Designing to Fit the Needs of ED Students

Columbus, Ohio-based architecture firm DesignGroup is designing the city’s first public middle/high school designed for emotionally disturbed students.

The 72,500-square-foot Alum Crest/Clearbrook School is slated for completion in the summer of 2013 and will welcome students that fall. The school will have two teachers and 12 students in each class.

The design of the $13.5 million school took into account the needs of its 100 middle school and 150 high school students who struggle with a range of emotional disturbances, defined in part as “an inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors,” according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

“We had quite a few design challenges because of the kind of student population that we were dealing with,” said Jocelyn Krosky, associate with DesignGroup and lead on the Alum Crest project. “We designed sensory rooms, sensory gardens, a P.E. room where students can go to burn off some steam if they need to and extended-learning areas where students and teachers can have one-on-one instruction.”

Emotionally disturbed students react differently to materials and colors, so designing the interior of the campus was a crucial component of the project, Krosky said.

“We had to be very sensitive of materials and colors because very bright and loud colors might affect the students’ moods differently,” she said. “Brighter colors can sometimes trigger aggression, so we had to be very cognoscente of what type of colors and materials we were using at the school.”

The outdoor areas of the campus were designed to connect students to nature, which has been shown to relieve stress and aggression in emotionally disturbed students. Multipurpose fields, rainwater planters and a walking path through a grove of existing trees on the site are all intended to help teach students.

“What they (Columbus City Schools) really wanted was a school that these kids could come to and have true classrooms for high school kids, because these students do learn the same curriculum as other students in the district,” Krosky said. “So we needed to make sure that while we were sensitive to color, materials and things like that, we still wanted to make sure it looked like a typical school.”

Design Challenges

The students can be distracted easily, so the design team placed windows high in classrooms to make views of the outside less accessible.

That presented another challenge: to incorporate natural lighting and outdoor views in the classroom without using a whole wall of windows. The solution was a pattern of tall windows located at either end of the classroom with a high clerestory window in the center of the room.

“When we presented the fenestration pattern to the teachers, all agreed that this solved the distraction problem and achieved the goals of maintaining natural daylight and views to nature,” Krosky said.

The tall windows were installed adjacent to the teacher desks and the reading areas, and the high clerestory window in the center was built above the computer equipment.

“This project taught us how to marry green goals for a building with the needs of a specialized population,” Krosky said.

Outside the classroom, the team had the difficult task of preserving an archeologically significant third of the site. The existing prehistoric woodland Indian burial grounds and housing patterns on the western side of the site forced the architects to work around it.

“There is no legal protection for the archeological site — it’s never been put on any national or state register — so we’ve just made it our mission to protect that site,” said Carole Olshavsky, senior executive of capital improvements for Columbus City Schools. “We think there could be some educational opportunities for students with it as well, including having them work on a national registration for the site in the future.”

Green Building Elements

The school is designed with two geothermal well fields, which will save an estimated 39 percent in energy annually.

A 6,064-square-foot solar panel system will sit on the roof above the gym, cafeteria and media center. This system will generate approximately 75,000kWh per year to further reduce energy costs. The school is designed to earn a LEED Gold certification upon completion.

Yet another feature will be a zero-discharge stormwater infiltration design.

“The storm water design really stands out because it’s one of the first types of stormwater infiltration systems in the city,” Krosky said. “The city has never seen anything of this size or magnitude like this for a project.”

The green building features will help the school save energy and reduce costs, while providing a cleaner and more technological environment for the students when they arrive for classes in fall 2013.