Facilities (Building Envelope)

3 Critical Elements of a Building Exterior

Exteriors must stand up to wear and tear while also meeting aesthetic and community standards.

building exteriors

First and foremost, an efficient building envelope of a school keeps the exterior and interior environments separated. The envelope does so — through various means and components — by regulating moisture, air and temperatures, as well as outdoor light and noise levels inside the building. Those functions are of crucial importance not only to the efficiency and resilience of the building, but also to the quality of the environment for building users.

Creating true, continuous air barriers; installing high-performance windows and doors at the right points; verifying high-quality energy performance through envelope commissioning; and designing a building façade and its features accordingly, are all parts of the process, explains architect Dan Engen of VEBH Architects.

building exteriors

It follows that an envelope’s most conspicuous layer, its exterior forms and surfaces, must stand up to the wear and tear of the elements. But there’s more: Exteriors must also meet aesthetic and associative expectations, including those of local residents and the district that have invested in the building.

Congruence is key. In other words, does the exterior showcase what the district invested in and what the institution is all about? It is not an exact language, of course, but does the bearing of the building reflect the educational mission and goals of the school and its meaning to the district? Is the appearance logical and practical yet inspirational?

building exteriors

The North Olmsted 6-12 school complex in Ohio is a case in point. The exterior is in a Georgian style, with its columns and proportions among the first impressions made by the 315,000 square-foot building. Opened in September 2018, the $90-million complex consists of a high school, middle school, an athletic stadium and a performing arts center. THENDesign Architecture was the architectural firm and Hammond Construction the building contractor.

Efficiency & Aesthetics

The envelope of the steel-framed structure includes a sprayed foam insulation barrier and a brick façade. There is a triple-ply rubber membrane sealing the roof and high-efficiency double-paned windows. There are large, high expanses of exterior glass at certain points between the building’s columns.

The tight building works in conjunction with another feature of the building, its HVAC system. This is the district’s first full air-conditioned building, explains Michael McDade, director of Business Services for North Olmsted City Schools, and the timing of its installation was fortuitous. Since its opening, the North Olmsted district experienced its first hot days, during which unusually high temperatures forced closings in other school buildings. The new building, however, stayed open, he reports.

building exteriors

Old Is New Again. North Olmsted features masonry medallions that were removed from the exterior of the 1930s middle school that the new complex replaced.

The air conditioning system includes two programmable chillers that make ice overnight, depositing it into eight ice storage units. During daylight hours, the system pulls cold air off of the units, boosting efficiency because chillers do not have to run constantly through the day, McDade says. Energy usage figures are still being compiled, but he anticipates that air conditioning itself will create a spike in energy use over the old school building. Still, there is more bang to the buck, so to speak, with a better indoor environment for faculty, staff and students, and plenty of use for the building throughout the year.

The exterior is intended to comport well with the surrounding community: The municipality places an importance on building aesthetics, with a local Butternut Ridge Historic District developing design guidelines, for example. Incidentally, exterior references to the past are evident in rows of Doric columns, a stand-alone entablature form at the entrance, cupolas, and the use of some masonry medallions that were removed from the exterior of the 1930s middle school that the new complex replaced.

building exteriors

Chill Time. The air conditioning system includes two programmable chillers that make ice overnight, depositing it into eight ice storage units.

THENDesign Managing Partner Chris Smith shares with School Planning & Management the approach and some of the dynamics at play when making aesthetic choices at North Olmsted: “We believe the design and layout of the interior of a public school should be led by professional educators while the exterior of the building should be led by the community,” Smith said. “The design is reflective of a Georgian Colonial style inspired by [a] community library across the street. This arose through an interactive exterior design preference exercise held at several community meetings.”

building exteriors

The Test of Time

Building exteriors must also stand the test of time. An example is Pine-Richland School District’s Eden Hall Upper Elementary School in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, which maintains its fresh appearance about 10 years after its construction. There, sections bearing expanses of glass in various tones join white masonry blocks that resemble houses.

Architect Dan Engen, president of VEBH Architects, explains that the “vision for the school came from the district’s strong educational philosophy of developing a compartmentalized building program focused on the student/teacher relationship and advancing team relationships.” In another sense, the configuration subtly suggests farmhouses, apropos given that the school was built on old farmland. And on another tack, the efficiency of the building systems continues to signal the environmental awareness and programs of the school, for which it received a 2019 Green Ribbon award.

building exteriors

In Washington, Pennsylvania, VEBH designed another distinctive example: a major expansion of Trinity High School, which added to a historic, 162-year-old original structure called Trinity Hall. The new section added modern facilities throughout, as well as a security vestibule. The exterior was a major consideration as well. “A signature entry tower was created and the new building’s brick detailing shared cues from the historic structure,” Engen said. “The old Trinity Hall was given new life through renovations to improve handicap accessibility and upgraded to meet the needs of the district office occupants. This unique community facility was preserved and gave special significance to the new high school exterior design solution.”

building exteriors

Going the extra mile to find the best envelope systems and exterior aesthetic solutions can make a key difference. “Educational facilities matter in the lives of people and communities,” Engen added. “These projects are personal to the people and places they inhabit. If done thoughtfully, the resultant buildings will be present for generations and have lasting positive impacts on the students and faculty who spend so many hours within those spaces.”

building exteriors

This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management October 2019 issue of Spaces4Learning.