The Business of Learning

Students at the Academy of Irving ISD are as active as those in any public high school, but they walk with a businesslike demeanor. There is a hum rather than a clamor. Lockers don’t slam. In fact, there aren’t any lockers, just as there are no school bells ringing between periods.

This new $24.6 million school, which recently finished its first year of operation, was designed to make students act and feel like professionals. A retail store, conference center, courtroom, architecture studio, and medical offices provide the real-world context for students to study English, art, math, and science.

At the entrance to the 193,000-square-foot school, a spacious three-story atrium resembles a commercial galleria and acts as the spine connecting various learning laboratories. Outside the library is the student store, where unsupervised students snack at the juice bar, or browse magazine racks like those in any bookstore/café.

Further fostering a mature atmosphere, the campus is located in the high-end corporate environs of Las Colinas, Texas, overlooking a PGA golf course and across the street from the Four Seasons Hotel. The hotel happens to be one of the Academy’s 53 business partners, in their case offering resources to train students enrolled in the school’s hospitality program.


Owner: Irving Independent School District
Architect: Powell/PSP
General Contractor: Hunt Construction Group

Officials at the Irving Independent School District (ISD) viewed the atmosphere as critical because half the district’s students come from economically-disadvantaged homes. For many of the Academy’s 1,300 students, the only computer in the house is the personal laptop they are issued by the school.

"It’s not a magnet school. It’s not a vocational school. It’s about themes of instruction-the catalyst for students to get engaged," says Jim Brady, vice president at PageSoutherlandPage (PSP), the project’s planning manager. "Professional imaging isn’t always available in disadvantaged circumstances. The Academy has the materials of a first-class office space, thus the attitude and behaviors parallel a different set of expectations."

Vertical Spine

PSP’s role was to realize an idea developed by district officials who wanted to do more than just add a fourth high school to their plan. Working as the Powell/PSP team with Milton Powell and Associates, the firm that lead the design effort, they had to create a facility that would serve as a district resource. Not a special program for special kids, but a hands-on learning experiment for any student.

Views to a pro golf course enhance the site.

The basis for the project was a community survey initiated by the district before Powell/PSP was hired. Students, parents, and other community members were asked what skill sets were needed, "They didn’t need another football team," says Brady. "An Academy student can play football at one of the existing high schools if they want to. Instead of athletic facilities, there is the conference center, the courtroom-facilities that support the entire district curriculum."

"We wanted to create a school that students want to come to," says ISD Assistant Superintendent Ralph Diaz, who led the district’s planning efforts. Students are eligible no matter their grades, and the school can work for the college-bound as well as those seeking certification in their skill. Of course, there is no reason why a student can’t do both. The idea is to provide an early foundation of professional skills, whether it leads to a lifelong career or as means to reach another skill.

Students may attend the Academy full-time or part-time-the latter maintaining stronger ties with their original school. The dining furniture in the common area symbolizes this non-competitive approach, borrowing school colors from the other three high schools instead of having its own. Likewise, the Academy radio station is called The Blend, claiming the entire district as its audience.

The program complements rather than replaces the other schools. It also serves as an incubator for new ideas that can be implemented district-wide. Having passed out laptop computers to each student at the Academy and outfitting the school with a wireless network, administrators are preparing to do the same at the other high schools.

The mock courtroom also serves large-group instruction.

The atrium announces the Academy’s mission of preparing students for the professional workplace. Most prominent is a three-story elevator that rises through a glass shaft-an architectural feature one might find in a corporate lobby. Milton Powell says the elevator reinforces the idea of the atrium as a "vertical spine," a response to a tight site with a sharp 50-foot incline.

The 22-acre plot is leased from North Lake Community College as part of an after-hours, shared-use agreement that puts the Academy to good use 16 hours per day, seven days a week. In return, Academy students may also take classes at the community college, helping them earn college credits and encouraging greater maturity.
North Lake would also save the day when ISD officials were surprised to learn eight acres were located outside district boundaries, meaning they could not legally occupy the full site. Reworking their arrangement with ISD, North Lake officials built a parking lot adjacent to the school on land that would have otherwise been off-limits.

In another potential setback, heavy rains arrived just as the general contractor prepared to pour the foundation. Hunt Construction Group was still able to manage the schedule and bring in the project on time, relying on valuable experience in both education and commercial office construction, a combination particularly well-suited for this award-winning project. The facility received numerous honors inside of and outside Texas, including the prestigious Walter Taylor Award for 2003.


The architectural designs take advantage of the awkward topography, making the necessary vertical solution work effectively with the corporate look. Windows to the outside yield good views of the professional golf course, as does a large balcony that is accessible to both staff and students.

A three-story elevator rises through a glass shaft, a feature that might be found in a corporate lobby.

"From the public street, it appears to be a one-story building at the top of a hill, but it’s dug into the side of the hill," Milton Powell explains. "On the golf course side, it’s a three-story building. The laboratories are stacked in back of the hill. Inside, everything in the building orients the public face for each working office."

Labs in the rear form the more contemporary, open part of the facility. "The architectural materials of the building are going from dark block at the base to a light block at the top, ultimately to the lucabond metal panels in the clerestory windows," says Powell. "We meant for that to be a representation of the evolution of the educational system."

