New-school prototype: Not a Ferrari, but it runs

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In August, school officials in suburban Naperville unveiled a Ferrari of a school. Priced at $62 million, the new Neuqua Valley High School is fully loaded, with sophisticated technology and lots of extras packed into a sweeping, red-brick body.

In stark contrast, Chicago is cranking out Neons: plain, rectangular buildings with the basics (classrooms, a library, a gym, a multipurpose room, science labs and wiring for computers in each classroom). The one extra is air conditioning. But school officials make no apologies. “We have to make some sacrifices,” explains Operations Chief Tim Martin. “Our funding is limited.”

Designing by the numbers

With dozens of severely overcrowded schools and an enormous, decades-old backlog of repairs, the School Reform Board is trying to stretch its capital improvement money as far as possible as quickly as possible. For new schools and additions, that means prototype designs. By hewing to a standard design that is adapted for each site, the board hopes to complete new structures in a maximum of 14 months and save tens of millions of dollars through bulk purchases. According to Martin, millions of dollars have been saved in the bulk purchase of steel alone.

Architects interviewed by Catalyst applaud the prototype approach, which the system used in past decades as well. All say that Chicago is getting sound buildings that allow for a solid instructional program. “The schools have good, acoustic ceilings and good lighting,” says an architect who did one prototype adaptation. “The classrooms are on a good scale. They have the amenities you need for a good education program.”

This architect adds, however, that the small amount of money available for design flourishes has been sapped by cost increases arising from the board’s tight timetable and its affirmative action program. Minority, union masons, for one, are in short supply and have adjusted their rates to take advantage of the heavy demand, he explains.

“When 15 or 16 schools hit the streets at once and have to be bid in three weeks, the pressure is immense, and the costs have gone a little higher as a result,” the architect says. “Given more time, there would be [money for] more interesting geometries and other features, but the basic palette is probably a good one.”

Criticisms of CPS prototyping

Longtime Chicago architect Carol Ross-Barney, whose design of the Little Village Academy won a prestigious American Institute of Architecture (AIA) award, is more critical.

“From my viewpoint, they sacrificed things that did not have to be sacrificed. The schools aren’t very nice, and they’re going to be there for a long time. They’re not really thinking about the character of the [adjacent] neighborhoods or changing educational philosophies. If you think about schools and what they represent in our neighborhoods and society, I’ve always found it discouraging that they’re not as important-looking as shopping centers, for example.”

“The CPS has done prototyping before,” says Ross-Barney. “But this time, the schools are standoffish in their neighborhoods. They are fortresses— big, two-story, brick boxes. There is nothing innovative about it, nothing that says to kids ‘Come on in, this is a great place to be.’ They are prison-like and very institutional, and this is the beginning of these kids’ educational futures.”

Ross-Barney notes that in her Little Village Academy, special lighting accents certain spaces.

“The library has a higher ceiling and a big bay window that sticks out,” she continues, “and then there are littler things—like the computers in the computer lab have sun screens so you don’t get glare from the windows. They are little touches and functional at the same time, but they make the building more exciting.”

Architects lack school design experience

Ross-Barney also questions why the Reform Board did not pick architects with school design experience. “I find it amazing that Perkins and Will, probably the premier school architect in the nation, is not involved,” she says. In the late 1980s, Chicago-based Perkins and Will designed one of four school prototypes for New York City.

DeStefano and Partners, the 9-year-old firm that designed the prototypes for Chicago’s new schools and additions, had no school experience until it designed Finkl School under the auspices of the Public Building Commission. When the Reform Board took complete control of the school system’s capital development program, it chose Finkl as the model for the prototype and commissioned DeStefano to do the work. Other architects then were commissioned to adapt the prototype to specific sites.

Finkl School OK

“The architects hate us,” says Martin. “We’re not going to get many AIA awards here. We tend to be a little bland. We’ll have some nice details here and there, but we are not building grand structures. The architects say we constrain them with our prototype. They want to put their style on it, which is fine, and we give them a little room to do that. But how many James Thompson Centers can you build? How many [O’Hare Airport] international terminals can you build?”

Principals and teachers certainly aren’t complaining. “I like what they built,” says Finkl Principal Elizabeth Elizondo, who came from a 100-year-old school. “I would have liked to see natural lighting in the gym and a few other things, but [the architects] were under many restrictions by the old central office staff, and many of the things I’ve talked about with them they thought about but couldn’t go ahead with.

“Teachers feel there could be a little more closet space. But overall, I think it functions well. It’s very quiet because of the way it’s laid out, and we’re set back from the street. Most people that stop by are surprised it’s a school. It looks sort of like an office building out in Schaumburg.”

