LEED Schools Make The Grade

October 6, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — As education evolves, so do the buildings where learning takes place.

While in traditional schools, halls full of lockers may be a common sight, there are changes that are both subtle and distinct taking place at schools around Grand Rapids. Now, lockers may be found in a bank or an island that is apart from the classrooms, which limits noise and disruption and allows educators to keep a better eye on what takes place at the lockers. There is also more common space where students can work together on projects, as they learn to value teamwork in a way that is common in the working world they will be part of when their education is finished.

Though one is found in the city and the other is in the rural suburbs, Alger Middle School and the newly Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified Forest Hills Eastern High School/Middle School are both schools where these features can be found, along with sustainable building materials, an abundance of natural light, and unique gathering spaces to make the most of what the buildings have to offer.

The $13.5 million AlgerMiddle School is a part of a district-wide $165 million renovation and replacement project for the Grand RapidsPublic Schools, while the $47.3 million Forest Hills Eastern school is one of 11 LEED-certified high schools nationally and one of three LEED projects within the Forest Hills Public Schools district.

Both schools were designed by URS Corp. with goals of sustainability and collaboration in mind. Michael Van Schelven, senior project designer for URS Corp., said having space to work together outside traditional classroom walls is becoming an important issue when educators consider the construction of new buildings and the remodeling of old.

The architecture of both schools supports the learning environment with corridors that double as work spaces and soft furniture in collaborative spaces.

Many sustainable and recycled materials were used in the construction of AlgerMiddle School, and the parking lot features a porous paving system. Natural light is also prevalent throughout the Alger building.

With the sustainable elements, the schools are not only a place to learn, but they can become a part of the learning process itself.

“It becomes almost an opportunity as a teaching tool,” said Isaac Norris, project architect from Isaac V. Norris and Associates PC, who worked on AlgerMiddle School

Norris said he is particularly pleased with the “cafetorium,” which can serve as a town hall for community events or meetings.

“It’s very important that our schools are more than icons that sit,” he said. “I think the building, really what it does is set the standard for middle schools and high schools to come.”

Forest Hills Eastern High School/Middle School also stands as an icon to the surrounding area, with a two-and-a-half-stories-tall Great Hall that overlooks green space and is visible to the surrounding area. The Great Hall functions as a meeting space, entrance and cafeteria, leaving little time when it is not in use.

URS project designer Ryan Archer said the design captures the transition space the same way that corridors do, making sure it can be used throughout the day, rather than just for the two to three hours of lunch, preparation and clean-up.

While in most schools, 30 percent to 40 percent of the space is overhead and is not used as program space, senior project manager Richard Temple said Forest Hills Eastern uses more than 80 percent of its space as program space, including the Great Hall.

“Now we have this grand space used every minute of the day for a variety of functions,” Van Schelven said.

Since the buildings are meant to be around for at least 60 to 80 years, Temple said they accommodate future changes that will take place in education. Eastern High School/Middle School is designed for flexibility, preparing for innovations yet to come — or for a transition back to a more tradition style of classroom and learning.

Another way of making the building more flexible is by forgoing a computer lab for a cart of portable laptops that can be used in any classroom. Lab space is also being better utilized at Eastern with designated labs rather than labs in every science room. This way, the school can have fewer labs that are of higher quality, and without wasting space in each science classroom.

Alger also utilizes the building space in a unique way with studios that can be used for music, art or technology classes, depending on the need. The school also separates grades by floor levels, making it socially conducive for students to engage with other students in their age group.

Land use was an issue for both the Alger and Forest Hills Eastern schools, though each had its own unique challenge. Forty percent of the Forest Hills school’s 110-acre site is in a flood plain, and there were needs for several sports fields as well as for some space to be set aside for the expansion of the middle school in a few years, if the district continues to grow as projected. A temporary sports field was constructed to allow for growth and for best use of the land.

Before Alger Middle was constructed, the old AlgerElementary School sat on the 11-acre site. After it was decided the old building would be removed, plans were considered for what would take its place, Van Schelven said. To determine what should be done with the large property in the middle of AlgerHeights, which included a public park and facilities used by the neighborhood, Van Schelven said five public meetings took place with neighbors, parents and educators. Some of the goals discussed were keeping the public spaces usable and preserving the many mature trees that cover the site.

There were four main areas of the site: the community playground, playing fields, the building and the formal front lawn. The large front lawn, Van Schelven said, had been put to no practical use; he compared it to the well-manicured lawn of a home with no children.

“Almost 50 percent of the property was unusable,” he said.

With the new site plan, the building, playing fields and community playground were preserved, but the formal lawn was put to a different use.

The building is now in the center, with modern parking and drop-off areas. A softball field was added, as was a soccer field and a four-lane track. There is also an area with a basketball and tennis court.

Van Schelven said the footprint of the new building is about the same size as the old one, but the building has three stories instead of two, bringing the new square footage to 85,000 square feet rather than the 60,000 square feet of the previous structure.

Van Schelven said the Alger property itself, being large and in the city, was a unique space to work with for URS.

“I think it does a lot of things well,” he said of the project.

The project has gone so well that the district is applying some of the concepts of the new building to MadisonMiddle School, which is also being designed by URS.

“I think it, hopefully, will send a message to the broader community that the school district can spend their money wisely,” he said. “I’m confident the way the spaces relate to one another will result in better opportunities for the students.”    

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