic design uses a U-shaped footprint to span 485,000 sq. ft. The bowl of the U contains an open courtyard with entrances leading into the auditorium and cafeteria on one side and the physical education facilities on the other. The base of the U originally housed a large, but traditional, 10,000-sq.-ft. library.

During the 1990s, the 2,000-student school underwent several renovations to keep pace with evolving school design concepts. One renovation, for example, added a new front building fa├žade that closed the opening at the top of the U and upgraded the look of the school. During the technology revolution of the 1990s, the school added computers to some of its classrooms, as well as five computer labs and a server room that functions as a“head end” for the school and the district at large. These renovations laid technology into the facility without attempting to change the character of the school.

A Technological Heart for West Bloomfield

The most recent renovation is a different story. In 2000, school officials used technology to re-invent the look and the character of the school building, transforming it from a typical 1970s high school into a model for using 21st-century technology in an educational setting.

Funding came from a $52-million bond issue earmarked to pay for major renovations to schools across the district. The West Bloomfield High School share of the bond financing included about $1 million for technology and $1 million in construction funds.

School officials, including Dr. Joseph Hoffman, the district’s technology director, spent weeks talking about the school’s ambitious technology plans with the architects from TMP Associates. The discussions focused on renovating the old library at the base of the U. As the concept evolved, the team envisioned a technologically intensive media center surrounded by complementary technological spaces.

Technology dominates the media center. Students study in 30 carrels equipped with desktop computers. They conduct quick literature searches using 16 walk-up computer research stations. A wireless network enables students to use laptops to tap into the Internet from anywhere in the media center. Three rolling carts provide docking stations that store and recharge about 180 laptops provided by the school. An overhead projector, linked to a document camera, the Internet and a laptop, displays presentations on a large-format retractable screen set in the ceiling. “The high school’s media center attracts students who never went there before,” says Dr. JoAnn Andrees, the school principal.

A Design Fitted to the Existing Building

The design of the center and the surrounding rooms fits into the overall school design, while giving the traditional building a new advanced technology character. “It gives the school design a central focal point,” says Boes.

The TMP design gutted the original library and replaced it with an oval structure that houses the media center. Around the oval, TMP laid in a host of complementary technology facilities — a television studio and control room, radio station, a distance-learning studio, a classroom for the study of the influence of media on society, conference rooms and a professional development study for the faculty.

Extensive glazing around the perimeter of the oval and adjacent rooms opens up the entire space to the corridors running through the base of the U and to the courtyard in the opening of the U.

The original structure was designed with few windows. Rooms running along the interior of the U, including the library, suffered from a lack of natural light. TMP introduced natural light with a long, curved roof monitor or linear skylight. A massive oval light well set in the media center ceiling provides additional lighting.

Construction Challenges

Envisioning an advanced technology design is one thing; building it is something else again. Construction manager, McCarthy & Smith, Inc., handled the demolition and construction work related to the structure. As technology director, Hoffman had to deal with the painstaking technology installation, from site preparation through equipment delivery and set up.

Preconstruction work provided Hoffman with his first challenge. The “head end” server room, located in the old library, had to be moved before construction could begin. The room contained 20 servers, a full complement of networking equipment and power supplies, as well as the district’s telephone system. Working with a team of electrical and mechanical engineers, Hoffman planned and supervised the move — across the corridor from the new media center — taking care not to disrupt the district’s communications network. “Infrastructure was the biggest headache,” Hoffman says. “Before each step, we had to think about what we would need in terms of cabling, wiring, voice, video, data and electrical infrastructure.”

Problems included finding more closet space, bringing in more power outlets and preserving the integrity of the sewer and gas lines that ran underneath the floor where the media center was being built. Hoffman also struggled with the placement of wiring and receptacles for voice, data and video connections in the media center and the surrounding rooms.

The mechanical system for the video studio offers an example of these challenges. Extraneous sounds can wreck a video production. “The HVAC system, for example, cannot make any audible noise,” Hoffman says. To deal with this problem, Hoffman worked with contractors to install special air-handling equipment.

Lighting throughout the center posed problems, as well. In the media center and the distance-learning studio, Hoffman worked with lighting experts to insure that it wouldn’t affect the operation of projection systems. “There are many things like this that you have to think about,” he says.

Lessons Learned

After the project was completed, Hoffman spent some time reviewing what could have been done better and what was done well.

“At the beginning of the project, I underestimated the amount of time I would have to spend coordinating details with architects, contractors and the school staff,” he says. “In addition, I might have spent more time talking to people in other districts that have done this kind of work before.”

“Another key to making such a project work is developing a good working relationship with the construction manager. He or she will count on you to handle the technology side of the project.”

Scheduling equipment deliveries arose as another important detail, according to Hoffman. The construction site offered no facilities for storing computers, video equipment and other pieces of technology. To avoid having to leave stacks of equipment lying around the school and construction site, Hoffman developed just-in-time delivery schedules with suppliers — none of the equipment arrived until it was time to install it.

Despite the problems, West Bloomfield High administrators achieved their ambitious technological goals. The media center makes a powerful statement about the school district’s educational vision — a vision that earned West Bloomfield High School one of the 2003 Impact on Learning Awards from School Planning and Management Magazine and the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI).