Teaching It: Ralph Walker and the team from Gensler and the St. Philip’s Academy @ ICFF 2007

From the 2007 Metropolis Conference: Design Entrepreneurs: Rethinking Energy
May 21, 2007

Ralph Walker: I’m an associate with Gensler in Morristown, New Jersey and I’m happy to be the project architect for St. Philip’s Academy, which we just completed. Up here with me is Miguel Brito, the head of school for St. Philip’s Academy; Peter Anderson, assistant head of school for St. Philip’s Academy; Dana Jenkins, design director for Gensler in Morristown and the principal there; and Salona Davis and Sadiq Locus, who are both 8th grade students at the school.

Miguel Brito, Head of School, St. Philip’s Academy: I was trying to figure out how to introduce St. Philip’s Academy and it came to me this morning as I awoke to find three other people in bed with me, one of which had a sword and was dressed as a medieval knight. Luckily those are my three children, who are six, four and two. We’ve had the pleasure of adopting them from an orphanage in Guatemala, and hopefully providing them with a good life. That’s a lot of what St. Philip’s is all about. We’re an inner city school that serves a disadvantaged population. We believe that all children are born equal and stay equal, and that we need to provide every opportunity possible for them.

We raised a lot of money to do this. Most of the funding comes from individuals as well as corporate and foundation grants. We’re there to try to make sure that every child has an opportunity to succeed. As a nation, and even a planet, we can’t sustain ourselves if we don’t educate and provide opportunity for all children.

Sadiq Locus, 8th grade student, St. Philip’s Academy: St. Philip’s Academy began in 1988 with 10 first-graders. The Academy grew quickly and students performed beyond all expectations. We outgrew two buildings before coming into our current building. The student population had gone from 126 to 331 students. In our old building it was terribly over crowded. After searching over 30 sites, we found the current location at 342 Central Avenue. Graduates go off to leading day and boarding schools across our nation.

Solana Davis, 8th grade student, St. Philip’s Academy: I’m going to Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts and some of my friends are going to Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia; The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, New York; Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut; and Emma Willard in New York; and Westover School in Connecticut. The placement record in the past ten years clearly demonstrates the great talent that 8th graders and all students in SPA [St. Philip’s Academy] represent.

Brito: We knew we had to let children teach us who they are. And we had to learn from them in terms of building a building that was going to work for them. We threw out the old concepts of law and order and square boxes. What does 21st century education look like? What should a 21st century facility look like? What are the things kids need?

We knew it wasn’t like the classroom that I first learned in. That classroom has been preserved. I knew exactly where I sat because the chair and the desk are still screwed into the floor! We know that’s not where we want to go.

As we began to consider the space, we began thinking about the flexibility of furniture and spaces, the amount of light, air quality, and things of that sort. We also realized that we wanted a school that was in and of itself a teaching tool. It wasn’t designed for law and order—it’s designed for creativity, imagination, group work, and noise. We knew that to produce a child that’s going to be able to participate in the 21st century, we had to do it very differently.

Peter Anderson, assistant head of school, St. Philip’s Academy: We’d been thinking about sustainability in the broad sense long before we started thinking about St. Philip’s Academy as a school. We were intrigued by ideas that were culled from brain research and thought that it was important to have a holistic approach to education.

We were particularly concerned about the most vulnerable members of our community. For kids to be connected it is important for them to understand their place in the world. We were intrigued by some other institutions that we thought were doing this well. One example is the Willow School, the first green school in New Jersey. Being in a rural setting, they’ve been very successful with connecting kids to nature and helping kids to understand their place in the greater world and to understand their environmental impact. It was natural for them to do that in a rural setting, but how could we do something like that in the heart of the inner city? We were so committed to ideas of sustainability that we engaged the Cloud Institute to do a sustainability awareness workshop with our faculty, which reinforced our commitment to making a change. We just weren’t sure how to go about making that change.

Walker: As Gensler was starting this conversation with St. Philip’s, the school brought so many things to the table about what they felt was important from a holistic educational approach. You’ve heard about the idea of a flexible space and a holistic education—teaching kids about what it means to be out in the woods. We found opportunities to do this with the building. As we looked around and located a structure that was appropriate in terms of size we found these great opportunities for sustainability.

The building started out as a factory in Newark. It’s a five story building that was essentially dilapidated for the last forty years or so. What was great about it is that it had a handsome structure and a great neighborhood.

As we started to talk about the building itself, things kept coming out in the conversation. We kept hearing the idea about an oasis in Newark. How do you create a space for these children to learn and grow in a neighborhood that’s falling apart? At the end of the day it became about commitment, not from us as designers, but from the users—children, parents, teachers, and administrators.

Gensler and St. Philip’s have had a long relationship. They’ve been in three different buildings and we’ve been involved in all three. It started with our chairman Walter Hunt. His wife is friends with a woman who sits on the board for St. Philip’s. She got involved with the school and fell in love with their whole mission.

As we continued to develop this relationship over the last eight to ten years we’ve gotten to know each other a lot better and we began to understand what it means for them to be sustainable and holistic. We were able to bring people to the table who understood this mission and who could augment it. There was the commitment from the users but then there was also the commitment of all the professionals. It needed to be a holistic team approach for this project to be successful, with engineers, the design team, the city and county, and the financial institutions all on board.

Overall, we’re here to talk about the design. Sustainability is such an important piece of this, but as you’ll hear in our presentation, it wouldn’t have been successful without good design.

Brito: We wanted to stay in the central ward of Newark where the revitalization process is just beginning. We’re committed in our mission statement to the revitalization of the city. The idea is that we would go to a neighborhood in the downtown area in need of rebuilding and begin a process of rebuilding Newark from the inside out.

One of the things which bothers us is that tremendous amounts of money continue to pour into this city and it just seems to disappear. It’s very difficult for that money to sustain itself. We wanted to be an anchor in the downtown and for this building to be a community development asset. We also wanted to share best practices, set higher standards, and be sure that we were creating an awareness zone around the school on all things good—whether it be ecology, nutrition, or learning.

Walker: The actual site for the building is at the western end of the University Park district. It’s made up of two major elements. There’s a five story building with a large rear lot behind it. Then there is a second lot across the street. In the selection process it was important for us to locate a building that had as much outdoor space as possible, not only to deal with some of the parking issues, but also to create safe outdoor environments for these children. The building itself is a 1920s factory building. It’s a handsome exterior brick structure. It’s got beautiful terra cotta panels at the top of it.

In Newark when there were riots, a number of years ago, many of the floors were blocked up. Windows were closed up. The entire first story was covered in concrete to make the building safe during the riots. When we discovered the building and started to tear it apart we found these beautiful spaces within. One of the best parts is it has a beautiful heavy timber frame. It’s all wood from 1910s and 1920s. We had this heavy timber construction with a brick exterior to start with.

Dana Jenkins, design director, Gensler, Morristown: We inherited quite an eccentric building. The fact that it’s a warehouse and not a built-to-suit project gave us a series of opportunities and also a set of obstacles. The column-based spacing was about 20 feet on center. It is difficult to plan a classroom around that. Fortunately, we were able to leverage the eccentric aspects of the building based on the curriculum and the fact that St. Philip’s chose to abandon conventional teaching.

Outdoor space was important. These children don’t necessarily have outdoor spaces at home and we wanted to leverage the amount of that available. You’ll see from the slides that it’s quite a lovely space.

The building we found sat by itself. There were a series of vacant lots adjacent to it, and very little foot traffic, if any. On the plus side, it’s about two or three blocks away is NJIT, which is a university. That gave us opportunities to stretch that university area quite a bit.

Walker: I’m proud to say that we diverted over 80 percent of the materials out of landfills and were actually able to use about 25 percent of the existing brick back in the building itself. One of the goals that we had as a design team was to reduce our impact by using what was available to us locally. And when I say locally, I mean, right on the site.

