As students prepare to begin another school year, Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, Texas, is preparing its second year of operation.
Part of the new paradigm of academies within an academy, Cedar Ridge was designed by Perkins+Will—a firm well-versed in the design of innovative spaces. According to Jerry Johnson, design principal with Perkins+Will, the district wanted to break up a large high school, consisting of 2,400 students in grades 9-12, into a smaller school concept.
“We spent a lot of time thinking about how this building would sit on this site in terms of its orientation, how the kids would be able to use the outdoors effectively, and how traffic moved through the site safely,” Johnson says.
The resulting Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver-certified facility comes in at 375,000 square feet and houses four distinct schools: the Academy of International Business and Economics, the Academy of Professional Studies, the Academy of Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, and the Academy of Visual and Performing Arts. Each academy has its own second-floor library, in addition to the school’s main library.
“It’s almost like a higher-ed idea of smaller, focused resource centers that are directed toward that subject,” says Johnson. A student-run cyber café between the main library and cafeteria offers drinks, snacks and a sitting area where students can read, study and meet with friends.
Cedar Ridge was built on a using locally quarried white limestone and tilt-up concrete panels to accommodate a shortened construction schedule, as well as to give the building a more sophisticated, non-traditional aesthetic. “We used it over a site-cast concrete tilt-wall system so that the building went up very efficiently,” says Johnson. “The walls are made of concrete, but many of them have this limestone veneer on top of it, which gave it a nice local finish.”
Austin endures hot, humid summers, and while schools are closed during those months, climate was a factor in the way Perkins+Will designed Cedar Ridge. “The academies each have their own representation as a wing of the building that is oriented north-south, so it’s got good solar orientation,” says Johnson. “The shared functions—the athletic wing, cafeteria commons, and music and drama wing—are on the other side of the building.” As an added benefit of the building’s solar orientation, and the strategic use of windows and glazing, the amount of artificial lighting needed in the building is minimized.
The design team also incorporated secure outdoor spaces between the academies that can be used as social and collaborative spaces. “There are plenty of shady spots where kids can eat and interact outside, and move between parts of the buildings through the courtyards in a nice, secure manner,” Johnson notes. “We try to orient things with a lot of respect to the sun. For example, the media center has a lot of glass facing north, so there’s very little direct sunlight that would bother anyone in those spaces.”
Perkins+Will spent plenty of time re-envisioning the interior learning areas as well. Student workspaces with chairs that allow movement help increase attention and academic success, while movable lecterns allow for flexibility in the classroom and enable teachers to communicate clearly with each student. Hose and water access in each classroom helps to expedite cleanup, and large roll-up doors assist in displaying art. Unique areas in each academy, such as nano-technology and bio-chemistry labs in the Academy of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, and soundproof practice rooms in the Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, provide students with specialized opportunities and knowledge.
The Academy of Visual and Performance arts also received a displacement air ventilation system, as a test run for efficiency. “That system delivers air at lower velocities down low and the air then is experienced mostly at human level,” says Johnson. “In a lot of buildings, air comes out of the ceiling and is around the ceiling area, not where the people necessarily are. By delivering it low and returning it high, fresh air comes in where people are sitting or standing, and then it’s pulled up and out of the building.” According to Johnson, the new air system also had the effect of improving indoor air quality in the school, helping it achieve LEED certification.
Sustainability and eco-friendly structure are paramount in the design of new schools, but they aren’t the only advantages. The combination of temperature, ventilation and natural lighting is conducive to better attendance and better grades—something sure to be studied by a new raft of evidence-based design research.
“There’s no doubt that thermal comfort is at the top of everyone’s list when we do post-occupancy evaluations,” says Johnson. “We hear all the time that natural light lifts everyone’s spirits and creates a much more productive atmosphere. While there’s no empirical data on this, we do hear from principals and people who maintain the buildings that they’re extremely pleased with how well the students respect the building because they like it very much.”
Schools like Cedar Ridge are usually found in higher-income districts, but thanks to Perkins+Will’s Social Responsibility Initiative (SRI), sustainability and eco-comfort are not exclusive. The firm is looking ahead to working on Jones High School, an inner-city school in Chicago, and as part of their pro-bono SRI, they help redesign and improve numerous projects in education, community groups and health care.
“There’s a big need out there,” says Johnson. “We work with charter schools, urban schools — we help any way we can.”
Cedar Ridge High School
2801 Gattis School Rd
Round Rock, TX 78664
ARCHITECT + INTERIORS
1001 McKinney, Suite 1300
Houston, TX 77002
1517 E Palm Valley Blvd
Round Rock, TX 78664
American Constructors, Inc.
2900 Vanderbilt Place, #200
Nashville, TN 37212
405 Bushy Creek Rd
Cedar Park, TX 78613
Charles Davis Smith, AIA