Less Standardization, More Flexibility

Taking career technical education — with a healthy dose of sustainable design — to a whole new level, several new facilities at South Tahoe High School are making waves in Lake Tahoe, Calif.
With the help of close to $30 million in grant monies from Career Technical Education (CTE) and Overcrowding Relief grants, and Joint-Use and High Performance grants, Lake Tahoe Unified School District and architect LPA, Inc., have already completed a CTE “Green” Construction and Transportation Academy, a new classroom building and the Tahoe Arts and Design Academy (TADA). Construction is underway for a new Campus Commons Student Union, and later this year, a Sports Medicine Academy.

But what’s unique about this five-phase master plan is that in addition to outperforming California’s stringent Title 24 energy code by 20 percent, each space was carefully researched and programmed to offer students an exciting and innovative place to train for technical careers.

In fact, upon completing its first year of service, the CTE Building was awarded by California’s Coalition for Adequate School Housing in recognition of the facility as a design solution that creatively meets educational program needs. In addition, the new classroom building and the $11.6 million, 27,300-square-foot CTE Building — hosting automotive/transportation and construction technologies pathway curriculums — also won an AIA Orange County Award for their innovative approach to school design, and a 2011 Concrete Masonry Design Award from the Concrete Masonry Association of California and Nevada.

Commenting on the master plan’s dual mission, Project Designer Wendy Rogers, AIA, LEED-AP BD+C and design principal, LPA, Irvine, Calif., explains, “It’s about sustainability in terms of green for the environment, but also sustainability in terms of giving students the skills that they need to be able to stay in their own community.”

Hollywood in Lake Tahoe
Perhaps receiving the most interest at the moment is the new TADA building, which has been described as a Hollywood-class studio up in the middle of the Sierras. Featuring a 275-seat theater, Foley sound stage, tiered-orchestra room, green screen studio and state-of-the-art editing suites, the 28,000-square-foot building is now providing a most exciting, hands-on experience for budding filmographers, actors and technical stage and television production staff, among others.

“It is just a phenomenal facility for their graphic arts and media programs,” confirms LPA Project Director Steve Newsom, AIA, LEED-AP BD+C, associate. “They’re able to do film editing, sound editing — everything that one would imagine would be done at a movie studio. And they also have a small theater to preview that work on a very large screen and present it in a more intimate setting.”

Having just performed its first full-scale production, “42nd Street,” the cutting edge studio and performance facility is also being fondly referred to as “a miracle at 6,300 feet.”

As part of the preliminary research and planning for the facility, the building team toured several studios in Los Angeles, which ultimately helped guide the task of making the space as high-tech and professional as possible. For example, the split-level TV studio incorporates a filming area and computer bay. “As they’re filming, one half of the class can be on the lower level filming, and the other half editing feed from yesterday’s activities on the upper level,” relates Kate Mraw, CID, LEED-AP BD+C, LPA interior designer.

Design decisions were made to expose students to skills that would set them apart from other beginners entering the industry. The Foley floor, the audio and visual editing suites and the recording spaces are designed to exceed industry standards and prepare students for careers or further education in these fields.

In terms of the overall design, the architects worked to preserve the existing structure by choosing a tension grid — to provide full access to the catwalk space — and display the original exposed beams, as opposed to a dropped acoustical baffled ceiling.

Another goal was maximizing the space in terms of creating some mixed-use areas, despite the fact that the spaces had to be so dedicated. For instance, something the designers picked up from their Hollywood studio tours was the importance of incorporating breakout areas into the design.

“There’s a little outdoor space off of the back side of the building where students have an area to brainstorm, get away from the computer and be in a social learning environment,” explains Mraw. “There’s also a breakout area with some lounge seating right off of the multimedia studio and screening room, so it acts as both a lobby and breakout space.”

Architecturally, the new TADA building is also lending a whole new look to the school, thanks to its location right at the campus’ front door. Consequently, the building is now serving as an important entry point where visitors can easily be directed to the administrative offices or other buildings, whereas previously, wayfinding was very confusing.

The Career Tech Trend
As evidenced by the increasing number of grant programs supporting career tech facilities, there is a growing need for this particular brand of education, nationwide. “It seems to be something that is really sparking some interest in a lot of those students for whom the more traditional scholastic path just doesn’t strike a chord,” observes Newsom.

