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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 project is an independent, not-for-profit year-round middle school that affects change in this high-risk community by recruiting students from low-income families. Our charge was to find an affordable and creative solution to address the pragmatic programmatic requirements of a school tripling in size, while achieving the school’s dream of, in the words of the Co-Founder and Head of School, “hav(ing) 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.”
The new 27,800 square foot building champions the school’s mission and culture of learning and social awareness through spaces suffused with natural light, promoting calm, creativity, and collective responsibility. The school is committed to maintaining an intimate cohort of students, in which each is recognized as an individual and as a contributor to the community. Students begin and end each day in group reflection. Spaces for daily school-wide gatherings, as well as public special events, are concentrated in the lower floors. The entry lobby, dining room, multipurpose gymnasium and backyard are all linked by light-filled stairs and gentle ramps.
Sheathed in translucent, acidetched glass, a hint of the daily activities of students and teachers is conveyed to the neighborhood, 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 colors 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 colored panels in turn creates an organized system of tack boards for instructional materials and other displays.
The school had an extremely tight budget, caused both by the high cost of New York City construction at the height of the building boom and its location within the 100-year flood zone. Every decision had the goal of enhancing program and design for the school while minimizing costs. Circulation was streamlined in a tight core to maximize usable space. Straightforward exterior wall framing with punched openings was coupled with a high-quality panelized façade system arranged in a weaving pattern for a sophisticated, distinctive presence in the neighborhood.
Prefabricated concrete plank floors lowered construction costs yet provided the advantage of high 11- and 13-foot clear ceiling heights for a light and airy learning environment. Mechanical systems were tightly coordinated to minimize inefficiencies and wasted space. Quality materials were used on the flooring to absorb sound and lessen the institutional feel that plagues most schools. The backyard was designed with special touches, including amphitheater steps, sloped surfaces covered in low-maintenance artificial grass, and a weeping willow tree.
Our office acted as both architect and construction manager in an integrated project delivery process, involved at every stage including land use development analysis, programming, and building design and documentation to subcontractor negotiations, on-site project management, means and methods coordination, project financials and FF&E selection and procurement. We provided a Guaranteed Maximum Price at $9.875 million and came in under budget with over $520,000 in savings, which was returned to the school to become part of their endowment. (New York City public schools cost on average $440-600/SF while this project’s final construction cost was considerably less at $337/SF.) 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 success of the building is well-described by the Head of School, who said, “There is a hush when people enter here…an intake of breath when one realizes that this is really how things should be.” He continues, “While the building is the most beautiful structure within several blocks, we have been free from vandalism and people have thanked us for…building a space they see as theirs…(S)ymbolically the building means to the community that they are of value; that education is critical; that…our families…are of great worth.”
Location: New York, USA
Type: Educational – Public
Architects: Peter Gluck and Partners Architects
Building Use: Middle School
Capacity: 160 students / 5th-8th grade
Gross Sq. Ft.: 27,800 SF
Height: 5 stories
Status: Completed November 2008
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