The school construction process is full of potential pitfalls, but projects become exponentially more complex when an American architectural firm works in a country that is thousands of miles away, where the language, culture and construction protocols are different.
As an international design firm with offices in the United States and abroad, Perkins Eastman has 10 years of experience working in China, but the design and construction process still presents a unique challenge.
The firm is working on a multi-component project at Concordia International School that has reshaped the campus with an expanded elementary school, a new fine arts center and an expanded high school that is under construction. The school provides lessons based on U.S. curriculum and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod principles for a growing population of pre-K to 12th-grade students.
The school opened 10 years ago with 22 students and 14 faculty members and has grown to accommodate 1,000 students from 30 countries and 100 teachers. It has witnessed a 33 percent annual growth in recent years.
The elementary school and fine arts center projects took coordination with the firm’s New York, Stamford, Conn., and Shanghai offices, creating a logistical puzzle that involved several designers in different times zones.
The offices coordinated with electronic correspondences, video conferencing technology and occasional face-to-face visits at various locations worldwide.
“Having all of these people — not only involved with one project but with three different offices within our firm — it certainly is a challenge to be able to contribute over two very fast time zones,” says Aaron Schwarz, a principal and director of Perkins Eastman at the firm’s New York headquarters. “It was a pretty interesting process.”
He says Perkins Eastman’s office in Shanghai, lead by managing principal Ron Vitale, was crucial to the project’s success and created a physical presence for the firm that allowed for cultural adjustments and mitigation of potential problems.
“With our offices in New York and Stamford, we are clearly coming from a background of western cultures and western education, which the international school wants to have a big foothold in,” Schwarz says. “At the same time, Ron is right there with his team and he can say what works from a construction point of view, how cultural changes are made and other issues.”
The firm has been active in China since 1998 and opened the Shanghai office, where 20 people are now employed, in 2004.
“Building internationally takes a completely different understanding of how to move forward with a project and get it implemented,” Schwarz says. “It is not at all the same as what we do here in the states.”
Language barriers were navigated with nearly 40 Perkins Eastman employees who speak Mandarin, but the bidding, scheduling and construction processes required flexibility from the firm.
“It really helps for us to be here because construction does not happen with the same process that it does in the U.S.,” Vitale says. “It really requires day-to-day contact and monitoring of the site.”
The construction process in China is more fast paced than in the United States and not as well organized, according to Vitale. Architects do not get a list of shop drawing submittals in advance and they just “kind of happen,” he says.
“When things do come up with this sort of unannounced process, at least we’re here to address it and we can contact our colleagues back in the U.S. and get them to focus on what’s important at that time,” he says.
Plans for the new facilities at Concordia were initiated in 2006 when school officials hired Perkins Eastman to revise the master plan for the campus after land that the school was considering for an expansion was purchased by developers.
|A rooftop art terrace provides a view of the cityscape for students working on art projects.|
“They were left with a shortage of acreage, but they were able to build up a floor-to-area ratio and that had a great influence over the way that current projects are being developed,” Vitale says.
A suburban building model was abandoned for a more condensed urban model that utilizes rooftop areas for play and art spaces. The rooftop areas posed an early challenge with some teachers who not completely sold on the concept.
“In urban settings you don’t have much of a choice — you’ve got to go up,” says Louise Schini Weber, elementary school and founding principal of Concordia. “Getting teachers to appreciate the rooftop playground was a challenge this first year, but one that has been overcome.”
Despite the need for a more dense campus, efforts were made to break down the scale to create spaces that are child-friendly.
The 35,500-square-foot fine arts center is broken down with a large box that houses a theater and dark performances spaces, alongside a smaller box that houses rehearsal space.
Straying from the windowless, artificially lit practice spaces of yesteryear, the space was designed to provide daylight and transparency.
The two forms are embraced by a folding roof that shades a rooftop art terrace while covering most of an exterior wall.
A land shortage forced planners to take a more vertical, urban approach at the school.
“They sound like very complex ideas, but when you look at the form, it’s very identifiable so students and faculty understand,” Schwarz says.
The theme of transparency and flexibility is repeated throughout the campus in classroom spaces and other areas.
“There is a general desire for transparency on the campus for all of the buildings,” Vitale says. “It’s not just for special dynamics, but also for safety, observation and other key education purposes.”
Classrooms in the elementary school utilize a team-teaching approach with two teachers for about 40 students and discovery rooms that provide hands-on tools for interactive learning and experimentation.
“They were really looking at developing a classroom model where there is the ability for team teaching and unique adjacencies with spaces that would allow them to maximize use of the facility and do multiple activities in one space,” says Pamela Loeffelman, managing principal of the Samford office.
Flexibility is encouraged with rolling doors, similar to those commonly applied as garage doors, to separate interior and exterior spaces. The doors can limit access to the discovery rooms, reconfigure spaces for large or small groups, or provide access to outdoor play areas.
“We have these huge doors that go up vertically to open out into the grass area,” Weber says. “They have such fun using them because kids can go outside and into the motor skills area, and back.”
Primary colors were used throughout the elementary school’s interior.
The flexible learning and play spaces reinforce the strong sense of community that is emphasized at the school, Weber says.
“The kids can flow back and forth whenever teachers want them to and it builds a community between the two groups,” she says.
Planners also worked to provide community spaces at the school that could be used when classes are not in session — an important factor for the expatriates who relocated to China for business reasons.
Spaces for adult soccer leagues, flea markets and continuing education are provided at the campus, Vitale says.
“There is a community aspect that becomes a real key element in the design of these campuses,” he says. “All of these students hold foreign passports and their parents generally work for foreign companies in China.”
In addition to promoting community and flexibility through design, planners introduced several materials that pushed the project’s aesthetic beyond the bricks and mortar of traditional construction.
“We looked at expanding the palette that was there and really played with some great new materials to create a new scale and texture and more color at that campus,” Vitale says.
Zinc paneling, terracotta baguettes, sunscreens and low-emissions glass are complemented by colorful interiors that were designed to provide an inviting environment and assist with wayfinding.
Primary colors are generously applied in the elementary school spaces and colors were used with accent walls, stairways and art areas.
“We used color to identify spaces by function and by use,” Vitale says. “Architecturally it works in helping to understand the building design and with wayfinding.”
The pairing of flexible design spaces and aesthetic enhancements with the community concepts and nontraditional approach to learning spaces provided the ideal climate for a client-architect relationship, according to the planners at Perkins Eastman.
“International schools offer a great opportunity for innovation,” Vitale says. “I think some of the international schools we are doing offer greater opportunity for innovation than the public school market. It’s not just from a design perspective, but also in terms of the curriculum and educational programs.”
Brick/Masonry: YTong Block; Shanghai YTONG Ltd.
Carpet and Flooring
Indoor Lighting: Philips
Fire/Life Safety Systems: GST Holdings Ltd.
Physical Education Equipment
Athletic Equipment: JinLing
Office Equipment & Systems
HVAC Units: York