Bahai News - A New School of Thought
A New School of Thought
By MORRIS NEWMAN, SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
When Paul Cummins looked at a rat-infested garage in an industrial area of
Santa Monica a few years ago, he envisioned a library. When he drove by an
abandoned mini-mall near Belmont High School, he saw a charter school for
inner-city children. And when Cummins walked through obsolete aerospace
buildings from the 1960s, he saw classrooms for kindergartners.
Cummins, president of Crossroads School and New Roads School--private
schools in Santa Monica--has put together sprawling urban school campuses
for both during the past three decades, largely by reusing older buildings.
He also played an advisory role in the creation of the campus of the Camino
Nuevo charter school, a public school near downtown L.A. fashioned out of a
mini-mall. Cummins notes with pride that none of his school conversion
projects have displaced people from their homes or businesses, unlike some
public school projects.
Cummins is not alone in his desire to recycle existing architecture into
schools. The practice has become a specialty of a handful of local
architects, and several of their projects have won design awards. Interest
in the conversion of existing buildings into schools is gathering particular
momentum in California, where school construction is a matter of urgency.
Statewide, public school districts must somehow build 344 schools in the
next five years, according to the state Department of Education. Los Angeles
Unified School District must build 85 new schools in the next six years, an
unprecedented building feat for a district that has not built a new high
school since 1971. "If we don't succeed, there will be 63,000 students
without seats by the year 2007," said Jim McConnell, LAUSD chief facilities
executive. "Those are staggering numbers."
But while some see buildings in long-developed urban areas as raw material
for new classroom space, many public school officials locally dispute
whether such conversions are less expensive and therefore more viable than
new construction. Still, LAUSD, which has not relied on rehabs in the past,
is looking at properties for school make-overs. Recently, the school board
agreed to buy an office building in Sun Valley as the site of a new high
school, and officials are exploring the possibility of building high schools
in the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce building in downtown Los Angeles,
as well as a 17-story parking structure at 17th and Grand Avenue owned by
Converting older buildings into schools, however, can involve "tons of
technical challenges," according to architect Joseph Pica, principal of Los
Angeles-based Pica & Sullivan. Older buildings often need substantial
seismic upgrades to meet today's building codes. They also need new
plumbing and electrical conduits for computers and Internet hookups, as
well as safety features, such as smoke alarms and fire sprinklers.
In some cases, school conversions do not require changing the form of the
original building, such as the religious classrooms in the landmark Wilshire
Temple in the Mid-Wilshire area, which have become a middle school for
Camino Nuevo. At the Bahai Temple in Baldwin Hills, New Roads School
persuaded the congregation to build a new wing to serve as both a middle
school and a new social hall for the temple.
This kind of conservative makeover also worked with two houses in Pasadena,
which have become classroom and administrative space for Westridge School,
a private prep school for girls. Nestled in a high-end residential
neighborhood, the school bought and redesigned a neighboring Tudor-style
home, with classrooms on the second level and administrative space below.
Embarking on a Delicate Project
The conversion of the former Pitcairn House, a 1906 house by Arts-and-Crafts
masters Greene & Greene, was an even more delicate project. Architect
Pica and his partner Maureen Sullivan restored several walls that had been
removed in an earlier remodel and found ways to install modern fire
sprinklers and smoke detectors with minimal intrusion to the wood-lined
More often, however, adapting a building into a school requires radical
rebuilding. Consider a pair of 40-year-old office buildings in Santa Monica
that Crossroads School converted into elementary school classrooms in 1997.
Built for a now-defunct aerospace company, the buildings were enormous,
featureless boxes of concrete block with few windows. Marching orders to
Pica and Sullivan were to transform these unfriendly buildings into "the
little red school house--a little red bungalow covered in vines," according
to Joan Martin, director of Crossroads' elementary division.
