BRW School Architecture


Everybody loves a new school building. The shiny floors, the immaculate bathrooms, and that wonderful new building smell. But what if you have a solid building that’s simply in need of expansion or updating? If that’s the case, innovative design in the project’s early stages is just as, if not more, important than it is with new construction.

Many school buildings today are 50+ years old, so they pre-date modern technology needs, security sensibilities, and even transportation realities. A good design team will be able to turn an out-of-date building into a point of neighborhood pride. Such a team can even, as is the case with an ongoing BRW project in Houston, suggest improvements not included on the end-users’ original wish-list.

Tina E. Whidby Elementary School, in Houston ISD, was built in the 1950s, when kids walked to school and security concerns were, rightly or wrongly, much lower on the district’s priority list. The school has undergone a few minor renovations over the last 50 years, but BRW was asked to oversee an extensive redesign this year.

Very few major projects can be completed, start-to-finish, during the summer, so most major school renovations must be done, at least in part, during the school year. These projects must be phased to provide for the safety and security of the students while also minimizing the disruption of the learning environment.

Whidby Elementary consists of two buildings connected by a breezeway. The first phase of the project (renovation of the smaller of the two buildings, scheduled to start in October 2011)  required the students and teachers to move into the larger of the two buildings and into several temporary buildings onsite. This phase will be completed by the end of 2011. In the spring, the students will move into the smaller building (and T-buildings) while the classrooms of the larger building are renovated. This building also houses the administration office and public spaces, so portions of this building will remain open during this phase. The public spaces and administrative areas will be completed during the summer.

The finished project, which will be completed before school resumes in August 2012, will include the following upgrades:

  • Completely renovated bathrooms;
  • New main entry. The main entrance will be moved to what is now the side of the building, which will also move the bus, automobile and foot traffic off the busy main road, thereby improving traffic flow and providing a vastly safer area for students;
  • New HVAC system;
  • New lighting, ceilings, paint, marker boards, tack boards, floor finishes and door hardware;
  • A reoriented front office. The current office doesn’t face the school’s entry and doesn’t allow office staff to see people coming into the building. The new office will face the entry hall and give the school better security;
  • In order to better accommodate community use of the school (elections, scout meetings, etc.), the public spaces will be designed so that they can be accessed during out-of-school hours without granting access to the rest of the building. This will have a double benefit, because it will improve the security of the classrooms and any expensive technology they house while also making the school a focal point of the community.

Most of these changes were in the school district’s original plan–all but the moving of the front entrance to a side street. During our early site visits, it was apparent that it posed a safety risk because it was just a few feet off a busy street. The school was built at a time when most children walked to school. That is no longer the case, and the school’s design needed to reflect that cultural shift.

Whidby Elementary is a classic case of how a well-designed renovation can improve the learning environment, meet the needs of the surrounding community, and became a point of pride for the families who will spend so much time there.

POSTED BY: Jeffrey Choyce, AIA and Lisa Lamkin, AIA

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