We took the existing five story building and added the parking lot across the street. Then in the rear we added a gymnasium structure. The gymnasium is only a single story, but we took advantage of the site and maximized our green space by creating a ground level playground area, then on top of the gym, we created a roof garden. We were able to use about of the 90% of the open space that was available on that site.

On the completed project one of the things you see immediately is the beacon. The beacon was a major element in the design from the beginning of the conceptual process and it was really driven by the school.

Anderson: In the dark ages when people’s lives were so fragile and fleeting the one thing that was a source of comfort and hope, and in some instances real material refuge, was a cathedral. It was a real sanctuary in every sense of the word. We wanted our building to be a sanctuary in the community. This beacon became a very important symbol for us. We dubbed it “The Beacon of Optimism, Hope and Opportunity” and that’s what it became for us.

Jenkins: As we unearthed interesting structural situations we decided that rather than slather them with new materials we would go ahead and let them be a relic of sorts within the spaces. You’ll see the juxtaposition of some of this old factory detailing with some of our new materials and methods.

In the entry itself we’re talking about past, present, and future. With regard to the past—on the right hand side going up the stairway is a highlighted group of plaques talking about the years that the teams and classes have graduated, starting with the first graduating class of about eight students. As you meander throughout the hallways, we’re talking about the present through the installation of current artwork, and then of course, our future is really about the children.

We approach color in two different ways. The first is theoretical in nature and based around levels of saturation and color application that are for each class. Kindergarten through first-grade classes live on the first floor and the most appropriate color for them would be the hottest color that we chose to use in the palette. As you move up throughout the grades, the cooler the temperature the cooler the color, which is appropriate to the learning and where they are in development.

Davis: From the artistic point of view, the heat and cool system goes from earth to sky. Our basement is black and white from the ashes from the earth. Our first floor is red as in the lava at the core of the earth. The second is yellow for the under grasses. The third floor is green for the higher textured plants and the fourth floor is blue for the sky.

Jenkins: No longer are the days of proper libraries, now they’re media centers. We focused the media center around the lantern. You see blue skies and the continued greening of the neighborhood right from the reading zone. The stacks are intentionally left low, so that the light can trickle in and get deeper into the space, as well as to provide visual opportunities for display. At the moment the entire tops of those stacks are covered with environmental issues and books related to sustainability.

The sub-terrainian space that became the dining hall is one of the biggest transformations in the environment. There is a small grouping of windows that gives us very little light. We knew for sure that when we walked into that space that was wet, dark, and cavernous that we needed to transform it into a welcoming environment that supported a family eating style. We leveraged those wacky columns that are almost three-feet wide and got our structure to support mechanical systems so that we could get those coffers higher and light that space a little bit better.

Walker: The goal for the gymnasium was to emphasize the outdoor space. In order to do that we pushed the gymnasium all the way over to the western end of the site, slotted it in there, and basically put a divider in, which is our stage. The way that the stage works is that it’s elevated three feet above the floor, both for the outdoor and for the indoor space, and we put in a number of roll-up doors to allow for this open up, both to the inside and to the outside. This allows them to maximize space and really feels like bringing the outdoors in and having the light coming in from the outside.

By using a rollup door we were able to bring in natural light into a space that typically wouldn’t get it because of the size of the lot, there are buildings right up against us to the west and to the south.

The other thing we did from a sustainable approach was to use a radiant heat system in the building. In the gymnasium itself all the heating and cooling comes from underneath, which allows for us to save energy because you’re not trying to blow heat from above. The height of the space is over 20 feet but we able to keep a low zone of temperate air at about eight feet, which minimizes our energy usage.

On top of the gym we created an outdoor environmental center. About 70 percent of the gym is covered with green space. We have two feet of soil on top of this roof that is fully plantable. It’s designed to be maintained by the staff and the students and to have a number of teaching areas within it.

The concept is that the vegetables and herbs that they’re going to grow on this roof will get used in their cafeteria program. This is the lynchpin in terms of understanding sustainability from a curriculum standpoint and from a design standpoint for all of us.

