Smaller Cheaper Better School
Pedagogy in the Design Process
Truman's design was a result of an interactive process of review and analysis involving Morris-Stendal and her staff, the Federal Way School District, and the Mahlum team led by design principal Anne Schopf, AIA. The academic program is based in part on a concept developed by Big Picture Schools of Providence, Rhode Island. The team visited several alternative and small schools across the country to see which elements might work best here.
Their design process analyzed the basic relationship between a static envelope and an evolving program by exploring the possibilities of building a container capable of easy transformations to suit different user groups and educational models.
Three teaching models — traditional, small schools, and project-based learning — were used as foils to test the building containers. The result is a facility that illustrates a method of creating a low-cost flexible building shell that can accommodate multiple teaching programs.
Affordable and Adaptable
With a construction budget of only $4 million, Mahlum project director David Mount says building materials had to be simple and durable and serve multiple functions. He explains: "The exterior architecture is economical. We stripped back unnecessary finishes to a minimum to serve the needs of the enclosure and surface reflection. So the architecture is more utilitarian than elegant."
The exterior cladding material is Cyprus cement board with a natural finish. Builders used this durable material in a rain screen fashion to ensure a moisture barrier and insulation in the rainy Northwest. Mount says the fiberboards actually shed the water, but since they don't create a tight seal, they allow ventilation.
At Truman High School, there are no school bells and no lockers. Just wide open spaces. Each building has a commons, or large gathering area, for all 102 students, learning areas or "advisories" for groups of 17, and small study rooms for groups of up to six students. The commons can be used for dining, casual study, presentations, and community meetings.
Separated by partial height walls, the advisories radiate out from a central area that reinforces the emphasis on school community. There are no doors in these learning areas. The study rooms and a large room for lab projects are enclosed.
"Acoustics are a significant concern in an open learning environment, even though students will spend little time in a lecture format," Schopf says. "We've modeled the design on an open office environment rather than a traditional classroom structure." Schopf notes that the ceiling and wall panels include sound absorption material, and the mechanical system provides white noise to muffle background conversations.
The school also features moveable furniture and carts. Storage areas and panels can be reconfigured to allow more privacy for day-to-day flexibility. Two of the facility's wings are completely free of walls. Even the plumbing was designed to allow the building owners to reconfigure the site in the future as office space or some other function.
The designers also explored ways to create a healthy and sustainable environment for the new high school. The east-west-elongated plan maximizes solar exposure and daylighting. One challenge the architects faced was to make daylighting function in several different potential classroom configurations.
"The building was designed as a core and shell with large open spaces and two wings that could be configured either the way it is today or could change as the needs of the school evolved according to learning styles," Mount says. "Daylight considerations were a challenge because windows placed on the perimeter would not have effectively lit all proposed teaching spaces."
To solve this problem, the architects raised the central portion of the roof to create clerestories that can illuminate any classroom configuration. This raised section, running the length of the building, also promotes natural ventilation for summer cooling.
Operable windows allow users to control air intake while relief vents at the upper clerestories power the stack effect to cool and ventilate the building. Each advisory also has large windows with a four-foot (1.2-meter) roof overhang to keep out the glare of direct sunlight. Daylighting reduces the overall energy use to 33 percent below code requirements.
Design Cum Laude
The design reflects the U.S. Department of Education research that reveals small schools foster increased academic achievement, higher rates of graduation, improved behavior, and greater satisfaction among families, students, and teachers.
Principal Morris-Stendal is content. Mahlum is satisfied. And the CEFPI judge's panel described the Truman Center as "a great example of a small high school environment."
But the first real test came when the students posted their grades in 2003. Thirty-two percent more of Truman's 10th graders passed the writing portion of the state exam than in previous years, and 68 students had internships. It's enough to make an entire community proud of this example of the small-school philosophy.
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Jennifer LeClaire is a freelance writer based in Miami Beach, Florida, specializing in architecture and design.