Architectural Design Drives Instructional Conversation

In the U.S., there are approximately 98,000 K-12 schools. The average age of the buildings is 44 years old, and 30 percent were built before 1960. These schools consume 8 percent of all commercial building energy use in the country, and spend more than $8 billion on energy costs. As a result, this slice of the academic sector provides an opportunity for retrofitting.

Constructed in 1962, Westhill High School, which enjoys a reputation for science education, was overdue for modernization.
Constructed in 1962, Westhill High School, which enjoys a reputation for science education, was overdue for modernization.

Located near Syracuse in central New York state, Westhill High School fits this profile. Constructed in 1962, the school, which enjoys a reputation for science education, was overdue for modernization. Superintendent Casey Barduhn saw an opportunity not only to replace failing building systems, but to rethink how this project could drive instructional conversation through architectural design.

Next Generation Design

To explore this, school-district administrators, the Westhill science faculty, and the Ashley McGraw design team engaged in an open-ended dialogue about what exists now and what the future may hold for education, for science, and how a renovated building could adapt to and support that future for the next 50 to 100 years. Through a series of working sessions and field trips, we explored various methods of instructional delivery as well as ways of incorporating 21st century skills into both the curriculum and the architecture. A tour of a new and a renovated college science facility introduced the concept of unstructured collaboration space and triggered our thinking about how that could be incorporated into a high school environment. Research into student-led learning environments across the country fed a discussion of how to deliver instruction and how architecture could support and encourage that pedagogical shift.

A far-reaching agenda for institutional change, like the vision for Westhill, takes time to achieve. It must happen in participatory and incremental ways, and it is difficult to put it on a strict timeline. To that end, six months were allocated for the building-design phase. Both before and during that time, we heard from all stakeholders, and refined the design based on their input. It was an inclusive process. 

To mitigate the expense of completely renovating the existing three-story science wing of the school, the project was broken into in two separate phases, spaced five years apart, which allowed the school to receive the maximum amount of funding.

From Plan to Practice

This approach necessitated that new science rooms be built while the existing classrooms remained in use. The retrofitting of 18 science classrooms and a small group-study area encompassed 32,523 square feet of interior space; on the exterior, 23,332 square feet of wall area was reclad. Coordinating the construction schedule was a real juggling act: we had to keep the project on track while minimizing its impact on day-to-day school activities; noise control was a priority.

Structural Solutions

At Westhill, the existing building had a precast concrete façade, which had not aged well over the decades. In addition, the walls had very little non-continuous insulation. Our design remedy— replacing the roof, the exterior envelope and windows, and upgrading the HVAC system— addresses both structural and performance shortcomings while enhancing the comfort of the building’s occupants.

Whenever possible, materials were chosen to incorporate the best sustainable thinking into the project. Terra cotta was used for the rainscreen because it is recyclable and can withstand the weather extremes; it’s not affected by freeze-thaw cycle and is corrosion resistant. A single-wall terracotta tile (rather than the typical two-wall design) was specified to reduce the weight and quantity of material. The rainscreen is backed by a four-inch-thick wrap of continuous mineral-wool insulation. The visual composition of the rainscreen, a series of vertical airfoils that runs the length of the science wing, offsets the horizonal massing of the rest of the school, and adds fresh color and texture to the façade.

The new exterior wall system is made up of six-foot cold-formed metal studs packed with six-inch mineral-wool batt insulation. We opted for mineral wool insulation instead of foam because it uses both natural and recycled materials; it also has a much lower carbon footprint and less toxins than foam.

The original windows were single-glazed aluminum-framed units that offered no thermal breaks. Replacing these with modern models, thermally broken, double-paned insulated glass with low-E reflective coating, improved the energy performance. To cut down on glare caused by the east/west orientation of the windows, we added vertical aluminum shading airfoils to the façade.