It was not an easy task. To break down the big buildings into a scale
comfortable for children, the designers divided the square-shaped floor plan
into four "quadrants," each of which received a round lobby encircled by a
cluster of classrooms and lit with skylights. They also cut numerous windows
into the blank walls, covered the concrete block with stucco and painted the
buildings pale yellow. In the dark, windowless interior of the buildings,
the architects created wide hallways that serve as "streets" connecting the
different classroom clusters.
If the result is not literally a little red schoolhouse, Martin called it a
"great building" and added that she is particularly pleased with the wide
hallways. "There is room for kids, adults, babies, dogs and cats to be in
our hallways and be part of the school community," she said.
The conversion was comparatively low cost, compared to new school
construction. Crossroads paid $6 million for the land, and another $5.5
million for the conversions. The school spent additional money to build
a gym and athletic field, bringing the entire campus to about $17 million.
Although public school districts typically prefer to build new
schools rather than rehabilitate old buildings, several school officials now
say they are open to the possibility of conversions. They are, said Duwayne
Brooks, director of facilities for the state Department of Education, "an
option that we support, if that is the best situation to locate the school."
The department approves the locations and designs for all new public schools
in the state.
Although the state agency follows standards on the size of schools, "we have
a lot of flexibility to look at situations in large urban areas," Brooks
said. "We will work with [districts] and allow smaller-sized sites."
He cited the Pueblo Elementary School, which occupies one wing of the former
shopping center Plaza at Indian Hill in Pomona. Recently, the school
district bought a large portion of the mall and will create two new
elementary schools on the site.
But LAUSD's McConnell said he thinks existing buildings are generally
too costly to convert into classroom space. He cited the Field Act, a
school-safety statute dating from the 1930s, which requires a high level
of structural safety. The cost of buying old buildings and making them
earthquake-proof, he said, make most buildings too expensive to adapt
for reuse. (LAUSD budgets from $22,000 to $27,000 in construction costs
for each student, not including land, which can add another $20,000 per
pupil.) Yet the cost of converting buildings into private schools, with
comparable seismic standards, can cost about $15,000 per pupil,
according to architect Pica.
He added current California building codes require essentially the same
level of seismic safety in all school buildings, and that his work on
Crossroads and other private schools either meets the code standard for
structural safety "or exceeds it."
The cost of time, rather than that of construction, may be one reason
why public schools are more costly to build than private schools,
according to structural engineer David D.B. Johnson. In public-school
construction, he said, "there is generally a bit more bureaucracy, more
time is spent in the review of plans and a lot more time is spent in the
inspection of the built product."
Pica and others believe that public school districts have outmoded ideas
about schools. For example, size is an obvious factor in finding sites
for schools. School districts often call for large buildings that can
accommodate 1,000 or more pupils, as well as large cafeterias, gyms,
libraries and other special spaces. Most private schools, on the other
hand, can cut costs and land requirements by opting for small schools
and sharing athletic facilities with other institutions. Before
Crossroads built a gym, its student athletes took a bus to a nearby gym
at a community college. (The basketball team won everal state
championships, despite lacking a campus gym.) A K-8 school in Paramount
uses a seven-acre city park as its playground. Some public school
districts are seeing a positive value in small schools and are building
new schools intended for only a few hundred students. The Bill and
Melinda Gates Foundation has earmarked $200 million toward building new
small schools or restructuring existing schools into smaller units.
Creativity and corner-cutting can provide savings. Rather than build a
cafeteria, Crossroads contracted a local caterer to bring in school
lunches. New Roads School did not build a library, opting instead to let
students walk to nearby Santa Monica Public Library. Architect Sullivan
emphasizes that the use of older buildings is good for cities, because
recycled buildings help preserve the integrity of streets and
"It is very enriching [for the city] to have places that are
reused over time in different ways, rather than build on virgin land,"
she said. "It's the sign of the mature city."
©Copyright 2001, Los Angles Times
Page last updated/revised 102001
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