Peter Gluck and Partners design sustainable school to meet the urgent educational needs of the neighbourhood
East Harlem, New York is a community beset by poverty and its attendant ills of early high school withdrawal, violent crime, teen pregnancy, and drug abuse. The East Harlem School (EHS), located on East 103rd Street in East Harlem, is an independent, not-for-profit, year-round middle school that recruits students from low-income families in the community. This new 27,800 square foot building, completed in the Fall of 2008 on the site of the original, allows the school to triple in size to meet the urgent educational needs of the neighbourhood.
Ivan Hageman, Co-Founder and Head of School, said "Our dream was to have a space that showed we would defend our families' interests [and] had a soaring ambition for them and ourselves... In a democracy, we believe that ... shared spaces, not private dwellings should be the most beautiful in our lives" and for the new building, "There is a hush when people enter here... an intake of breath when one realises that this is really how things should be." Light, calm, creativity, community. These are the things that inspire learning and awareness, and are attributes echoed in the design of the building.
Spaces for school-wide gathering and special events, which are more public in nature, occupy the lower floors. The entry lobby, dining room, multi-purpose gymnasium and backyard are all linked by light-filled stairs and gentle ramps. Sheathed in translucent, acid-etched glass, a hint of the daily activities of students and teachers is conveyed to the neighbourhood while a protective veil is provided to maintain the intimate nature of the school. Classrooms and other specialty academic spaces reside on the upper floors, and are screened by a fabric-like weave of windows and panels of varying colours and degrees of reflectivity. As part of the pixelated façade, window openings are placed in relation to interior planning rather than imposing a formal exterior logic. In the classrooms, this composition of staggered windows and coloured panels in turn creates an organised system of tack boards for instructional materials and other displays.
As an independent school, EHS was tasked with raising its entire capital budget. The high cost of New York City construction during the building boom, and its location within the 100-year flood zone exacerbated the economics of the project. In the traditional practice when the project exceeds its budget, costs are reduced through value engineering which comes always at great expense to program and quality. Our response to this classic dilemma is to integrate the building's construction with its design. What we try to do is "pin the tail on the donkey," which is to truly and appropriately use all available budget, so that the building is neither under- or over-designed. For example, East Harlem was originally a swamp and the site, located in the flood zone, had a high water table. The foundations required complicated friction piles to anchor the building to keep it from floating, and complete waterproofing of the lower floors. The cellar slab was raised to be just above the water table, making the first floor 3 feet above the pavement. This raised first floor required a ramp from the street for Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility requirements, so the team turned this into a positive asset: the ramp created a processional space for the students arrival to school. It allows Ivan to monitor the morning procession from his office perch.
Peter Gluck and partners acted as architect and construction manager in an architect-led design-build process and delivered substantial cost savings at every stage of the process. Their dual role also allowed them to participate completely in the construction process and involve the manufacturers and sub-contractors in the development of the design. By engaging the actual players in relation to their specific area of expertise, they were able to partner with vendors creatively and give them a sense of ownership over the final product. Their willingness to partner in product design with a locker manufacturer, for example, allowed them to produce distinctive, custom-designed lockers at a standard price.
Initial pre-design and program analysis for land use development also enabled the school to make an informed decision to reserve one of the lots with untapped development rights as a valuable asset for future security.
Ultimately budget constraints pushed the team to a smaller multi-window scheme, which was inherently less expensive. They turned this to their advantage, by relating the scale and shape of the window to the neighbouring windows, and by creating the potential for different light conditions by giving the teachers the ability to customize their classroom environment with operable windows and shades. Corridors were also conceived as rooms, to allow casual teaching-student moments to occur outside the classrooms. By programming in multi-use purposes for circulation spaces, it de-institutionalizes the hallways and gives a sense of place.
Thinking to the school's future, the architects worked to maintain a level of flexibility throughout the building. The rooms can be reconfigured at anytime to accommodate the changing needs of the school as its pedagogy evolves. By using long-span structure with deep lateral beams, we were able to keep all the classroom walls as non-structural partitions. The concentration of the mechanical ductwork and equipment in the corridor ceilings also allows the space from the corridor out to the façade, front and back, to be flexible.
And by streamlining the construction and procurement process, final costs ended up significantly lower than the Guaranteed Maximum Price, allowing for upgrades to stronger and more durable exterior finishes and $520,000 in savings returned to seed the school's endowment. The result was a level of intensive quality control at substantial cost savings, producing a building that otherwise would have been out of reach for the school. The high quality of construction achieved through the architect-led design-build process inspired donors to support the mission of the school, which resulted in the school achieving their fundraising goals ahead of schedule.
