Durham Academy Lower School
Modern design provides elegant counterpoint to bland exurban surroundings
© Barry Halkin Photography
For more photos click on 'photos & drawings' above.
To see the people and products behind this project click on 'people & products.'
Durham Academy is an independent, coeducational college preparatory day school that serves more than 1,100 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. In the late 1990s, it commissioned KieranTimberlake Associates to prepare a master plan that would accommodate anticipated enrollment growth, alleviate crowded assembly spaces, and provide additional parking. It also asked the architects to execute the first structure in this plan: a new building for the Lower School, which includes kindergarten through fourth grade.
Clad in brick panels, its profile low-slung and elegant, the new Lower School seems at first glance to echo the style of two mid-century greats: Louis Kahn and Eliel Saarinen. But the building is no homage—rather, its form and materials express its rational plan and KieranTimberlake's desire to create a tasteful counterpart to the McMansions that sprawl across the surrounding North Carolina landscape. Indeed, few houses in the region, to say nothing of elementary schools, boast ornamental bamboo gardens. The Lower School's bamboo garden marks the halfway point along an entry axis that begins with a double-height lobby and terminates in an outdoor amphitheater.
The architects divided the Lower School's plan into modules that contain different grade levels. A central corridor, running perpendicular to the entry axis, links the different modules. To the left of the entry, two modules contain eight pre-kindergarten classrooms. To the right of the entry, one module houses the school's administrative offices, followed by a module that contains classrooms for the second grade, and then one for the first grade. The building's second floor houses the third and fourth grades along with science, computer, and art rooms.
Many schools in the Durham area feature outdoor breezeways that connect classrooms. Although the Lower School's corridors are fully enclosed, KieranTimberlake preserved this tradition by suffusing its circulation spaces with natural daylight. On the building's second level, clerestory windows cap the hub of each classroom module; the floor of each hub, meanwhile, is comprised of two layers of polycarbonate panels that allow light to pour down onto the ground level below. Throughout the building, the architects exposed as many utility conduits and wires as possible—a pedagogical exercise for students, allowing them to see how the building's innards function. The rough interior finish, moreover, gives the Lower School an adult grittiness not found in the wan surrounds of exurbia.
Durham Academy Lower School
Gross square footage:
81,000 sq. ft.
Total construction cost:
National Association of Independent Schools
420 North 20th
Philadelphia, PA 19130