Lawrence Scarpa


1. How have trends or evolutions in the design process, technological advancements, and/or societal issues inspired new thought and solutions for this building type?

Alternatives to traditional public schools are transforming public education so that students are prepared for college, leadership, and life. In addition, they help parents organize and demand more of their neighborhood schools. Therefore, schools today need to be flexible enough so that they can be used for other community events, adult education, family planning and a host of other neighborhood activities, as well as student education.

Located in a tough, dense and economically depressed area of unincorporated Los Angeles County, California this urban infill public charter high school for 500 students is also located almost directly under the flight path into LAX and adjacent to the very busy 105 Century freeway. The area was a central trouble spot during the 1964 Watts Riots. Fair Housing and school busing has plagued the area since the early 60’s where median family income is less than $35,000/year and 25% of the population lives below the poverty level.

The design was influenced by the New Orleans architects Curtis and Davis who designed and built many schools in the early 1950s in Louisiana. Their designs adapted to the harsh local climate without using air conditioning, creating sustainable light filled and poetic spaces for kids to learn. The building is meant to serve as a blueprint and influence others in the building industry to pursue low energy high performance schools.

The building was designed to foster new ways of teaching that is inventive, creative and changes according to individual learners and the projects that will get students excited about learning and engage their creative thinking. It also allows faculty to direct their instruction and actions to best support student learning. Furthermore, the school has transitional classrooms that function as evening adult and family learning centers for the community for a variety of school directed adult and family education program and from outside community and neighborhood groups.

This building embodies many of these common sense but often forgotten strategies to make learning a pleasant and memorable experience. The building is compact, efficient and fits on a small infill site in a community that desperately needs quality education.

2. What was the most difficult issue(s) or the most unexpected challenge(s) that may have influenced new thought and design parameters in this specific project?

While most school projects of this size require large amounts of land, this project is purposefully compact and land efficient. As a result the school uses 70% less land mass than similar schools in the area, conserving valuable land for other community uses and allowing the structure to fit on a rather small site that is located in an area most needed for educational alternatives for troubled youths. In Los Angeles land is very expensive and large parcels of land are often difficult to find, particularly in economically depressed areas where alternatives to traditional education are needed most. One of the difficult challenges here was to find ways to creatively fit a large building on a small infill site while still making a place that could be a symbol to the community and inspire students.

Certified under the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS,; aesthetics, sustainability, and cost-effectiveness were considered in every design decision. Taking full advantage of the region’s temperate climate, the fully contained “big box” idiom of conventional schools was eschewed. Instead, a landscaped courtyard with multi-functional bleacher flows into the open-air lobby and the multilayered courtyard, lending the school the appeal of a collegiate campus and offering significant environmental benefits—improving day-lighting and access to fresh air both inside and out—while providing substantial cost savings by limiting artificial lighting and thermal conditioning to the smaller enclosed spaces.

One of the team’s primary objectives was to enhance the quality of the learning environment for each student by surpassing standards found in conventional projects. All rooms have exceptional daylighting, views, indoor air quality, and thermal comfort. The Building was designed to passively adapt to the temperate arid climate of Southern California. Large exterior overhangs with metal screens and solar panels function as light filters and shading devices. Like many of the features at this project all design elements are multivalent and rich with meaning – performing several roles for functional, formal and experiential effect. A key project goal was to daylight 100% of the interior teaching spaces. With close to 25% of the building envelope operable glazing, 95% of the total regularly occupied building area is day lit and can be ventilated with operable windows. Furthermore, the solar panels on the south façade provide shading and protect it from direct solar heat gain. This also reduces the contrast and glare between the window and the adjacent wall.

According to the California Title 24-2005 report published by USGBC dated November 19, 2007 the passive strategies alone make this building 50% more efficient than a conventionally designed structure. This sound passive design strategy combined with a very tight perimeter building envelope and other active sustainable features make this building one of the most energy efficient schools in the United States. The solar system alone produces nearly 75% of the school’s energy needs and will reduce carbon emissions by more that 3 million pounds.

3. Did this project and working on this building type expand or evolve your role as an architect in any way? In general, do you feel that the role of the architect is changing on current projects?

This was a very special and demanding project. To design a public high school is a very significant duty, you must seek to understand the values and culture of people and a place, to find some authentic expression in the architecture that reflects higher community values. Schools are important symbols of their respective communities and have the power to shift values and uplift the spirits of often overlooked neighborhoods. The architect can and is increasingly viewed as an instrumental part of community revitalization and positive change. This is a very healthy and important dimension added to the profession, extending its reach and depth of knowledge and investment in larger community issues.

The design provides students with safe, risk-supportive areas in which students are expected to experiment, fail, learn what did not work, and try new solutions. Failures, in this context could be encouraged, analyzed, and even celebrated as opportunities to learn.

The school with planned with the direct involvement of the community and Inglewood School System. Following the model of “New Schools Better Neighborhoods” programs and building configurations were developed with the direct involvement of a wide array of parents, neighborhood organizations and other community stakeholders. The design team followed the process outlined by “New Schools Better Neighborhoods” which views schools as vital neighborhood centers that Incorporates Multiple Community Needs into School Facility Plans.

4. In the context of this project, how is your office and design process being influenced by current trends in academic curricula and incoming young architects? In turn, how are current projects and new processes guiding the ongoing reformulation and development of academic curricula?

There are interesting parallels between education and architecture. Pedagogy is constantly changing and like architects, educators are always looking for new ways to teach, inspire students and develop new tools for high quality learning. Schools are under increasing pressure to deliver higher quality education with less. In turn, architects are being asked to do the same. New and more complex methods of project delivery, such as design/build and multiple prime contracting are increasing being used to deliver buildings at lower costs and within faster time frames. Therefore, it is essential for architects to deploy new processes to stay relevant. Advanced research and digital technologies not only facilitate complex project delivery methods, but also allow the architect to explore new configurations of learning environments with every increasing speed, bringing beautiful and inspiring buildings to people informed by cutting-edge technology and meaningful advances of science.

Much of this learning and new processes have been and are being developed in partnerships between the profession and academia. It is critical for the profession of architecture to develop cross-disciplinary approaches to solving complex building challenges. For our firm the distinction between academia and practice as not so clear cut. They inform one another to consistently help us redefine the role of the architect.

We do this, not by escaping the restrictions of practice, but by looking, questioning and reworking the very process of design and building. Each project is viewed as an opportunity to rethink the way things normally get done – with material, form, construction, even financing – and to subsequently redefine it to cull out to latent potentials. This produces work that is difficult to categorize. It is environmentally sustainable, but not ‘sustainable design;’ it employs new materials, digital practices and technologies, but is not ‘tech or digital;’ it is socially and community conscious, but not politically correct. Rather, it is deeply rooted in conditions of the everyday, and works with our perception and preconceptions to allow us to see things in new ways.

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