If We Build It, Will They Come?

January 06, 2016

By Ingrid Krueger

Okay. Let's admit it. Most of us fear change on some level. But it's inevitable, right? At Federal Way High School, we're counting on it.

The Federal Way Public School District embraces change throughout their schools they are experimenting with new educational models and pedagogies, fostering innovation, and pushing the limits of their comfort zones. They're taking inspiration from colleges, design studios, and tech start-ups, seeking not only the best learning environment for today, but looking toward the learning environment of the future. As the flagship of the district, Federal Way High School must be a place where new ideas thrive.

A goal defined early in design was to let the building allow for change, both day-to-day and over time. To get out of the way of change, and to support stewardship of the District's limited resources, the building has to be flexible and adaptable. Flexibility, or versatility, means that the spaces can function in many ways, and are only purpose-built when absolutely necessary. Adaptability means that modifications can be made to the architecture of a space or spaces with little or no impediment from the building infrastructure. These two key concepts are the primary design drivers for everything from structural modules to paint colors.

In an effort to avoid the trap of doing things "the way they're usually done" and to encourage inherent flexibility for the project, our client refused to give us a program. Instead, SRG spent an entire summer on a detailed study of precedent projects, with the goal of dissecting what makes those spaces work, what pedagogical model each was based on, what were the defining characteristics of each model, and what architectural scenarios could support those models now and into the future.

The result of that study was something unique. Rather than a program listing how many of each type of specific room, space types are thought of in categories with defining characteristics. Rooms are not described as classrooms, labs, and shops, but as Presentation Spaces, and Tinkering or Working spaces. Some are messy, some are neat, some require substantial infrastructure and some are more minimally supported. Highly specialized spaces are kept to a minimum and kept out of the way of rooms with fewer limitations.

Building elements are categorized by their permanence. Fixed elements are minimized, and are carefully located and grouped when possible to leave the largest amount of unencumbered space. Mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems are designed to be modular, to allow "plug and play" of new programs and spaces. We developed a series of diagrams to show examples of how the more fluid spaces can be rearranged around the permanent elements, accommodating various teaching and learning models.

The program also includes a wide variety of third places. For a student first place is home, and second place is School. Third places are spaces that are minimally programmed places, in which students can create communities of their own. The most basic of these are small enclosed study or project rooms, but third places can be any space outside of a classroom that students can adopt. The library is a third place; widened areas in hallways are third places. The commons can be thought of as the largest and most malleable third place. In addition to wide open space, the commons includes seating steps to serve as a meeting place, overflow library seating, a casual performance venue, and even a lecture space.

Spaces are finished with a loft-like aesthetic, so nothing seems too precious or unapproachable; finishes are minimal and durable, such as plywood wainscoting and exposed concrete floors; ceilings are limited, exposing much of the structural, mechanical, and electrical systems. In other words, it's not your grandmother's living room; it's the garage where your best friend's band rehearses.

Even with all this effort to build in "flexibility and adaptability," the building itself can't execute the change. On day one, Federal Way High School will be a building with classrooms that look much like any other high school of the past or present, but with possibilities. The people who use the school have only to embrace the opportunity to do something new, and to understand and take advantage its versatility.

The administrators who make decisions about the educational policies, and the teachers who carry them out, must know that the building can be a tool to support them, and have the courage to use it. The students who rely on the building to help them learn and grow must have permission to take ownership of the spaces (and the teachers have to let go of the reins a bit and trust them to do that).

The design attempts to leave "breadcrumbs" to let the users know "It's yours-do with it what you want." But it's out of our hands now. Luckily for us-and for the success of this building-this is a group of innovative people, who've readily embraced the notion that necessity is the mother of invention. If anyone can mold the building to fit their needs, they can, and I'm excited to see what they make it do.

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Ingrid Krueger

AIA, LEED AP

Senior Associate