Given the drop in leasing activity in suburban retail markets, there is an abundance of empty boxes waiting to be filled, and these structures could be a smart solution for schools. In fact, big boxes are ideal for meeting the needs of educational facilities; they offer ample parking, minimal entry points, convenient location with easy access, and large column bays that allow for open spaces and fewer blocked views (a plus in the classroom).
I led a team of architects and designers in repurposing a warehouse for Collins College in Phoenix. This experience offered us the chance to identify some issues and opportunities that designers and clients may consider:
Energy use in 30-ft.-high spaces:
The beauty of the Collins College space was that we could take advantage of the dramatic heights of the box, but the challenge is in heating and cooling. HVAC systems can provide conditioned air only at occupied areas, from floor to 9 ft. up. Heat rises so it’s possible to use this natural occurrence smartly and cost-effectively to condition only a portion of the building. Since most buildings need plenty of cooling and only a little heat at the perimeter during cold months, we can allow natural induction to occur. This is done by providing baseboard heat at the exterior walls of the building and locating cooling diffusers and returns in the occupied spaces only.
Acoustics in open environments:
As with any open environment, there may be the assumption that noise will be an issue. However, with careful planning for locating noise-producing functions, a designer can use the large volumes to mitigate and muffle sounds. Where there are noise concerns, these areas can have an acoustical ceiling with a sound batt blanket. Vertical baffle panels also can hang in an open space, allowing the heightened volume to be enjoyed.
Special attention to the lighting:
Since windows are minimal in big boxes, it’s important to consider which functions should be located near them. In education facilities, it includes reception, administrative office space, and student common areas. Many box buildings—including the one used for Collins College—have skylights that can accommodate the human need for daylight and reduce energy use. In this instance, the skylights also gave off enough illumination to allow the upper reaches to have a comfortable light level. For general use lighting, consider suspending fixtures from interstitial supports. Provide light only in the occupied zone of the volume to minimize energy use. Collins College features a good variety of fixtures to enhance the spatial experience. These include decorative pendants, as well as industrial fixtures, installed in clever ways. A Unistrut system across the main corridors gives structure for lighting and changes the volume and experience of walking through the school.
Details and coordination of MEP systems:
Be prepared to adjust your typical approach to details and coordination of visible MEP systems. For example, partitions don’t need to go to the deck. It’s possible to use reinforced top plates and kickers connecting to perpendicular partitions. One of the advantages for open ceilings in corridors makes the IT staff happy. They are often changing or upgrading cabling to different areas of the school and will appreciate the cable trays that run along the open corridor ceilings. These open ceilings, however, will create a new task. At Collins, we had to review duct locations and help the engineer organize them for visual effect. As a cost savings for the Collins College project, we used the concrete as our finished floor. Luckily, the slab at Collins was a very clean, smooth quality. Where underground sanitary lines had to be added, we worked closely with the plumbing engineer to run them below rooms that did not have the exposed concrete floors.
Be aware of these three code complications:
First, verify with local codes for electrical connections in exposed areas. There may be additional work required since some municipalities require hardwiring for exposed cabling versus hidden above the ceiling. Secondly, many codes require rigid structure for conduit to attach. This should be addressed early on with the architect since so much of the conduit could be exposed. Some options: run conduit over the rooms with ceilings and project out as needed for lighting and other devices. The third code complication concerns fire protection. Are sprinklers required above and below floating ceiling planes? One possible solution to this is to provide screen or perforated ceiling materials that have the minimum opacity to not require two zones of sprinklers.