Similar Differences

When the Episcopal Academy decided it was time to consolidate its lower, middle and upper schools into a single, unified campus, it set out to create a family of buildings related by materials and basic design details, yet distinguished by purpose and architectural style.

Until recently, the historic academy that was founded in 1785 was split into two Pennsylvania campuses in Merion Township and Devon. Merion campus, which opened in the 1920s, was running out of programming space and had met the township’s cap on impervious surface coverage.

“We just felt that we didn’t have the facilities we needed, including field space and classroom space,” says Hamilton Clark, head of school. “In order to be the school we wanted, we had to move.”

The academy found a 123-acre site in Newtown, a scenic dairy-farm community that provided a pastoral palette — replete with rolling hills, wooded areas and the occasional barn — upon which to build the new unified campus.

“The most important thing for us was creating a sense of community — a sense that we were a single school — and finding the right space for that community,” Clark says.
The new campus would not only have to provide the program space for the academy’s rigorous academic curricula, but also collegiate athletic facilities to train and prepare students for their transition into university life.

Setting the Stage

In 2002, the school hired Brailsford & Dunlavey, of Washington, D.C., as development manager for the project and presented the firm with a unique vision: A 380,000-square-foot, pre-K-12 campus that looked as if it had evolved over time by using multiple architects.

“They wanted the balance of a campus that did not look like it was built all at the same time,” says Julie Skolnicki, project manager with Brailsford. “However, they were concerned if they had multiple architects, it wouldn’t feel like a single campus, but rather an architectural museum.”

The school also expressed a strong commitment to hiring a local design firm that could deliver a large-scale, diverse campus within a $160 million budget.

After meeting with Philadelphia-based architect RMJM, Brailsford proposed a strategy to meet the design and budget requirements: Hire RMJM as master architect and select specialty architects to design the campus center and the athletic center. The approach would allow for individuality among the buildings, but a consistent palette of materials to help keep costs down.

“We felt it was important to have multiple design hands on campus,” Skolnicki says. “The campus would have a layer of styles that the master architect could tie together. The materials and details would be consistent, which would allow the cost of construction to be lower.”

Cast and Crew

In 2004, RMJM was hired as master architect and architect of record for the campus academic buildings, which included the lower school, middle school, science center and upper school.

“We were intrigued by the idea,” says Philip Dordai, managing principal with RMJM. “Most campuses in this country have evolved over time. Their charm and character are the result of a variety of architecture that is of its time and from different hands. Episcopal wanted that effect, but very quickly.”


The school was optimistic that having a master architect oversee the materials palette, structural and mechanical systems, and other functional details, would ensure a cohesive campus design and substantial savings during the bidding process.

“RMJM took over all designs at 50 percent design development,” Skolnicki says. “They did all the construction documents for all of the buildings, ensuring the same windows and exterior materials were specified and consistent detailing was used throughout so when the project was bid out, it was a much larger project than if each building was done with unique systems. It gave us bigger buying power.”

Brailsford suggested a similar approach for construction.

“We wanted to use the same thinking that we put together for the design team,” Skolnicki says. “If we had a single construction manager do the project, then we would have that buying power and efficiency.”

In August 2006, local firm Intech Construction was selected as construction manager for the bulk of the academic buildings on campus. The company also provided value engineering and value added services during the budgeting and estimating phase of the project to guarantee cost-effective systems.

“The ability to understand a lot of different expectations and design intentions and make sure everyone’s needs were met through the estimating and budgeting phase was one of the challenges that made it interesting,” says Phil Moses, project manager with Intech.

To create a diverse campus look, two other architectural firms were selected based on their experiences with specialized school buildings.

Gund Partnership, a Cambridge, Mass., firm with a background in performing arts, was selected to design the campus center, which included a black-box theater and other visual arts facilities, a library and dining hall. Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, of Philadelphia, had a strong athletics portfolio and was hired to design the athletic center.


Before starting work on building concepts and designs, the architects came together to discuss a materials and architectural palette for the campus.

“What Episcopal wanted was a set of related buildings, from the same family,” Dordai says. “They didn’t want four or five designers who weren’t talking to each other. It was interesting give and take in determining the palette with the other designers.”

After sampling ideas with school and community representatives during a series of charettes, the design teams settled on a combination of materials that would recall the barns and large structures in the surrounding Pennsylvania landscape.

“We wanted to a use a rural and pastoral set of materials that would evoke those kinds of buildings, but we also wanted to do a modern building style,” Dordai says. “We knew the buildings had to be somewhat modest in their materials so we designed a custom concrete masonry block to recall the stone used in the area.”

The material selection consisted of custom CMU blocks and sustainable Hardie board, a fiber cement board painted to look like wood. Some of the academic buildings feature painted metal shed roofs that are similar to roofs on farm buildings in the area. None of the buildings are more than three stories tall, in keeping with the Pennsylvania farm aesthetic. Pieces of stone were eventually added onto the buildings at significant points for a stronger visual impact.

