Owner: Chicago Public Schools
Architect: OWP/P (managing design architect)-Richard H. Dewar, AIA, principal-in-charge; Helen Fantini, AIA, project manager; Trung Le, AIA, design director; Elias Vavaroutsos, AIA, project designer. Warman Olsen Warman (architect-of-record)
Consultants: Rubinos Mesia (structural); Soodan & Associates (civil); George Sollitt Construction (general contractor)

STONE: Indiana Limestone
BUILT-UP ROOF Johns Manville
GREEN ROOF: American Hydrotech

Building Great K-12 Schools in Economically Challenging Times
In these tough times making good school design decisions has never been more difficult or more important. To find out how some of the nation’s top architects and administrators are coping with these challenges attend Architectural Record’s Schools of the 21st Century Symposium. It will be held Friday, April 9th, at the Hyatt McCormick Place in Chicago, the day before the NSBA Conference. The event is free of charge and is being presented with the support of McGraw-Hill Education and the American Architectural Foundation.

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CASE STUDY: Tarkington School of Excellence, Chicago Public Schools

Standout Student
In an ethnically diverse neighborhood, Chicago builds a school that sets the standard for those that follow
By David Sokol

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Since 1995, OWP/P has served as managing architect of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The role obliges OWP/P to conceive designs for new construction and renovation projects in the sprawling district, and to shepherd the project through the first half of construction documentation.

At that point, the city's Public Building Commission takes over, commissioning the remaining drawings and subsequent project management to an architect of record. Trung Le, AIA, design director of OWP/P's education group, explains that this unique protocol allows Chicago to hire smaller design firms while maintaining the consistent quality and speed that comes from a longstanding client-architect relationship.

The result of a collaboration between Chicago Public Schools and the city's Park District, Tarkington sits on a generous 10-acre parcel in Marquette Park.
Photo © James Steinkamp

In this role, OWP/P has been involved in several new-build projects, including the Tarkington School of Excellence, which opened in the fall of 2005 in an ethnically diverse neighborhood in Chicago's southwest quadrant. Indeed, the managing architect has helped the district cope with a growing student population in an efficient way: With Tarkington and similar K-8 schools, Le and his team start with a group of standard components, including common spaces like a gymnasium, dining facilities, library and administrative areas, and a number of classrooms that correspond with a locality's demographics. Then these components are arranged, typically linearly or in a L shape, so that the school best suits its site.

"We want to make sure the buildings are significant and add something to the fabric of the neighborhood," Le says of the kits of parts, which the CPS dubs "prototypes." But, "the opportunity for creating a building with an intimate connection to the community is limited," he adds candidly. "The timeline is fast, and maintaining equity from one community to the next is important politically in a city where cultural and racial division is still visible."

Although OWP/P has found its creative hands tied somewhat by the universality of the prototype, that model has grown increasingly sophisticated in recent years. Most significantly, just as Tarkington was under development, Mayor Richard Daley ordered CPS to collaborate with the Chicago Park District on building new schools on parkland to ensure that the facilities would be located more centrally within existing neighborhoods. Moreover, in his ongoing effort to make Chicago one of the most ecologically responsible cities in the nation, Daley required that Tarkington be the first school in the district to be certified under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. Created by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED provides standards for evaluating a building's environmental performance. Certification is pending, and all subsequent new Chicago schools must surmount this bar.

First Floor - click to enlarge.
1) Entry lobby 2) Administration 3) Gymnasium 4) Multipurpose room 5) Science classroom 6) Cafeteria 7) Building services

Second Floor - click to enlarge.
1) Library 2) General classroom 3) Multipurpose room 4) Science classroom 5) Building services

Third Floor - click to enlarge.
1) Green roof 2) General classroom 3) Student services 4) Arts 5) Building services

The school's masonry exterior is sympathetic to the brick and limestone bungalows that surround it.

About a third of Tarkington's roof is covered with vegetation. This feature has a number of environmental benefits, including reduction of stormwater runoff. The planted roof absorbs and retains rain water, allowing much of it to evapotranspire.

To erect Tarkington School of Excellence, the district acquired 9.82 acres of Marquette Park, replacing a mid-century administrative building on site with the 134,000-square-foot school for 1,000 students. Warman Olsen Warman is the architect of record.

Ostensibly, Tarkington follows an established pattern. The building assumes a truncated L-shaped footprint, with community spaces radiating from a central two-story atrium. In a nod to neighborhood context, Tarkington's exterior is composed of an offset brick pattern to reflect the brick and limestone articulation of the bungalows that face it; the library, immediately adjacent to the entrance, stands out from the facade, announcing its importance and reaching out toward daylight. Le also notes that Tarkington includes a full competition gymnasium, unlike other K-8 athletic spaces, thanks to the new collaboration with the park district. In order to compensate the community for its loss of parkland, at night the school is open to the public, offering classes in yoga, fitness, and dance.

The obligation to embrace sustainability simply reinforced a values system that OWP/P had implemented from the outset of its tenure. Like previous schools, Tarkington runs along an east-west access to minimize hard-to-control morning and afternoon sunshine, and large expanses of glass replace traditional punched openings and increase diffuse interior daylight. Tarkington's terrazzo floors include recycled glass, and the wood used in its atrium lobby ceiling, library, and gym floor comes from sustainably managed forests. The mayor's mandate also allowed OWP/P to introduce a sedum roof. But "LEED's biggest impact was on how the general contractor built the building," says Le. "The contractor recycled a majority of construction waste instead of dumping it somewhere," he says.

Certainly, there is a sense that with Tarkington, CPS is catching up to principles long held by OWP/P. Despite its foresight, OWP/P is not resting on its laurels now. Le says that his design team continues to innovate within the managing-architect paradigm. And, while concurrent projects such as Albany Park Multicultural Elementary School and the forthcoming Miles Davis Elementary School will likely achieve LEED certification at the minimum level, he predicts that subsequent projects will aspire to higher ratings.

David Sokol is a New York–based design writer and frequent contributer to Architectural Record.

Interior finishes in the daylight-filled, double-story lobby (above left) include terrazzo floors with recycled glass, and wood from sustainably managed forests. As part of Chicago Public Schools' arrangement with the Park District, the gymnasium (above right) is open to the community after school hours. Here, classes in yoga, fitness, and dance are offered to the public.