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Solution of the Month:

Young Athletes Society

Voith & Mactavish Architects

A boarding school's rookie-age field house pays homage to a gymnasium building with seniority.

By David Sokol
October 2012
Photo © Jeffrey Totaro

St. Andrew’s School is located on 2,200 acres in Middletown, Delaware. But you may mistake it for Vermont. The picturesque 83-year-old private coed boarding school stood in for Welton Academy in the movie Dead Poets Society. The heart of the campus, both real and fictional, is the collegiate Gothic–style gymnasium building that stands near the property’s entry. “It’s one of the first views upon entering campus, and all the sports teams pictures were taken in front of it,” Daniela Voith, partner of the Philadelphia firm Voith & Mactavish Architects, says of the iconic gymnasium.

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Staffers from Voith & Mactavish first toured St. Andrew’s in 2005, when the studio was hired as associate designers for the interior of a new arts building. Even then there was widely apparent need for the school to support its athletes like it had its resident artists. Besides being unable to fit all sports teams at practice times, “The facilities were outdated, in poor repair, and did not meet current standards,” Voith recalls. Three years later Voith & Mactavish constructed 11 tennis courts to meet rising demand.

The courts installation was incorporated into a larger tennis complex. It was also made part of a sustainability initiative: In addition to playing surfaces, Voith & Mactavish created an organic garden and located a windmill next to the tennis courts to pump stormwater runoff uphill—from a pond to a buried cistern, which allows water to flow to the raised beds by gravity.

To continue accommodating the need for sports space, Voith & Mactavish was brought in again, to transform the heart of St. Andrews. Although the envelope of the historic gymnasium had been well maintained, maintenance of HVAC and other mechanical systems had been repeatedly deferred for it and corollary structures. An energy-efficient modernization was in store.

“We provided new opportunities for daylighting and views to the renovated spaces, which resulted in creating more windows, but the renovations were done so the existing buildings would look nearly the same as they did before,” Voith says of the scope of the renovation. By making strategic moves, such as patterning a limestone surround directly from an original front entrance, the icon appears largely unaltered while including a new ADA entrance, elevator, and rooms that are seeing the light of day for the first time.

The 100,000-square-foot commission also included design of the new 52,000-square-foot Sipprelle Field House. With new construction, daylighting continued to have high priority, since insufficient daylight would force greater reliance on electric lighting and too much would cause glare on the field house’s centerpiece basketball court. A trellis on the building’s south elevation and an automatic shading system on the west face control daylight penetration.

Submerging the building 15 feet also prevents too much daylight from distracting the scholar-athletes. More important, it keeps the new building from distracting people from its historic neighbor. “This allowed the scale to remain respectful of existing buildings on campus, and preserved the sight lines to the historic tower,” Voith says. To blend past and present even more intricately, Voith & Mactavish finished the field house in regional materials, such as local quarried schist, limestone, and granite stones on the entry facade.

Going underground accomplished other environmental performance goals for the design team, which installed a series of pipes there to facilitate the stormwater retention it had begun harnessing with the tennis courts. The move also tempers more than half of the facility’s interior climate naturally, by taking advantage of the earth’s constant 55-degree temperatures. In the project’s earliest phases, the designers researched ground source heat pumps for the field house, but St. Andrew’s already had additional capacity for the additional 52,000 square feet within its existing chiller plant. Instead of making an ostensibly redundant geothermal field, the team determined that partial submersion of the building would exert a lighter touch on that recently expanded chiller—and on the picture-postcard setting.

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