A Design Team Is Challenged to Create a Daylit Middle and High School for about 1,700 Students within a Former Lowe’s Home Improvement Building

Valor Collegiate Academies is a Nashville, Tenn.-based Charter School that serves grades five through 12 in three distinct schools located on a single campus in southeast Nashville. Valor representatives approached Manuel Zeitlin Architects (MZA) in 2013 during the initial planning for the first school, Valor Flagship Academy Middle. MZA helped school representatives develop this first space, an adaptive-reuse interior retrofit of a 20,000-square-foot former Social Security office building. The school opened in the fall of 2014. The following year MZA designed an addition that doubled the building’s original footprint. This addition offered an opportunity to depart from the existing brick “strip mall” aesthetic and create a fresh, contemporary building filled with natural light and open, flexible educational spaces.

The new middle- and high-school buildings were ultimately conceived as three 2-story classroom wings, equal in size, flanked by two new exterior courtyards (middle school) and a large central interior courtyard atrium (high school).

During the development of the initial flagship project, school founder Todd Dickson shared his vision of serving both middle and high school students on a single campus. In metro Nashville, the goal of a contiguous, multi-school campus can be hard to achieve because of the limited availability of large, affordable project sites. However, the Flagship Academy Middle site was part of a former commercial campus development. This all too familiar piece of the development landscape is found in many suburban cities in the U.S. The typology: a sea of asphalt punctuated by small, medium and large masonry boxes. These low-density commercial developments often pop up a stone’s throw from an urban city-center to support the outer ring of the expanding metro area. Fast forward a decade or two and these sites often lay vacant, a remnant of a development pattern from years past. Viewed through the right lens, however, these sites are ripe with opportunity for adaptive reuse.

With an eye for expanding the educational campus to include an additional middle school and a high school, Valor representatives looked two doors down from the initial Flagship Academy Middle to a vacant 100,000-square-foot former Lowe’s home-improvement building. While the design team initially surmised that, with some creativity, both the additional middle and high schools could easily be nested within this “big box” building, the near-term programmatic needs of the client required MZA’s team to reframe its thinking.

The projected enrollment of the new middle school was 500 students, calling for a program area of a little more than 40,000 square feet. The future high school, to open two to four years later, would have an enrollment of 1,000-1,200 students, needing approximately 100,000 square feet. The resultant math called on the design team to find a way to fit 150,000 square feet of program into a 100,000-square-foot box. A familiar saying not appropriate for a young audience comes to mind!

In addition to the raw numbers challenge, MZA also had to solve a daylighting problem. An existing floor plate of this size has a relatively low exterior wall-to-interior-space ratio while the majority of the project program (in this case, classrooms) called for daylighting. With regard to square footage and access to natural daylight, MZA literally had to create more of everything with less.

Problem Solving

BEFORE: With an eye for expanding the educational campus to include an additional middle school and a high school, Valor representatives looked two doors down from the initial Flagship Academy Middle to a vacant 100,000-square-foot former Lowe’s home-improvement building. PHOTO: courtesy Manuel Zeitlin Architects

MZA’s concept was an exercise in surgical subtraction. The novel design approach bifurcates the existing building by carving a 10,000-square-foot courtyard out of the interior. This displacement of interior space would help to break down the original building massing and define a distinct spatial identity for each of the schools. The slice resulted in new exterior walls for both the middle- and high-school buildings, allowing sunlight to penetrate the center of the former Lowe’s and creating opportunities for daylighting in classrooms that previously did not exist.

Although this approach would begin to solve the daylighting problem, it also exacerbated the issue of limited square footage. Having studied the existing structural system, the design team understood that it would be possible to add a second floor into the existing building envelope, effectively doubling the usable area within the existing footprint. In theory, this move would yield an abundance of newly available floor area supporting another crucial program requirement: the need for open common spaces to promote collaboration among students and faculty.

With a solid concept in place, MZA’s team set its sights on addressing the technical challenges. The most significant of these was the available clear space below the existing roof structure. While most of the roof framing provided 25-foot clearance, the existing long-span truss girders were much larger, leaving a low point at approximately 19 feet above the existing slab. Given these existing conditions coupled with the structure added to sup- port a new second story, the new floor-to-floor dimension would max out at 11 feet. For those familiar with the heaping bowl of spaghetti that is structural, mechanical, plumbing and electrical coordination, you will understand that an 11-foot floor-to-floor is very tight. The design team was determined to create first-floor spaces
that felt open and airy. Simply covering the spaghetti with an 8-foot lay-in ceiling throughout would not be acceptable. All design team members would need to coordinate closely to avoid unexpected conflicts in the field that could lead to unfavorably low ceilings.

The new middle- and high-school buildings were ultimately conceived as three 2-story classroom wings, equal in size, flanked by two new exterior courtyards (middle school) and a large central interior courtyard atrium (high school), daylit by round skylights, ranging from 4 to 8 feet in diameter.

A new gym, set back and accessed by way of its own courtyard, required a long- span roof and other design elements, ultimately necessitating ground-up construction. Two of the four existing perimeter walls were reused in place and the former Lowe’s delivery bay was repurposed as the weight-training area. Roll-up bay doors were replaced with glazed overhead doors providing daylight and access to a new outdoor training terrace.

PHOTOS: Nick McGinn, mcginnphotography.com, unless otherwise noted

About the Author

Ethan Levine, AIA, LEED AP & Ana Smetana, Assoc. AIA
Ethan Levine, AIA, LEED AP, is co-owner and an architect at Manuel Zeitlin Architects, and Ana Smetana, Assoc. AIA, is co-owner and a designer at the firm.

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