BRW School Architecture

School Design


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 A good design team will be able to turn an out-of-date building into a point of neighborhood pride.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


Sustainability is all the rage these days, particularly when it comes to government buildings. And with good reason. Governmental entities–from cities and states to fire departments and school districts–want to be leaders in sustainable design because it can substantially improve a community’s environmental health and, even more importantly, save energy and maintenance costs over time.

The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification provides building owners with a certification process that scores them on overall sustainability issues, such as energy usage, thermal design, sustainably sourced materials, and other environmentally conscious design elements. For most building projects, LEED is the standard by which sustainability is measured and scored.

For schools, however, CHPS, or Collaborative for High Performance Schools, is an alternative certification process that scores school buildings on energy performance and a wide array of “healthy building” criteria, similar to LEED but tailored to a school facility. The CHPS goal is to build schools that are “energy, water and material efficient, well-lit, thermally comfortable, acoustically sound, safe, healthy and easy to operate.”

The CHPS standards go beyond conservation. They are about using sustainable features in ways that also enhance the learning environment, as well as creating a better school facility from a performance standpoint.

Brown Reynolds Watford Architects recently completed a CHPS-certified school in Fort Worth. John T. White elementary school includes several features that help conserve precious natural resources while also enhancing the learning environment. Some of the more notable features include:

  • Geothermal heating and cooling: John T. White’s heating and cooling system harvests the temperature of the ground far below the earth’s surface to heat the building in the winter and cool it in the summer. This system helps reduce energy use by almost 30 percent, as compared to a typical school.
  • Better lighting: The classrooms maximize natural daylight and provide multiple lighting controls for the teacher, thereby allowing the classroom to be fully lit when needed and dark enough to accommodate video presentations when needed. The classrooms also feature dedicated lighting for whiteboards to enhance the learning environment.

  • Combatting the “heat island” effect: The light-colored paving and roofing materials minimize the sizzle caused by asphalt parking lots and dark-colored roofs.
  • Reduced water usage: Low-flow toilets and faucets and a water-efficient irrigation system reduce indoor water consumption by 30 percent and outdoor water consumption by 50 percent.
  • Native plant landscaping: The 13-acre site features trees, shrubs, and grasses native to North Central Texas. Plants from this region tend to be hardy and well-suited to our normal rainfall patterns and require little extra irrigation, even during the area’s long dry season.

The John T. White building also used recycled steel and concrete throughout the building; offers preferred parking for car pooling and fuel-efficient vehicles; features improved acoustics by using extra sound-absorbing ceilings; and includes operable windows linked to a geothermal heat pump, so that once the windows in a particular classroom are open, the heating/cooling system in that classroom only is automatically turned off.

And the work didn’t end when the construction was completed. The building’s staff was trained to understand and operate the building’s features properly, to ensure healthy, low-maintenance, resource-conserving building usage for years to come.

At BRW, we are committed to sustainable design for all projects. But we have a special place in our hearts for schools, which educate and nurture the leaders who will be the stewards of our planet when we’re gone. Our goal is to build an invigorating, cost-effective learning environment that also conserves our precious natural resources. As our work at John T. White shows, it’s possible to do both–and do them beautifully.

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