You’ll notice we’ve talked a lot about sustainability but we haven’t talked a lot about LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design]. LEED is an important piece in this project because we used it as a measuring stick. But we didn’t necessarily use it as the decision making process. Throughout the whole process of design here, it was more important for us to come up with sustainable aspects that really went to the core of what St. Philip’s was about in terms of both their mission and their curriculum.

Jenkins: The materials that were selected weren’t necessarily completely green in nature. We tried to limit the use of new materials. We had VOC-free paint and that kind of thing. We went through agonizing pains to try to get cork on the project but due to the nature of this rolling, inherited, wood floor it was impossible, so we did VCT flooring.

We’ve got an acoustic tile wood ceiling. Even though Miguel likes a lot of noise, it would bounce around quite a bit in there if we didn’t have some soft surfaces. Wherever we had a timber column it was left raw not only because of the beauty, but because we didn’t want to do a kind of additive process.

Anderson: Essentially the traditional model of education that you’re familiar with is sometimes called the “sage on the stage” approach. This is where you’ve got the teacher in front of the classroom speaking to the students probably sitting in rows where the teacher is all-knowing and imparting knowledge to the students who don’t bring very much with them to the classroom.

In our minds this was an outdated model of education very much akin to the assembly-line approach that was surely important in the industrial era, but not so much today. We wanted to move away from that to where the teacher functioned as the “guide on the side” to facilitated student learning.

A lot of our thinking about aligning curriculum and the facility came from our research into how the brain works, particularly when it comes to emotional safety, appropriate challenges, and self-constructed meaning. Research suggested that a one-size model didn’t fit all. It was important for us to have spaces where we could have collaboration, individual instruction, teams working together, and flexible kinds of whole group instruction.

We also thought that the ideas of sustainability we wanted to reflect in our curriculum were informed by the kind of design that came to fruition. We wanted to teach kids to think for themselves and to be trained as leaders for the future. We wanted to encourage health and wellness, empower families, and strengthen our local community. Our new facility is allowing us to more effectively implement the curriculum that we’ve embraced for a long time.

Locus: My classroom has bigger rooms. We have more space to move around. We have a lot more freedom. I remember in our old building, in our 7th grade math class, our desks were actually touching and connecting against the walls. Now we have more room to roam around.

Davis: We also have more time and space to get together to be a community and a family. We have our advisor meetings and activities. I’m the newspaper club and Sadiq is in chess.

Jenkins: In addition to allowing for movement and individuality, one of the beauties of the space is that the architecture kind of disappears as it’s been transformed by the students and facility. Everybody makes these rooms their own, plastering the walls with artwork. They’ve embraced the columns. In the rooms that are not being used yet because there is curriculum that still has to be developed, they look kind of sad because it’s just about color and light, there is no energy in them yet.

Walker: The other thing that came out great in this project is the amount of natural light that we were able to bring in. We have north facing windows on the majority of the classroom spaces and it brings in beautiful light deep into the overall space.

Anderson: We also felt that in an interactive and animated approach to teaching, not only do you need more space, but you also need more flexibility. Both in terms of furniture and in terms of space for meeting.

Brito: At same time we have a lot of new and flexible furniture. There are science lab tables from the 19th century. They work well and they look cool. We reused a lot furniture, and some of it was our oldest furniture or furniture that had actually been given to us when we were a very young institution.

We want to foster that learning does not only take place in the classrooms, but in the hallways, on the stairwells, outside, at lunch. It’s not unusual to see kids out in the hallway, measuring things, doing projects there, creating, and learning something from that area outside the classroom. They are also encouraged to express themselves outside the classrooms so that others can understand what they’re doing in class and read about it and talk with them and engage them.

Anderson: It was important for us not to just move out of the classroom into our hallways, but also to move out of the building itself. To this end we developed a five week program where kids learns about the outdoors and nature through literature and science activities and then apply that knowledge by going hiking or camping. We send our 5th graders off to Vermont for a week to work on a farm and have had 8th graders go to North Carolina for a week with Outward Bound. These were all very important experiences for our children and important to our ideas about sustainability. We wanted to build and maintain the momentum for these experiences at home. We’re trying to figure out ways to integrate this more fully into what we’re doing on a daily basis.