In other words, CTE provides students with real life experience and training to build interest in potential careers, explains Rogers.

Tying in career tech with what’s going on at South Lake Tahoe, Newsom claims, “This is probably one of the best examples of the career tech education funding program the state put in place under Proposition 1D that anyone could imagine.”

As a fully curriculum-driven program, the design, configuration and function of each of the new buildings has essentially been informed by the creation of these experiential learning environments.

In South Tahoe’s case, an enthusiastic and focused end-user has made for a most exciting project, according to the architects. In other words, the school district brought to the table a very clear vision of what they wanted to create — which incidentally was a key component in qualifying for all these state grants — and then LPA was able to take them the rest of the way.

“We assisted them from the design side in converting the curriculum and the pathways that they had identified for the facilities,” explains Newsom. “And this is exactly what LPA gets passionate about, where the user and client are a very integral part of the design team so that their thoughts, desires and goals drive the solution.”

Offering some advice to other schools and educational planners who are interested in hopping on the career tech bandwagon, Newsom recommends getting an early start in terms of brainstorming and planning grant submissions as state programs, particularly in California, are becoming increasingly competitive, requiring that a high level of detail and thoughtfulness go into the applications if schools desire to qualify for state funding in this arena.

Weaving Into the 
Community Fabric
Another interesting component of this project was a strong request, on the part of the City and Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, to design the new buildings with a strong rustic Alpine aesthetic with features such as pitched roofs and tonal ranges of architecture. Although there was technically nothing requiring the school district to comply, they opted to be good citizens and ultimately made a departure from the flat roofs on their existing buildings with the design of the new facilities.

However, with annual snowfall levels ranging from 125 inches at lake level, to as much as 500 inches at alpine skiing elevations, snow melt became a major consideration in terms of student safety.

The design solution was south-facing roof slopes that shed melting snow into areas of the landscape design filled with different rock swales, strategically avoiding foot trafficked areas.

To handle the snow loads, large structural members were specified with a modified bitumen roofing system over a rigid polyisocyanurate insulation and rubberized, self-adhered membranes.

As for preserving the Alpine look, the architects chose Douglas-fir wood beams for the structural members, the majority of which are exposed, serving as both a structural system and architectural finish.

Adding yet another local twist to the project, the school district went with a lease-leaseback system to keep the contracted construction work within the community.

Additional Building Highlights
In addition to the CTE Building and Arts and Design Academy, the new $16.2 million, 29,200-square-foot classroom building — also known as the Stadium View building — was funded by the Overcrowding Relief Grant, replaces 12 portable units and houses laboratories, classrooms and a dental program. Sustainable highlights include optimized site orientation, daylighting and energy-efficient mechanical and electrical equipment.

Currently under construction is the new student union, which will ultimately provide more of a central gathering place for students, and flexible training spaces, which can be configured as one big classroom or as three separate areas.

“The students have been scattered about the campus in hallways and other available spaces to have lunch, so the new student union will create a space where they can mingle, gather or just hangout, right in the center of the campus,” says Newsom.

Later in the year, the team will break ground on a new sports medicine facility. As is the case with the other career training spaces, the program will be curriculum driven and will reflect the community’s outdoor lifestyle and sports activities such as skiing, snowboarding, hiking, running, cycling, climbing and water sports. “This state-of-the-art therapy facility will inspire students toward pathways in physical therapy, kinesiology and sports medicine,” finishes Newsom.

Career Tech Success Story
As mentioned, because career tech training and facilities are such an important growing trend, the newly transformed South Tahoe campus is now serving as a great example of putting state funding dollars to work in creating sustainable, inspiring and highly functional, curriculum-driven spaces.

Reflecting on the uniqueness of this project, Rogers concludes, “We have designed several individual CTE projects at various high schools, but to have this number of grants approved, and to have this magnitude of success, has been a first for us at LPA. In terms of the funding strategy and the timing — which has been three years from inception of the master plan to having students housed — is almost unheard of.” 

James Kisel is the director of School Planning and a principal at California-based LPA Inc. He is a LEED Accredited Professional, and an active member of the American Institute of Architects and the Coalition for Adequate School Housing.