Q&A: Forward-Thinking Design Produces Unique Iowa High School

JOHNSTON, Iowa — Three years ago, a 125-acre cornfield stood on a spot that now hosts the 1,600-student Johnston High School.

Designed by the global architectural and design firm Perkins+Will, the 369,000-square-foot learning facility for grades 10-12 launched last fall. It is built around three learning communities organized by grade, subject matter and professional path, with each loosely clustered around a planted outdoor courtyard. Additionally, the facility’s academic wings open into two-story student common areas, enhanced by comfortable chairs and ottomans that can be easily rearranged. And those are just a few of the many touches encouraging togetherness and group learning. The unique school design provides the casual, open feel of a small college campus rather than your typical high school.

School Construction News recently checked in with Jerry Johnson, design principal at Perkins+Will, who shared his insights on the intriguing design behind Iowa’s largest high school.

Q: What was the biggest challenge in creating this school’s unique design?

Johnson: The biggest challenge was organizing and designing a large school into small learning communities, which are adaptable and flexible for different teaching styles. These communities were planned to accommodate different instructional methods: by subject matter, grade level or professional pathway. Each learning community houses a variety of classrooms in an L-shaped configuration around one of three thematic courtyards. The courtyards allow ample daylight into all instructional areas of this large facility, while providing safe, secure and contained access to the outdoors. The courtyards also serve as outdoor rooms that are an extension of the student common spaces, allowing teaching and socializing in a convenient and safe environment.

Q: How did this project stand out the most from other school facilities you have designed?

Johnson: This project differs from others we have designed because of the size and scale of the public venues and the way in which the teaching spaces were organized around the three thematic courtyards. Each courtyard has a direct connection to common spaces on the west: the cafeteria, media center, main competition gym, theater lobby and 1,200-seat theater, and interior academic collaboration commons to the east. The courtyards create visual transparency between major functions, infuse the interior with natural light, and help with wayfinding and orientation.

Q: How do you think the design of the facility helps inspire learning and exploration?

Johnson: As opposed to the one-size-fits-all egg-crate schools of the past, the new Johnston High School provides an abundant variety of learning settings, including: the open collaboration commons, small group spaces, large flex-labs that can be subdivided into smaller settings for specialized classes, and regular size classrooms, many of which can open to adjoining classrooms to further enhance flexibility. To remove preconceived notions about how traditional spaces are used and to promote a more creative mindset, “classrooms” are recast as “studios, a place for creativity and inspiration. The design also rejects the traditional institutional school palette of materials (locker-lined concrete block hallways) for a more professional, engaging, yet relaxed atmosphere that encourages collaboration and exploration. Each small learning community incorporates a variety of core academic courses promoting interdisciplinary project work. Additionally, faculty neither have a desk in the studios nor do they “own” a classroom. Instead, they teach from a mobile presentation kiosk and have personal work space in a professional area located adjacent to the collaboration commons in each small learning community. This common space provides a platform for professional growth and enhances collaboration among faculty members as they work to identify and meet the needs of every learner.

Q: Why was it so important to include open spaces in the design?

Johnson: Open spaces provide places for students and teachers to collaborate, socialize and work on special projects. The open spaces were carefully planned adjacent to the courtyards for easy access to the outdoors, fresh air, and natural light. Large stair wells, lockers and teacher professional areas are all located next to the open space. A variety of furniture allows students to work individually and in groups or to relax and socialize much like a modern university student center.

Q: Are there are any key sustainable elements of the design that you’re proudest of?

Johnson: The new high school was designed with close attention paid to energy efficiency. It uses high efficiency mechanical, electrical and building enclosure systems. The architects and engineers participated in the “Commercial New Construction” energy efficiency program offered by Alliant Energy, Black Hills Energy and MidAmerican Energy Company. Of the 95 projects that completed the program between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017, Johnston High School was ranked fifth among the projects for achieving 61 percent kBTU savings when compared to the CNC program baseline. Based on this achievement, in October of 2017, the project earned a 2017 Excellence in Energy Efficiency Design Award.

Q: How did you emphasize making the school user-friendly and accessible for students with special needs and disabilities?

Johnson: Johnston proudly serves students of all abilities, and focuses great attention on students needing special education services. Great care was paid to providing state of the art teaching spaces for students with special needs. Special education resource rooms are integrated throughout the building, not just in one wing or one area as was the case in the old high school. All the spaces in the building are fully accessible to all students, staff and visitors.

Q: What kind of specific feedback have you received from school administrators so far on the completed project?

Johnson: The students and teachers are very proud of their new high school. They have sponsored tours of the new school for districts throughout the state. The teachers have said the school is calm, quiet and feels like a professional setting. The building is safe and secure, and the natural light creates a peaceful and inviting atmosphere. The large venue facilities which include the 2,000-seat gymnasium and the 1,200-seat theater have been used extensively by the school and the community.

Perkins+Will was the Programming, Planning and Design Architect for the project and FRK Architects + Engineers was the Architect of Record.