Locus: Hey, Salona, I have a lot of friends that don’t eat healthy. How does St. Philip’s Academy help us to eat better?

Davis: SPA will help us eat better by having us eat healthy, nutritious meals that we make and get our food from our rooftop garden.

Locus: I love science and I hope to be a scientist one day. How does SPA help us to learn about the earth?

Davis: Since we have our rooftop garden, we’ll be planting and harvesting and cooking most of the vegetables and fruits that we grow.

Locus: I have a lot of friends that like to follow me. How will St. Philip’s Academy help teach me to become a leader?

Davis: They’ll give you more responsibility using the rooftop garden again, you’ll be up there. You can work on it yourself or have your friends come along with you.

Locus: How will St. Philip’s help to grow not only individually, but to also grow as a community?

Davis: We’ll be sharing work that we do. We’ll share the successes, the accomplishments and the failures.

Locus: How will we put this all together?

Davis: We close the loop.

Locus: Mr. Ralph, what is closing the loop?

Walker: The amazing part of the project for us is that we saw an opportunity to actually integrate the curriculum and facility in one special way. We’ve developed a closed-loop food cycle within the building itself. Within the property children will plant seeds and get them to grow. Then the food that they harvest will be taken down to their new cafeteria where it will be prepared for the meals that they eat, and the waste from the meals will then be separated and composted to provide for nutrients for the soil back on the rooftop garden. Within one single facility we’re able to do all those pieces and parts. But the other piece that’s important here is that this closed loop isn’t just about the act of planting and harvesting. It’s about the act of teaching leadership, responsibility, and collaboration, and teaching children to teach other children.

The next piece we want to talk about is the LEED signage program. One of the things critical for this project is that the building itself is actually a teaching tool. We’re in the process of working with the school and the children to develop a graphics program which will talk about all the various aspects of this project in a way that’s accessible for children from kindergarten to 8th grade.

Jenkins: Ralph had this brilliant idea of developing a scavenger hunt of sorts. We’re about to develop a signage program that asks questions and the kids have to hunt for certain aspects of the mechanical system or certain types of daylighting or something like that. It has yet to be applied. We’re looking for funds. So if anyone has any spare change, we’ll be collecting afterwards.

Walker: The best part about this is that as the children move through the building, they’ll be discovering new things about themselves, about the building itself, and about their relationship with Newark and the earth as a whole.

Overall this is about impact. How do we create something sustainable and renewable. How do we create an impact that’s going to last beyond all of us who are sitting here?

Brito: I think we’ve already had a very positive effect on the community. On one city block, over 20 homes have been built in less than one year. A lot of it is from empty lots and sites when there was a great deal of waste. I think the neighborhood is learning from the children. They’ve taken another block, which is about two blocks away, and we’ve taken ownership of it. The kids are cleaning it. They’re making a difference and people are getting to see that difference happening before their eyes.

Anderson: Our old building was about compromise and coping and this new building is about progress and possibility. From the very first day we opened our doors we could see a difference in expressions on the faces of students as they walk down the halls, and the energy and enthusiasm. What we’ve seen in the last four months since the building’s been open is that kids continue to be excited about coming to school. They are healthier, happier, and taking greater pride in their new school community.

Jenkins: Attendance is better and sickness is down. I don’t know if that’s a tribute to the building, but we’d like to think so.

The health and wellness program is showing itself in the smiles and in the faces during family style dining. The really fun bit is that the children are designated to do a particular activity over lunch where one or two students will go and retrieve the food. One or two students will go get the cutlery and they all join and each lunch together as a whole.

Walker: The other thing we’re seeing is an ongoing awareness of the world. One of the things we did when they first moved into the building was to distribute seeds to all the students to kick off this program of growth. It’s really exciting to have them understand this cycle and to start to be involved in it.

The level of environmental responsibility that we hear back from students—the books that they’re reading, the signage that’s up around the school—is truly incredible. They’re really becoming agents of change.