The retrofitting of 18 science classrooms and a small group-study area encompassed 32,523 square feet of interior space
The retrofitting of 18 science classrooms and a small group-study area encompassed 32,523 square feet of interior space

Modernizing Mechanical Systems

Typical of buildings of its age, the old structure had no heat-recovery capability, and when compared to contemporary technology, the HVAC system offered very limited control, leading to wasteful or inadequate performance.

The new system consists of induction-style chilled-beam terminals, where the primary airflow from the central air handling units induces air currents to flow across the cool coils in the beams, lowering the ambient temperature. Because the airflow is approximately one-third of that required by a conventional HVAC system, we could use smaller ductwork—which in turn reduced installation costs. The diminished airflow requirements also allowed us to decrease the size of the fans in the system, ultimately saving energy.

In the classrooms, radiant ceiling panels are suspended at the exterior walls, where they eliminate cold spots along the perimeter and help maintain a constant temperature in the room. The panels also serve as a primary source of heat during the unoccupied hours of the building, further conserving energy use by eliminating the need to run the central station air handling units around the clock.

A new building control system now allows the school’s facility managers to fine-tune the system and make it more responsive to changing conditions. From scheduling system operations and controlling outside air requirements to more accurate heating and cooling temperature set-points and alarm monitoring, the system saves both energy and maintenance costs. 

An Interior Updated for Learning

Based on observations in the initial study of trends in the design of academic facilities, we determined that one goal for the third floor was to create a student-focused, active learning environment that encouraged the students to take control of their education, with the teachers and instructors acting as facilitators.

We devised a layout that deviates from the traditional, arrow-straight thoroughfare. The new meandering, double-loaded corridor embodies the contemporary culture that Westhill is establishing. It features collaboration zones that create pockets of life both within the confines of the classroom as well as in the hallway volume. It was important to convey that all areas of the school building can present an opportunity for knowledge growth and idea sharing between students, their peers, and their teachers.

Several conventional classrooms were adapted to accommodate collaborative learning spaces. Partially partitioned off from the main area of the classroom, yet still visually connected to it, these add an element of flexibility to the rooms. They are furnished with movable work surfaces and chairs, allowing the interior to be reconfigured as desired.

While the project focused on revitalizing spaces to support an innovative approach to education, we also wanted to acknowledge the character of the original architecture—not obliterate it. To do this, we exposed parts of the existing concrete structure, adding depth to the classrooms on the third floor. To enhance acoustics and light reflectance, white ceiling clouds were added where necessary. Natural rubber flooring was chosen for its sound-absorbing qualities, low maintenance requirements, and to provide a comfortable surface for the faculty and students who often stand for long periods of time in the labs.

A Model for Midcentury School Buildings

The project focused on revitalizing spaces to support an innovative approach to education.
The project focused on revitalizing spaces to support an innovative approach to education.

Of the roughly 30,000 schools in the country of the same vintage as Westhill, many of them share its renovation needs. While our work was tailored to resolve specific conditions, the systemic approach we used for retrofitting the building, targeting its HVAC, envelope, and interiors, could be applied to several structures of comparable age and style.

Retrofit Team


  • Windows/glazing: EFCO
  • Facade (terracotta rainscreen, single-wall system): Zephir Evolution by Terreal
  • Rainscreen girt system: Knight Wall
  • Facade (aluminum air foils): EFCO
  • Insulation: Walls: Roxul. Roof: Firestone Building Products
  • Roofing: TPO – Firestone Building Products
  • Interior lighting: Finelite, Lightolier, Day-Brite
  • Exterior lighting: Voight, Gardco
  • Flooring: Nora Systems, Interface, Mosa Tile         
  • HVAC systems:

1 Comment on "Architectural Design Drives Instructional Conversation"

  1. How was the roofing materials selected? I see you chose a Firestone TPO membrane roof, which has a life expectancy of 15 to 20 years. If the total building is designed to last another 50 to 100 years that means 3 to 6 roof replacements would be required during that time span. Was a structural metal roof system ever considered? These systems are expected to last at least 60 to 100 years and do not require the existing roof to be removed.

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