What kid wouldn’t love to spend her days in a chocolate factory? For students of St. Philip’s Academy, the dream is a reality now that the private school for grades K–8 resides in a converted building just west of downtown Newark, New Jersey. The institution had outgrown its former space half a mile away, and the head of the school, Miguel Brito, had a vision: to remain in Newark and build a new facility that would be both a leader in green design and a teaching tool for his students.
Gensler, the firm commissioned for the job, was instrumental in finding the new site. “It’s a tough city,” project architect Ralph Walker says. “The building stock is in rough shape, so we had to look around at a lot of sites.” The search took more than a year. “When we found this building there was a lot of hard conversation about whether we should just tear it down and start fresh,” Walker says. In the end they retained 80 percent of the existing 55,000-square-foot structure—built in the 1920s on Central Avenue, once a hub of Newark’s bustling industrial core—including the entire outer shell, and added another 14,000 square feet.
Redesigned to meet the requirements of a Silver rating, the structure will be Newark’s first LEED-certified project. “There was a heavy investment made in the areas where sustainability and instruction overlap,” Walker says, explaining how they managed the modest budget. The school’s new rooftop garden illustrates this point: not only does it increase energy efficiency by insulating the roof, but the kids will harvest herbs and vegetables that will be used to prepare lunches in the cafeteria. “Then,” Walker says, “the waste from the cafeteria gets pulped and the compost is used to fertilize the garden up here. So within this urban environment you have a complete closed-loop food cycle that the kids get to experience for themselves.” Other green features include radiant floors and an induction-based heating system, water-efficient landscaping and low-flow fixtures throughout the building, and occupancy sensors for energy-efficient lighting, as well as lots of natural light.
“It’s going tremendously well,” Brito reports of the new facility, now in its third semester. “I think we built a green building for all the right reasons, and we have created a space that is pretty progressive as far as schools go. We wanted the children of the inner city to have the same sorts of resources as any other kid.”
Green design is “not what a lot of people in stressful urban environments get to even think about,” Brito says, but the urban setting seems to provide him with as much inspiration as frustration. “You look around sometimes in the city of Newark and you just don’t feel very hopeful,” he says. “Yet I think that was also a motivating factor for us: that if we could build something that was beautiful and that was a teaching tool, not only for our own kids but for our community, we could create a cornerstone to turn around a neighborhood.”
“The building is a joyful building,” he adds. “Schools should be joyful.”