The other thing that we’ve seen is recognition. We’ve already been honored with the New Jersey Smart Growth award this year that recognizes projects with a positive impact on their community, looking at urban renewal specifically.

The other thing is that we’ve had a huge amount of media interest, obviously Metropolis has been kind enough to get us in here to talk about the project, but there has been a number of stories recently in local and statewide papers.

Suzan S. Szenasy, editor in chief, Metropolis: One of the things that I find so incredibly inspiring about this is that you were able to overcome that tradition urban cynicism, the urban kid’s “Why would I want to grow a sunflower?” But you were able to. Could you talk about how that happened?

Anderson: We saw it as we talked about some of our outdoor education experiences. When you take children who have never grown anything before to a farm in Vermont, you see the kind of excitement that they demonstrate working on that farm. We saw so many ways in which the kids wanted to be connected to their environment, and knew we had to foster that in other ways. We couldn’t take them out to Vermont every week, and wanted to do something closer to home.

Brito: I’ve only been at St. Philip’s for 7 years now. Earlier in my career there someone asked me, “Why do you want to do all this? You know they only want to play basketball so why not build some basketball courts?” My idea is that these kids are like kids everywhere. It’s a question of exposing them to things that are different, that they haven’t imagined, and giving them real opportunities on a broad sense. They not only want to do it but I think they eat it up more than the kids who see it almost every day. There is almost no cynicism expect where it usually resides—in adults.

Walker: The biggest challenge for us was never the kids, it was the steps in the various bureaucratic organizations that we had to deal with. Within our own organizations there were the conversations about what is the design about and what is sustainability really about. Then there are the steps in the funding process and making the argument—it does cost more to do sustainable design in certain situations, but what do you gain from it, and how do you value it, and what is the true return on value—not the return on investment—but the return on value.

We talked earlier about all the people who were involved—the families, the trustees—that was a very long process. Over the nine months that we were in design, we were constantly going back and forth. Are we really going to build this as sustainable as we say that we’re going to? How do we make that final commitment? At the end of the day the decision making process came down to: What’s right for these kids?

Brito: It cost $22 million. We told doners that we were going to build a rooftop garden, we told them about sustainability and environmental awareness. When we explain that we’re going to spend money to do things that these kids deserve, that’s when funders really step forward. And we’re very lucky that we had the plan we had, because it brought in more, better, and bigger donors.

Szenasy: This is a life shaping project. As architects and designers how did it shape you?

Jenkins: The other day I saw the school in action for the first time. I hat gotten on Ralph’s case constantly over where the paint was breaking and what the detail was. But when you see it in action it’s not even relevant. When it’s in action, it’s a completely different environment and the energy is so intense. It makes me want to quit design and go teach, which I used to do at Pratt. Then I realized that if I wasn’t there to help Ralph and the rest of the team that maybe it wouldn’t have turned out like this, so I’m a little bit torn. What’s important as a designer or architect? Sometimes, particularly with corporate interiors, you’re just making something pretty. But unless we start to apply some of these things that we’ve learned, it’s not relevant anymore. It is life changing. It makes you focus on what’s important and what’s extraneous.

Walker: This project has been my blood, sweat, and tears for the last three years. It’s rare to work with a client who cares so deeply about the right things, and it’s rare to work with a project team who cares so deeply about the right things.

What it reinforced for me, more than anything else, is the power of design. It’s the power to be able to do something beautiful, caring, and carefully that is going to have a lasting change not just on the people who see it the first day but for the people who will see it 30 years from now.

I took my father at one point to see the building in progress. The structure was all torn apart and it was wet and nasty. Recently, he came to the role model dinner when the school was active and alive and vibrant. My dad pulled me aside and said, “I don’t know how you see this stuff! I walked into that dark building with all those columns and the wetness and I said, you’re going to put kids in here, you’re crazy.” But when he saw the kids and the project when it was all said and done, it was really reinforcing the feeling of having done the right thing. You are putting pen to paper, but pen to paper means something down the road.

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