The East Harlem School

The project is an independent, not-for-profit, year-round middle school that affects change in East Harlem by recruiting at-risk students from low-income families. Our charge was to find an affordable and creative solution to address the pragmatic programmatic requirements of a school tripling in size, while achieving the school’s dream of, in the words of the Co-Founder and Head of School, “hav(ing) a space that showed we would defend our families’ interests (and) had a soaring ambition for them and ourselves… In a democracy, we believe that… shared spaces, not private dwellings should be the most beautiful in our lives.” The new 27,800 square foot building champions the school’s mission of learning and an awareness of an individual’s place in the community by promoting light, calm, creativity, and collective responsibility. Spaces for daily school-wide gatherings are concentrated in the lower floors, sheathed in acid-etched glass to provide a hint of the daily movements of students and teachers, and linked by light-filled stairs. The serious work of study and discipline in classrooms on the upper floors is screened by a fabric-like weave of windows and panels of varying colors and degrees of reflectivity. Our office acted as both architect and construction manager in an integrated project delivery process to achieve a level of intensive quality control at substantial cost savings, producing a building that otherwise would have been out of reach for the school.

East Harlem, New York, is a community beset by poverty and its attendant ills of early high school withdrawal, violent crime, teen pregnancy, and drug abuse. The project is an independent, not-for-profit year-round middle school that affects change in this high risk community by recruiting students from low-income families. Our charge was to find an affordable and creative solution to address the pragmatic programmatic requirements of a school tripling in size, while achieving the school’s dream of, in the words of the Co-Founder and Head of School, “hav(ing) a space that showed we would defend our families’ interests (and) had a soaring ambition for them and ourselves…In a democracy, we believe that…shared spaces, not private dwellings should be the most beautiful in our lives.”

The new 27,800 square foot building champions the school’s mission of learning and an awareness of an individual’s place in the community by promoting light, calm, creativity, and collective responsibility. Students begin and end each day in group reflection. Spaces for daily school-wide gatherings, as well as public special events, are concentrated in the lower floors. The entry lobby, dining room, multi-purpose gymnasium and backyard are all linked by light-filled stairs and gentle ramps. Sheathed in translucent, acid-etched glass, a hint of the daily activities of students and teachers is conveyed to the neighborhood, while a protective veil is provided to maintain the intimate nature of the school. Classrooms and other specialty academic spaces above are screened by a fabric-like weave of windows and panels of varying colors and degrees of reflectivity. As part of the pixelated façade, window openings are placed in relation to interior planning rather than imposing a formal exterior logic.

The school had an extremely tight budget, caused both by the high cost of New York City construction at the height of the building boom and its location within the 100-year flood zone. Every decision had the goal of enhancing program and design for the school while minimizing costs. Circulation was streamlined in a tight core to maximize usable space. Straightforward exterior wall framing with punched openings was coupled with a high-quality panelized façade system arranged in a weaving pattern for a sophisticated, distinctive presence in the neighborhood. Prefabricated concrete plank floors lowered construction costs yet provided the advantage of high 11- and 13-foot clear ceiling heights for a light and airy learning environment. Mechanical systems were tightly coordinated to minimize inefficiencies and wasted space. Quality materials were used on the flooring to absorb sound and lessen the institutional feel that plagues most schools. The backyard was designed with special touches, including amphitheater steps, sloped surfaces covered in low-maintenance artificial grass, and a weeping willow tree.

Our office acted as both architect and construction manager in an integrated project delivery process, involved at every stage including land use development analysis, programming, and building design and documentation to sub-contractor negotiations, on-site project management, means and methods coordination, project financials and FF&E selection and procurement. The result was a level of intensive quality control at substantial cost savings, producing a building that otherwise would have been out of reach for the school.


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