Elizondo is especially pleased with the air conditioning. “At my old school, we had no air conditioning. On a hot day, you would be out of it by 1 p.m,” she says. “It was very difficult.”

Finkl is a square donut made of red and beige brick. In the center is a concrete courtyard that is festooned with planters bearing trees and flowers. It makes for a secure playground in a tough neighborhood and serves as an open-air classroom when the weather cooperates.

The interior is Spartan: cinder-block walls painted white with yellow, green, blue and orange accents in the corners of the wide corridors. A smattering of orange tiles adds life to a grey tile floor. Glass walls demarcate the school’s administrative offices from its spacious lobby, creating a bright, airy feel. The multipurpose room, which can be partitioned into two rooms the size of classrooms, is just down the hall.

On the second floor, the library runs the length of the wall facing the street. On the opposite side of the donut, there is a two-story gymnasium; next to it on the first floor is the lunchroom.

Willy Thomas, a Chicago police officer assigned to the school, says the simple, open interior makes it relatively easy to monitor halls. Restrooms are easy to monitor, too, because they are right next to each other, he adds.

Thomas, who has a relaxed, friendly relationship with the students, believes the school’s design and muted colors have a calming affect on the youngsters. “It’s almost like a hospital: white walls, clean floors. It’s not loud; it’s quiet,” he says. “It’s like psychological therapy for the kids, compared to what they’re going home to: graffiti everywhere to and from school, on the sides of houses. When they get here, it eases their mind.”

Davion Johnigan describes his new school simply as “big.” “I like having a lot of books in the library,” he says. “I love to read, and I love the library. I love gym a lot, too. I play a lot of basketball. I like coming here.”

That seems to be the consensus at Finkl, but the school has one potentially big problem: It’s filling up fast. While the older children talk with pride about all their classroom space, Elizondo counts the number of children in her kindergarten classes, an average of 30, and worries that her new school may soon be swamped. Then, she would have to sacrifice her multipurpose room and other non-classroom space for classrooms.

Evolving and alternative prototypes

Both Martin and architect James DeStefano say the new-school prototype is still evolving.

In more recently-constructed schools, the walls are made of a burnished, aggregate stone facing rather than painted cinder blocks; the facing is more attractive and gentler on the eye and easier to maintain. The floors in recently built schools are covered with terrazzo, which looks better than tile and is easier to maintain.

Martin says the new Carson Elementary School in Gage Park is the current standard. “And we will be talking to the principal over the next month or two—as well as the architect and construction people—asking what’s good and what’s bad.”

Chicago’s new-school prototype is designed to serve 720 students but can accommodate 900, should enrollment grow. If more than 720 students must be served at the outset, the school can be expanded horizontally or a third floor can be added, says DeStefano.

New York City took a slightly different approach. Architectural firms designed prototype components that could be arranged according to a particular school’s needs.

designed by Richard Dattner Architects has a four-story central module, called “downtown,” that contains an auditorium, cafeteria, gymnasium, library and administrative space. Attached to it are “neighborhoods” of classrooms that serve up to 550 students each—in essence, schools within a school.

Each of the neighborhoods has a curved front facade that distinguishes it from downtown and provides a separate entrance. The neighborhood modules can be attached to the downtown module in up to five different configurations.

With four architectural firms designing prototype components, New York’s school building program avoided a cookie-cutter look.

Size and costs of schools

Chicago’s elementary school prototype provides for about 93 square feet per student, at a cost of about $12,400 per student, according to DeStefano.

Ross-Barney maintains that her Little Village Academy was more cost effective, providing 97.25 square feet per student at a cost of about $10,280 per student.

The national average is 108 square feet per student, at a cost of about $11,440 per student, according to the school construction report “American School and University.”

DeStefano says city costs tend to be higher because land is more scarce and, therefore, more expensive, and because labor is more highly unionized and, therefore, more costly.

Margaret Sanders, the school system’s capital plan and schedule manager, pegs the total cost for a new school at about $12 million, with additions costing an average of $10 million and annexes costing an average of $2.5 million. However, the watchdog Neighborhood Capital Budget Group says numbers it has obtained indicate new schools are more in the range of $15-20 million. New York’s schools are more expensive. For example, one school built for 1,000 students cost almost $36 million.

“Nobody should be embarrassed by these new schools,” says Ben Reyes, who preceded Martin and is now director of the Public Building Commission. “Prototyping has enabled volume purchasing and expedited construction, not to mention saving consulting costs. The Chicago facilities are more than adequate for the education of the children.

“It would be nice to have the kind of money they have in Naperville for advanced wiring and technology and all the other bells and whistles, but [our] funding is obviously very limited.”