Often school buildings are overlooked and seen as infill buildings. But in fact they are extraordinarily relevant as public buildings which can become the hearts of their neighbourhoods. They have the potential to introduce real civic architecture to the inner city. They function as the expression of our times in the urban context.
With high childhood obesity and diabetes rates, and low student test scores and graduation rates, the East Harlem community has a myriad of social ills. The East Harlem School promotes physical activity through its layout, presents a welcome face to the community, and fosters a strong educational agenda in a neighbourhood with failing public schools.
The use of light-filled stairs and ramps at the entry, first and second floors, and the provision of quality gym space and rear yard outdoor recreation space promote health and wellness. Largely due to inactivity, 43% of NYC elementary school children are overweight or obese (NYC Department of Design and Construction [DDC}), and East Harlem has some of the highest adult obesity and diabetes rates in the city (2006 NYC Community Health Survey). Incorporating stairs into the daily routine is the easiest method of meeting physical activity suggestions (Journal Public Health Policy 2009). The East Harlem School was recently featured as a case study example in the 2010 Active Design Guidelines, a publication developed by a partnership of the NYC Departments of Design and Construction, Health and Mental Hygiene, Transportation, City Planning, and Office of Management and Budget.
As a project financed through private donations via a capital campaign, EHS had little flexibility in its construction budget. The complication of building in a 100-year flood plain at the height of the building boom required strategic design to provide a building that accommodated an expanding student body.
The Architect-led design build process resulted in construction cost savings of $520,000 (5% of budget) that were allocated to the school’s endowment to ease the pressure of fundraising during the economic downturn. Built at $337/sq ft while NYC public school average is $571/sq ft for intermediate schools in 2009 (2010 NYC Mayor’s Fiscal Year Report). The development strategy was tailored to preserve the adjacent property for future development. Increased donor interest and excitement resulted in reaching 2008 fundraising goal of $2.1 million several months early.
Donors, potential donors, visitors, parents, and alumni frequently comment on the building’s aesthetic quality, sense of calm, and their desire to be in it. This anecdotal information has led the school to initiate an anthropological study to quantify this information as a future tool for fundraising, grant opportunities, and recruitment. The provision of quality gathering spaces (dining room, gymnasium, backyard) allows for on-site fundraising events in lieu of renting off-site, reducing this budget line item.
Sustainable strategies had to be vetted through an intensive first-cost analysis, which prohibited many big-picture approaches to building systems. Sustainability was incorporated where possible within the confines of the limited budget. The building operates at 17% below the average energy consumption of buildings as defined by the EPA Energy Star Target Finder (74.74 kBtu/sf/year), due to a highly insulated building envelope, high-albedo roof membrane, a zoned mechanical system, and occupancy sensors. An exterior rain screen cladding system allows the building to breathe and reduces the chance of mold.
Environmentally friendly materials were utilized throughout, including the exterior cladding composed of 85% sustainable raw material, recycled rubber interior flooring and exterior safety surfacing, carpets produced by a carbon-negative manufacturer, low VOC paints, responsibly-harvested ipe wood benches, and low-E glass. The sustainability agenda reinforces the school’s mission of responsibility, moral integrity, and community commitment.
With their prior building prone to flooding and leaks, and lacking acoustical privacy, EHS has made great strides in the new building in raising productivity and student and faculty health and well being.
The efficient spatial organisation of the new building allows 2.5 times more students and a reduction in cost per student by over 25%. There has been a dramatic reduction in student behavioral problems. In the new building, common actions that warrant disciplinary action by the Head of School now occur infrequently.
There has been a 29% increase in square foot per student which allows significant growth in technology, specialty programs, and high quality classrooms. 100% wireless capability results in over 30 times more computer-enabled classroom space, allowing for more sophisticated lesson planning and integration of computers in every subject.
A 60% increase in athletic space led to the recruitment of a dedicated gym teacher, expansion of the athletic program, addition of competitive lacrosse and soccer teams, and a dramatic improvement of the track team to place first in qualifier for independent school championship meet. The new building separates public from private, and noisy programs from quiet programs for a more productive work environment. For a school with a year-round calendar and long school days, the provision of a faculty fitness room, a shower, and a lounge raise morale and benefit health. With natural daylight and playful design, the cafeteria is a favorite spot for faculty to eat lunch together with students, fostering strong community collaboration, communication, and camaraderie.