Planning for Special Needs

South Education Center Serves wide range of unique learners
The South Education Center, a $19 million project for Intermediate School District 287 in Richfield, Minn., was designed to respond to a wide range of unique learners. Students with autism, high school students requiring an alternative-learning environment, students with children and students with behavioral and emotional challenges all benefit from services offered under a single roof.

The 108,000-square-foot, three-story building serves 250 students in middle school through age 21.

A Collaborative Approach

District 287 was created by 13 Minneapolis west metro-area school districts to provide educational services and programs that complement and support their programs.

From its inception, the center presented a challenging array of planning and design goals. It was designed so that each program would occupy its own unique space while still presenting an integrated environment.

In addition, the building was designed with the flexibility to accommodate cost-effective reconfigurations as programs and priorities change.

District 287 and TSP, an architectural firm with several offices in the Midwest, began planning with several school stakeholders in 2005. Planners collaborated with several agencies and groups, including the City of Richfield, Richfield Public Schools, neighborhood residents, Nine Mile Creek Watershed District and Xcel Energy, each of which contributed to the design direction and influenced the outcome.

Asking the Right Questions 

TSP led the district’s team through a series of planning exercises that began with broad philosophical issues and then progressively narrowed the focus to pragmatic details. This dynamic process evolved as the mindset changed from “making do” with existing facilities to envisioning a collaborative learning environment ideal for each learner.

Planners and designers posed questions that were intended to elicit information about unique students’ needs as well as shared needs. The right questions and thoughtful listening led the design team to the most appropriate solutions.

For example, the Students with Unique Needs program serves students from 5 to 21 years old who have intense social, emotional and behavioral needs, along with cognitive and other health impairments, such as autism, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and anxiety disorders.

Through the planning and design exercise, TSP learned that these students benefit from a customized curriculum in an environment in which class sizes are very small, with three to four students per classroom. Designers learned that the environment must be designed to minimize noise and distractions to help the students feel calm.

The South Education Center was designed to serve special needs students from 13 Minneapolis-area school districts.
As a result, the program is located on the first floor with its own bus drop-off location. Spaces for learning, individual work areas and sensory rooms allow the environment to be modified to the level of sensory stimulation that a student may need at various times of the day. Quiet areas enable students to remove themselves from instruction if they are overstimulated.

Spaces are carpeted and have acoustical wall treatments to minimize noise and the impact of disruptions. The common area includes a large motor-skills room with swings, rocking chairs, balls, access to a shared multi-purpose room for recreation and calming, and a separate dining space for students who are unable to dine with others.

The staff shares a common workroom, which allows space to collaborate, communicate and share resources. The workroom is adjacent to classrooms so teachers are close at hand and available for students and to assist other staff.

On the perimeter of the second floor, students share 10 classrooms linked together and a full science lab and lecture room, which doubles as an art classroom. Classrooms circle a common office area, allowing staff greater visibility and access. A first-floor daycare center cares for up to 30 babies and toddlers and allows for childcare and parenting education.
Spaces are designed for maximum daylight since many students suffer from depression and/or Seasonal Affective Disorder. A commons area not only allows for breaks and study but can also function as a large gathering area and a special-events space.
Toward Independent Living
The facility also houses transition programs that serve 18- to 21-year-old students with disabilities as they transition from an educational setting toward living and working as independently as possible in the community.
There are large and small classrooms and flexible activity spaces for hands-on learning. A kitchen/dining area is accessible for learning about nutrition, cooking and cleaning. A simulated apartment offers real-life experience to train students in independent living skills, such as basic food preparation, laundry, personal finances and housekeeping. Students also operate a school store located near the cafeteria so they can gain retail experience.
The district’s Vocational Evaluation and Training program provides 14- to 21-year-old special education students with vocational opportunities.
As a result, it is the only program located on the third floor, and the space is designed to look and feel like a workplace, complete with a time clock at the entrance and a break room.
A 2,000-square-foot work floor in the center allows students to do a variety of jobs from light clerical and paper management to light industrial assembly or disassembly.
Mark C. Thiede, AIA, is an associate with TSP.

A Sustainable Design
Sustainable design concepts were integrated from the inception of planning.
The district participated in Xcel Energy’s Energy Design Assistance program, which allowed TSP to work with the Weidt Group to model various possible design options and ultimately choose the most cost effective solutions. 

The mechanical system uses displacement ventilation and a geothermal heat pump system to deliver fresh air to the occupant zone through low-velocity, high-volume diffusers.
The geothermal well field located under the parking lot and heat pumps within the building deliver heating and cooling to the individual spaces.

Heat pumps are configured to provide optimal energy transfer of heating and cooling from the ground to the rooms to reduce total energy demand. The system is estimated to provide an annual energy saving of over $160,000, with a payback period of less than five years.

The daylighting system consists of exterior sun-shading devices, special glazing to diffuse sunlight, sloped ceilings to bounce sunlight farther into interior spaces and lighting controls to reduce reliance on artificial lights. A rain garden was created for stormwater management. Other green concepts include recycled materials, materials with low-VOC content, reflective roof surfacing, and a site that is near transit lines.