A school is more than the bricks and windows that line its walls. It’s more than the faculty and administrators who create stimulating curriculum. It’s even more than the students who fill the halls with laughter and the classrooms with curiosity.
As demonstrated by Hunter Elementary in Hunter, NY, the community is an integral part of the school. When Hunter-Tannersville Central School District set out to modernize the pre-kindergarten through sixth grade school, the integration of community was central to the plans of the school district, construction team, and design professionals. Although this group encountered numerous obstacles in the course of the project, the communities of Hunter and Tannersville remained the focus of the team’s vision and, at times, became their solution.
Constructed in the 1930s, rural Hunter Elementary had outgrown its existing 23,000-square-foot building. The school district was in need of a renovation to the original building, as well as a 22,000-square-foot addition to house a computer lab, a new cafeteria, and nine additional classrooms. Financing the $8.7-million price tag was the first concern for both the school and the construction team. The State of New York provided only 30 percent of the total cost, as opposed to the 75 to 80 percent typical in similar undertakings. “[The project] didn’t receive much aid, so the community really needed to be behind the project, because they will be paying for this for the next several years,” explains William Connor, the project’s construction manager, Ithaca, NY-based Bovis Lend Lease.
The community delivered immediately. Classes at Hunter Elementary needed to be held throughout the summer months, and an already-tight budget did not include facility rental fees. The team only needed to look up the mountain to find a location for these summer sessions. (Situated in a deep valley of the Catskill Mountains, the school faces the community’s economic lifeline, Hunter Mountain.) The ski resort offered its Learn to Ski area for classes and activities in exchange for the construction team’s cooperation in keeping playing fields unobstructed for emergency helicopter landings.
The rural location of Hunter Elementary also presented a construction roadblock. “Access to that spot wasn’t the easiest. It is a remote location; it’s not right off the highway,” Connor says. To avoid the area’s brutal winters, the work took place mainly over the spring and summer months, coinciding with road work on the main artery to the school. This required additional coordination to ensure safe and timely material deliveries.
Although the setting came with its share of obstacles, it was also essential to the design of the addition. Architect Anthony Phan from Syracuse, NY-based Ashley McGraw Architects utilized full-height windows and clerestory windows with exterior overhangs to showcase the outside environment. The building also exudes an element of ruggedness to match the surrounding mountain.
Another design challenge was coordinating the addition with the adjoining 1930s school. “The designer made sure that the building lines were sensitive to some of the characteristics of the existing building. In the back of the building, we used the same-sized windows and the same sort of details so that it appears more historically correct,” Connor remarks. Phan also selected similar stone and brick colors that respected the stately original structure.
In some cases, it was impossible to replicate materials from the original building, but the team was always looking for a creative solution to satisfy Hunter-Tannersville’s desire for high-quality materials. “One of the things [school officials] wanted was terrazzo flooring, which we couldn’t afford. We did have some financial constraints - not just from the overall budget, but just getting as much as we wanted within that budget. We weren’t able to do terrazzo floors, but we worked with the architect to come up with a quarry tile that had a lot of the characteristics of terrazzo,” explains Connor.
Increased safety of the Hunter and Tannersville communities’ children was paramount in the design and renovation. To meet ADA requirements, an elevator was added and existing bathrooms were renovated. Additions to the older building included updated fire-detection equipment and a new public-announcement system. Previously housed deep inside the building, the main office was relocated to the front of the building, providing a secure and welcoming single-entry point.
Blending a functional educational environment with community needs, the new cafeteria is the design showcase of the modernization project. “[School district officials] didn’t want to make it a ho-hum cafeteria; they really wanted it to be more of a community center as well - [a place] to hold community events,” says Connor. Upgraded finishes - such as light fixtures and detailed linoleum flooring - were used to make the environment casual enough for peanut butter and jelly lunches by day and elegant enough for dances and meetings by night.
Part of what makes the Hunter Elementary cafeteria/community room an attractive venue is the scenic mountain landscape, visible through the large windows. The team carefully respected this natural setting - and the environment in general - during the modernization of the school. Contributing to the safety of the children and the land, hazardous materials (such as lead, asbestos, abandoned underground fuel tanks, and contaminated soils) were removed from the building site. Contractors were also required to recycle applicable demolished materials.
Even design elements became opportunities for energy efficiency and sustainability. The windows in the cafeteria and throughout the updated building are significant sources of daylight, reducing the school’s energy use. Additionally, each space uses motion sensors to eliminate the use of artificial light in empty areas. High-efficiency mechanical and electrical equipment was installed throughout the building, and air-conditioning use was limited to the cafeteria. Instead of non-recyclable VCT, the team chose long-lasting, recyclable linoleum flooring for the cafeteria and classrooms.
According to Connor, the defining characteristic of this modernization was in the quality of the materials. Thanks to this attention to detail, the school that the Hunter and Tannersville communities helped define will embody them for years to come.
Anne K. Goedken ([email protected]) is new products editor at Buildings magazine.
JUDGES’ COMMENTS: “Schools are ‘Houses of Learning,’ a building type that suffers many cuts and bruises as it goes about its daily business. If we are to develop environments that we can nurture our young in, we must give careful consideration to both design and the materials we employ - traits that have been clearly demonstrated in this building.”