“The client may laugh at this, but, as architects, we were almost being too responsible to the budget,” Dordai says. “We took stone out of the budget, but a lot of people wanted to see stone on the buildings so we put it back in.”

Once each building was developed, it was assigned a user group consisting of faculty, parents, trustees and other key stakeholders who met regularly with the corresponding design team. When initial designs were completed, plans were submitted to the planning committee for final approval.

“It was a fairly complicated setup,” Skolnicki says. “We lead all of the meetings, which were twice a month during the design process and monthly toward the end. When the designs were presented to the planning committee, all of the architects were in one room, so everyone got to see the feedback.”

According to Dordai, one of the greatest challenges was letting each designer put their stamp on the buildings, while trying to manage costs and establish some common vocabulary among the structures.

“It was pretty positive,” he says. “It was like, ‘This is the sandbox; these are the toys you are going to play with; play nice.’ We were pretty much able to do that.”


The new campus is home to several college-level facilities, including a full-scale auditorium and theater with professional audio-visual equipment, a modern library with digital media delivery to every classroom, and an extensive athletic program consisting of nine athletic fields, 14 tennis courts, a field house and 35-meter pool.

Yet, the campus does not assume a typical university footprint. Rather, in reference to the modern farm aesthetic, coupled with a strong sense of community, the campus is a tightly knit academic village oriented around a unifying campus green.

Each building has a presence on the green, creating a forum for each structure to demonstrate its identity and architectural heritage, as well as its adherence to the overall campus design.

“One of our issues at the previous campus was that the different schools were pretty separate,” Clark says. “Now, you’ll see middle school students going to meet with third-graders, or a group of upper school students helping lower school students with a math project. It’s close enough for that level of interaction to happen.”

The middle school, science center and upper school are in one building along the edge of the green, but have separate identities.

“The middle school is the first building you see as you come in,” Dordai says. “Its main study hall sits on the green, a critical position on campus.”

Vaulted ceilings and long tables in the study hall provide a place where the entire middle school can come together, or study in small groups.

The science building serves as the link between the upper school and the middle school. Its three-story central atrium gives it one of the most transparent and tallest profiles on campus, while a strong color palette sets the building apart from its more subdued neighbors.

“It was really important to the school that the science center look like a science center,” Skolnicki says. “We used high-tech shading devices in the windows and on the exterior pieces, while using materials and details consistent with the rest of the campus.”

The upper school evokes a more collegiate look, defining the transition from preparatory school to university life with a student honor hall.

“The honor hall has a fireplace and comfortable seating, which really speak to the fact these students have more freedom,” Skolnicki says.

Both the middle and upper school evoke the rural theme with pitched roofs, a common element of farmhouses in the area.

The campus center, designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, sits across from the academic building and anchors its side of the green with a clean, modern look. Portions of the roof are pitched, in deference to the pastoral theme.

The athletic center, designed by Gund, makes a strong connection to the original site with a white, barn-like structure.

“When you’re building a big-span space and what used to be on the site were barns, why not build a big barn and treat it as an athletic center?” Skolnicki says.


The academy’s chapel was developed as a special project by Robert Venturi, an architect at Philadelphia-based Venturi Scott Brown and an alumnus of the school.

The chapel’s steeple visually dominates the campus from the top of the campus green and from nearby Route 252.

“One of the interesting things from the beginning was where the chapel should go,” Clark says. “I think it became clear to all of us early on that the chapel needed to be what you saw as you drove onto the campus.

“We determined it needed to be in the most prominent spot at the top of the green. I live a few miles from campus and, from my driveway, I can see the steeple in the distance.”

Product Data

Facility Name: The Episcopal Academy
Type of Facility: pre-K-12
Project Cost: $160 million
Area: Site 380,000 square feet on a 123-acre site
Athletic Center: 107,000 square feet
Campus Center: 80,000 square feet
Academic Building: 96,400 square feet
Lower School: 60,000 square feet
Chapel: 16,800 square feet
Number of Classrooms: 110
Number of Students: 1,200
Construction Start Date: August 2006
Completion Date: August 2008

Project Team

RMJM Hillier (architecture): Athletic Center, Campus Center, Lower School and Academic Building
Bohlin Cywinski, Jackson (architecture): Athletic Center
The Gund Partnership (architecture): Campus Center
Venturi Scott Brown (architecture): Chapel
Architectural Alliance (architecture): Maintenance Building
Construction Manager, academic
building: Intech Construction, Academic Buildings
Construction Manager, Chapel: P Agnes Inc.
Owner: The Episcopal Academy
Owner’s Representative: Brailsford & Dunlavey

Project Manager: Brailsford & Dunlavey

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