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KIPP DC Ruth K. Webb Campus: A Case Study

Process—————16 September 2014

On a hot July evening in 2012 flames ripped through the Ruth K. Webb Public School, a surplus Washington DC public school building in the Northeast quadrant’s Trinidad neighborhood. Just weeks earlier, the Webb school had been awarded to KIPP DC, a high performing local charter school. Overnight, KIPP DC'sgoal of creating its northeast DC campus, and its first in Ward 5, was jeopardized.

The fire gutted much of the structure, but not KIPP DC’s plans for its new school.  This case study discusses KIPP DC’s realization of this project, despite the fire that might have ended it. KIPP DC, along with Studio Twenty Seven Architecture and MCN Build, saw opportunity in the misfortune. Here was a chance to create a new community amenity, where a much-loved but outdated school had been.

Below we discuss how the team assessed the surplus school building, designed a building to achieve KIPP DC’s vision, integrated sustainability into the design and construction process, planned for phased occupancy, and ultimately created a building to support and connect the school and the community.

While KIPP DC’s vision for the school required just over 105,000 square feet of program space, and accounting for what the fire effectively destroyed, a 46,000 square feet addition would be required. For the business plan to be successful, a portion of the building needed to be open for the 2013 academic year, setting the stage for the project to be phased. In the first phase, KIPP DC renovated the portions of the undamaged wings of the existing building for its Connect Academy, an early childhood education program, and Spring Academy, an elementary school. In the second phase, the remaining, salvageable, portions of the existing building were renovated, and a new wing was added where the destroyed wing had been. The 2014 academic year will open with a complete campus for three schools. The Northeast Academy middle school will join Connect and Spring Academies, complete with new playgrounds, a gymnasium, and cafeterias.

Facilities Assessment, Space Program Needs, and Phasing

Normally, an assessment of an existing school facility is done prior to committing to a project. This task is often completed, even in a cursory way, prior to competitive offers being provided on a DCPS / DGS surplus property.  In the case of the KIPP DC Webb campus, this assessment happened twice. A preliminary assessment includes structure, architecture, mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, and their capacity to perform to the future requirements of the school.  Site conditions and rain water management are also critical, in light of new, more environmentally friendly mandates. With the Webb school, a holistic assessment occurred and then a second, extensive structural survey of the burned-out sections was required, as well as a complete reassessment of how utilities were to enter the site.

Working with B&D, KIPP DC confirmed their programming requirements which determined what would need to be built anew. Overall the new KIPP DC campus required more classrooms, and support space, exceeding the available space, even if the fire had not happened.  Studio Twenty Seven developed a series of options to add the required square footage, accounting for immediate and longer term needs, out of which a preferred plan aligned with the budget was developed. The first phase could be accomplished with relative ease and cost. The second phase would need more planning, a longer construction timeline and delicate handling of the site while occupied by small children. Indeed, the contractor was not allowed to make loud noise between 1-2pm daily, during nap time.

Early in preconstruction planning, the full project team discussed different phasing strategies.  The biggest factor was balancing how students were to use part of the building while the rest was under construction. Preparatory planning saved the school time and money. Work was sequenced to minimize reworking of areas and planned infrastructure for future phases, while getting new students into classes for the 2013 school year.

 Architecture Defined by Pedagogy

The success of a charter school is dependent on its unique identity and defined academic approach. Architecturally, a charter school’s physical plant should foster its pedagogical approach, and reflect its unique identity. With most charter schools in Washington DC occupying either school buildings from another era, or structures that were originally conceived for other functions, it can be a challenge to align the building with a charter’s vision. 

Typically, Studio Twenty Seven researches the pedagogy of a charter school’s program in order to create a new home expressive of their values. At the Webb Campus, the primary design driver is to support KIPP DC’s Five Pillars by providing students with an aspirational environment. Connections between the adjacent academies and to the community beyond are critical to this goal. Yet these connections must not distract from the discipline required for the daily functioning of the school. This is achieved architecturally by providing views from one academy to another, while maintaining physical separation, including independent entry locations. Younger students get glimpses of their older colleagues at a distance, as they go through their day, but separation of ages is maintained. All grades have communal spaces that relate to the city beyond.  In particular, the upper grade classrooms and cafeteria look out over the neighborhood and distant city landmarks beyond. Meanwhile, the building massing interlocks new with existing, creating a generous interior play court for safe play for all grade levels. 

Sustainability

New and renovated schools have to comply with the DC Green Building Act.  KIPP DC is currently submitting final documentation for USGBC LEED for Schools certification. Establishing USGBC LEED certification is a great baseline for environmental performance. The USGBC prerequisite Owner’s Project Requirements can serve as a benchmark document that can help define a project as early as initial RFP solicitation stage.  Project Managers and Architecture / Engineering teams understand these requirements and can embed them into the contract for the project. While there are many templates a school, or project management team, can use to develop these environmental performance requirements, the USGBC’s guidelines are extremely helpful in the early design stages to direct decision making and budget allocation decisions. Many USGBC credits may also be readily achieved with thoughtful planning, material selections and systems design.  An overall key, however, is to understand that Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is a process of planning fully integrated building systems.

The Webb Campus is pursuing LEED credits for reusing the existing structure.  During construction, general contractor MCN was able to recycle 85% of the waste collected on the project to address another credit. LEED credits also came FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified wood doors and millwork and high recycled content carpet. LEED credit was also granted for natural daylighting and views from 95% of all interior spaces. This particular LEED-initiated design driver has also been statistically proven to foster higher performing students.

Building Community Connections

The original Ruth K. Webb public school, in operation since 1960, was closed in 2008 due to under-enrollment. The neighborhood lamented the loss of the long-standing neighborhood institution. The building quickly became a target for vandalism and theft of equipment and materials. By the fire of 2012, the Trinidad neighborhood seemed to be negatively changing to its north at the same time gentrification was pushing in from the south. KIPP DC’s arrival on the scene and its mission to renew a neighborhood amenity was timely and welcomed. However, introducing a new public charter school into an established community with a distinct identity takes finesse.  One simple strategy KIPP DC employs when it takes over an existing facility is to not erase the historical name of the school. This heritage helps gain the trust of a neighborhood. When the new KIPP DC facility opens to full capacity this Fall, the former Webb Elementary School, will be called the Webb Academic Campus.  

Like many aging public school buildings, the original Webb building had solid metal uninviting front doors, and an extensive amount of steel security screening on windows (which were often scratched and cloudy plexiglass), giving the school the feel of a penitentiary. By contrast, the new campus will be a greener, more accessible site.  The new facility will host after-hour’s access to the gymnasium and cafeteria, which will serve as community meeting rooms.  The reconfigured entries are designed to allow school administration to close off certain parts of the school and open up others. Both spatially and programmatically, the new campus reworks physical relationships between the school, the immediate context, and the larger community. 

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