Transforming an older neighborhood into a successful, sustainable community is no easy task. But in 2001, city planners, business leaders and residents in North Charleston, S.C., did just that, creating a master plan for a neighborhood attuned to social needs, environmental responsibility and economic vitality. The group’s efforts resulted in the Noisette District, a 3,000-acre community that surrounds the former navy shipyard and encompasses North Charleston’s historic center.
The Charleston County School District (CCSD) saw its role clearly and became one of the Noisette District’s first true partners. CCSD engaged both the community and local government leaders, creating its own school master plan to construct facilities designed to attract young families and foster local neighborhood development.
In addition to stimulating the community, CCSD wanted to rebuild two of its campuses: the Academic Magnet High School (AMHS) and School of the Arts (SOA). Despite substandard facilities, both programs were highly rated.
“AMHS and SOA are two of the district’s most highly successful ‘choice’ schools,” says Bill Lewis, CCSD chief operating officer for capitol programs. “In 2009, U.S. News and World Report recognized the Academic Magnet High School as the nation’s number one-rated magnet high school while the School of the Arts was cited as being among the top 100 high schools in the nation.”
A Unique Vision
Could students achieve even more in state-of-the-art facilities tailored to each school’s unique instructional programs? While the district believed the answer was “yes,” former CCSD superintendent Dr. Ron McWhirt feared voters wouldn’t support funding the cost of two new, separate campuses, especially when SOA serves a smaller than average student population but requires more costly, specialized spaces.
McWhirt recalled how his alma mater, South Carolina’s Wofford College, maximized capital funds by sharing support facilities. Rather than build two separate campuses, CCSD opted to create a single campus featuring separate, autonomous instructional facilities and shared support facilities such as an administration office, media center, auditorium, cafeteria, parking areas and utility plant.
“While we knew co-locating three high-performing schools with students ranging from sixth through 12th grade would present challenges, by building both magnet schools on a common campus the district could lower its capital costs through the elimination of duplicate support spaces,” Lewis notes. “The district would also be able to reduce future operating costs through the consolidation of bus routes and utilities.”
A Sustainable Solution
CCSD’s vision has taken on new life at the new approximately 330,000-square-foot Center of Arts and Academics, located on a 55-acre abandoned school site in North Charleston.
“As the program manager, our directive, was to follow LEED guidelines and make the campus as sustainable as possible,” says Heery International Project Manager Tony Pruner. “First, we repurposed an abandoned campus and preserved its stately oaks. We then tasked the construction team with recycling as much of the demolition material as possible. The site’s proximity to existing recreational resources and the easy access to public transportation were additional benefits.”
Architect Hermann Denzinger of Thomas and Denzinger, Architects, envisioned a unique collection of special-purpose facilities. AMHS, the SOA middle and high schools, the administration and media center, the performing arts center, the fine arts building, the cafeteria, gym and central energy plant are all separate facilities. They connect via a central, covered, galvanized steel walkway spanning 855 feet from north to south. This walkway, which also supports the chill water piping, serves as the transitional element between common areas and the individual academic wings.
“When we started the initial design, we traveled to similar types of schools and visited SOA to see how it functioned,” Denzinger says. “We were fascinated by how teachers and students interacted. In addition to following the very detailed specifications as determined by SOA’s staff, we felt it was important to create a series of informal spaces where students and teachers could collaborate as well.”
Those informal spaces exist both at the ends of academic corridors and in outside courtyards that flow from the central spine.
One of the hallmarks of Denzinger’s design is the ample amount of daylight that flows in through 10-foot classroom windows and floor-to-ceiling windows in spaces such as the cafeteria and media center.
“The buildings’ orientation allows us to bathe the facilities in light while the high e glaze keeps the heat out,” Pruner says.
Denzinger is proud of the curvilinear design elements that add a creative, open sensibility to the centrally located 600-seat cafeteria, which doubles as an assembly or performance space. Large, bowed, steel trusses serve as both support beams and a design feature, affording unimpeded views. Floor-to-ceiling windows allow staff and students’ easy, relaxed viewing onto the outdoor dining patio and adjacent courtyard.