In addition to the major central clerestory that floods the spine with light, visual connections are enhanced both with view panels between classrooms and hallways. At the top floor, the conference center resembles those found in hotels. While students from the hospitality lab make badges and greet conference attendees, technicians-in-training from the electronics lab can assist with audio-visual equipment and distance-learning technology.

The conference center is used by students, district officials, local businesses, and by professional organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and a regional meeting of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (Brady is a past CEFPI president). Students are allowed to participate in conferences that complement their specialization, giving them opportunities to learn and, perhaps, land an internship.


Labs were designed with help from the school’s professional partners wherever possible. Courtroom design was influenced by a municipal judge who walked architects through court procedures. The court now serves large-group instruction, while another area was created to feel like a law office. "Your sophomore English class isn’t writing term papers, they’re writing briefs for the court," says Brady. "You have the context for teaching punctuation and grammar."


Construction Materials
Brick/Masonry: Featherlite Building Products Corporation; Advanced Cast Stone
Composite Metal Panels: Alusuisse
Millwork – Laminate: Wilsonart; Nevamar; Formica; HEWI
Cabinets: Sheldon Laboratory Systems
Acoustical Ceilings: USG Interiors
Ceramic Tile: Daltile
Wood Doors: Algoma
Metal Doors: Vistawall Architectural Products
Elevators: Thyssen Krup Elevator
Insulation: Dow Styrofoam; Tief Wall Systems
Partitions: Modernfold
Paint: Sherwin-Williams
Plumbing: American Standard; Zurn; Chicago Faucet; Just
Roofing: Alusuisse Composites Inc.; Soprema; Berridge Manufacturing Co.
Glass/Glazing: Vistawall Architectural Products

Carpet and Flooring
Carpet: Lees Carpets
Vinyl Composition Tile: Armstrong; Johnsonite; Congoleum
Ceramic Tile: Daltile; Key Resin Co.

Security/Fire Safety
Fire/Life Safety Systems: Siemens; Notifier; Grinnell; AGF
Security Systems: Siemens

Washroom Equipment/Supplies
Washroom Fixtures: American Standard; Zurn; Chicago Faucet; Just
Washroom/Shower Partitions: Flush-Metal Partition Co.

HVAC Units/Controls: York; MEZ; Greenheck; Metalire; Trane
Indoor Lighting: Columbia; Lightron; Prescolite; Kurt Versen; GE; Kim
Emergency Lighting: Leviton
Science Lab Furniture: Sheldon
Food Court Furniture: Fixtures Furniture
Chalkboards: Claridge Products and Equipment
Kitchen Equipment: Trinity Restaurant Equipment Inc.
Lockers: List Industries
Signage: ASI Signage
Exterior Architectural Coating: Prosoco
Structural Steel: Basden Steel Corp.
Metal Materials: Basden Steel Corp.
Architectural Woodwork: Lutz Woodwork LLC.
Site, Street, and Mall Furnishings: Landscapeforms
Concrete Pavement: TXI
Access Flooring: Interface AR
Flagpoles: Concord Industries Inc.

One story best illustrates the authenticity of the labs: officials from the local police department offered their input on provisions for the forensics laboratory. According to Powell, they were so impressed with the new facility, they asked that law enforcement be given their own designated entrance so their technicians could use the facility after hours.

A typical classroom also means business. Each room is equipped with a ceiling-mounted projector for PowerPoint presentations. Narrow tables can be grouped in different arrangements, as desks or like office conference tables. All the chairs are sled-base chrome. "The furniture emulates a higher expectation of activity and tension," says Powell.

The Academy of Irving’s principal, Dr. John K. Brown, says that because the school strives to steer students into the most promising employment sectors, the building had to be flexible to respond to job market shifts. In this sense, the building is not unlike any commercial mall. Before the building opened, district officials observed the surging popularity of airline self-serve e-ticketing and thought twice about training students to be travel agents.

The facility was already designed with a hardwired network when the decision to go wireless was made, so planners adapted by calling for a central distribution room and MDF/IDF sub-distribution rooms. "It’s a combination of hardwired and wireless. There was a lot of debate during the design process about what state-of-the-art was, and, in fact, it was changing very rapidly while were designing the building," says Powell. The planned Cyber Café, where planners had intended to place a full-range of hardwired computers, was abandoned.

The building’s organization has proved effective in focusing the curriculum. "There are science labs on each floor, so you don’t group the building in the way a traditional school is grouped, but rather by the specialty," Brown says, comparing the atmosphere to a college campus. "There’s less long distance movement, because most of what a student does is confined to a particular part of the building. There are no lockers, so you don’t get the usual slam-bam noises."

Dr. Brown says the district will stay alert to employment trends. "We have a capability to switch things around as we need to," Brown explains. "For example, we already moved our education facility to a different floor, and that was a simple redesign." Brown is also pleased with the maturity the students have shown and the pride they take in the facility. Vandalism has been non-existent-even though many kids come from neighborhoods where "tagging" is ubiquitous.

Dr. Brown reports he regularly sees students’ eyes grow wide at first sight of the three-story lobby and has heard them compare it to everything from a mall to a yacht. As for the championship golf course nearby, the district is now working to bring it too into the fold as a partner in hands-on learning.

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