The administration office is also centrally located. It houses the campus welcome center and serves as the controlled entrance where all visitors or late-arriving students must sign in. The facility supports each school’s principal, guidance and business staff, and also affords conference spaces. The shared media center, which offers comfortable reading spaces, computer labs, conference rooms and research areas, is located on the second floor.
In searching for the most energy-and cost-efficient systems, the design and construction team opted to install an energy-efficient, central ice storage plant that makes ice at night when the rates are lowest.
“The system circulates the chilled water through a central piping system during the day to serve each building,” Lewis notes.
Each building has its own rooftop fresh-air unit to ensure that all air is treated before it enters the building.
“While Owens and Associates was responsible for designing campus energy systems,” Pruner says, “the district took it upon themselves, given the size and complexity of the project, to hire several outside engineering consultants to provide testing and balancing and commissioning services and ascertain that the systems would work as designed.”
Another campus-wide feature is a series of attractive water features that serve as retention ponds and capture storm water from each of the facilities. These ponds then serve the entire campus’ irrigation needs, minimizing the district’s water bill.
Outstanding Performing Arts Center
While melding into the overall aesthetic, the Performing Arts Center is a clear campus standout; theatergoers would be hard pressed to differentiate this 600-seat high school teaching theater from a professional facility.
From a structural standpoint, what sets it apart is the fact that it is built on concrete piles rather than the surcharged soil beneath the remaining facilities, a feature that allowed the team to begin construction sooner. Key elements include an orchestra pit with flexible pit cover that can be used for stage expansion, extensive fly loft and state-of-the art production booth designed to give students as much professional exposure as possible while ensuring maximum flexibility for each performance.
“One of the challenges was creating a full performance theater that maintained a sense of intimacy and got the acoustics just right,” Pruner says. “Although it’s not visible to the naked eye, this facility has 6-inch concrete panels placed on top of the steel to deaden sound from outside. We worked carefully with an acoustical engineer to make sure the design and materials suited the school’s stringent requirements.”
Three-Phased Approach to Project Delivery
Because of the project’s enormity, CCSD opted to complete the campus in three phases over an ambitious eighteen-month schedule, with all doors opened in time for the 2010 school year.
“Given the occupied nature of much of the construction, we created a detailed safety manual for workers and students,” says Richard Ness, project supervisor of Contractor M.B. Kahn.
A key part of Heery’s strategy was to prequalify general and contractors and key subcontractors. With that information completed, the team bid out the project, awarding work to the prequalified firm with the lowest and most responsible bid.
“We staffed this project aggressively with one general supervisor and four sub-supervisors responsible for individual buildings,” says Ness.
Staffing helped the team maintain the project’s demanding schedule despite a request to add a 12,000 square-foot addition to the AMHS — consisting of a 200-seat lecture hall, art room and band room —in the midst of construction. Classroom space for the district’s hearing-impaired program was also included in the addition.
“Dr. Nancy McGinley, the district’s current superintendant, believed that hearing-impaired students could also thrive in such a creative environment,” Lewis says. “It’s inspiring to see how well these students have been received. SOA is now offering American Sign Language as a foreign language option.”
Beyond the close communication required among team members, the team also communicated regularly with the community.
“Given the piles being driven for the Performing Arts Center, we were concerned about potential damage to nearby homes,” says Ness. “Our solution was to install crack gauges to monitor potential vibrations.”
A Safe Campus Meant to be Shared
Despite security challenges, the district believed it was important to share the facilities with the community. Not only is the central covered walkway completely enclosed by building elements, ornamental fencing was erected to provide a secure outdoor learning area.
“The campus is zoned to allow after-hour use of facilities such as the theater, lecture hall and gym,” Pruner adds.
According to the School of the Arts staff, the school is fast becoming a model educational arts facility.
“Alumni can’t believe what is available for middle and high school students,” notes SOA teacher Marie Nichols.
Bill Lewis says the district and community leaders couldn’t be more pleased.
“The Center of Arts and Academics epitomizes what is possible when schools, community members, local government leaders, and design and construction professionals collaborate in a shared vision. Not only do the students have facilities suited to their particular interests, the entire county has a state-of-the-art campus for which it can be incredibly proud.”