Gray Middle School
Higher Education: A new school in Tacoma, Washington, weaves itself into the local community and the surrounding landscape, while teaching environmental stewardship by example.
Adolescence is often associated with external and existential turmoil—it’s a crash course in adapting to rapidly evolving perceptions of the world within and around oneself. So it is fitting that a middle school, in its role as a learning center, should strive to function not only as a comfort zone, but as a nexus, fostering connections to the social and physical world inside and beyond the school walls. The Gray Middle School in Tacoma, Washington, by Seattle-based Mahlum architects, evolved with these principles in mind. It occupies the site of an old high school, about a mile away from the former middle school, which had been deemed out of date. The team’s goal was to use the site and facility to interweave school, community, and environment. They hoped to create a collaborative space with ample transparency between learning and common areas, while overtly expressing high-performance strategies as a means of teaching environmental stewardship.
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Because the former middle school sat at the heart of its working-class neighborhood and had been attended by generations there, maintaining a strong civic presence and connection with residents was crucial. Though the new site lies on the neighborhood’s periphery, surrounded by residences and light industry, it is also flanked by public playing fields and recreation facilities, positioning it to become an important local amenity.
In its 75-year history, Mahlum has designed hundreds of schools, and is no stranger to the Tacoma Public Schools’ middle school model. “We took the district model,” says project designer David Mount, AIA, “and tweaked it, based on interviews with staff and administration, and responded to the specifics of the site and residents.” Program requirements included a commons (with a cafeteria and performance space), kitchen, music rooms, administration, library, gym, science rooms, and specialized and general use classrooms to accommodate 750 students. “We also wanted an open space that would provide a flow among the grades,” says Mount, “where there would be a sense of community as a school.” The gallery, a broad central corridor that runs the length of the 540-foot-long building, emerged from this desire, and has become the central artery and life force of the new 115,000-square-foot building.
While the project has earned an Energy Star label, the architects did not seek LEED certification. In the state of Washington, all state-funded projects are required to be LEED Silver or better, but public schools have an option to use an alternative rating system—Washington Sustainable Schools Protocol (WSSP)—which is based on LEED and a similar California program, the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS). The Gray Middle School was a volunteer project for this program before it was required, and received a $400,000 grant from the state.
The two-story, steel-frame building hugs its gently sloping site on a north-south axis. This layout exposes the western face to afternoon sun, which would be a source of potential overheating if school days didn’t typically end by 3pm. The building is relentless in it monochromaticity, which comes from the pragmatic material choices of unpainted fiber cementboard and ground face concrete masonry units (CMU). “I see schools as a backdrop for kids and the life they bring,” says Mount.
The building becomes more porous to the east, where three two-story classroom clusters (one for each grade) are separated from each other by exterior rain gardens—protected inlets of drought-tolerant native plants, which function as bio-retention areas and provide tranquil views from the gallery’s glazed eastern exposures. Inside, the architects used durable, non-toxic products with natural warmth, like rubber flooring, recycled low-VOC carpet, Tectum acoustic panels, and natural sisal and Homasote wall surfaces. The palette was informed in part by over 200 glulam beams, salvaged from the old high school, which support the primary roof structure for the school’s gallery, commons, and science rooms.
Mahlum, keenly aware of the importance of daylighting and its relationship to learning as well as economics, teamed with Seattle-based Integrated Design Lab. “For the classrooms and corridor we tested a range of simulation models to study the relationship between window apertures and the interior surfaces of the space,” says Christopher Meek, AIA, of the consulting firm. “We worked closely with Mahlum to evaluate section geometries and orientation. Ultimately, what drove the design was providing a well-composed and balanced distribution of daylight on the interior spaces that would support the visual tasks of the classrooms.” Classroom orientation allows for substantial glazing on the north and south elevations and daylight floods into the public spaces, minimizing the need for electric illumination. Of course, points out Mount, while using glass for light, views, and ventilation, one still has to be mindful of energy efficiency. “I believe some areas are suffering from an energy point of view because of the amount of glazing,” he says. “Also, there may be too much light in the commons when they have daytime performances that require darkening of the room.” Additionally, shades had to be added to the upper clerestory windows, which were causing glare issues in some of the classrooms. Beyond the daylighting strategies, energy consumption is mitigated by a horizontal ground source heat pump loop under the playing field and outside air heat recovery units. Displacement ventilation in the classrooms improves thermal comfort and indoor air quality (by using 100 percent outside air), while operable windows allow occupants to modify their environment.
Classroom clusters are connected on two levels to outside learning spaces at the building’s back that boast views of Mount Rainier’s snow covered peaks. The stairs’ landings act as seating areas. “Teachers like taking their classes outside in good weather so students can explore the landscape around the building as the seasons change,” says school principal Yvonne Bullock.
The team reduced the overall impervious area by 30 percent relative to the former high school’s condition by decreasing the campus’ footprint and by incorporating strategies such as reinforced heavy-duty grass paving for the fire lane.
In addition to mitigating the effects of the impervious areas by draining them into the rain gardens, says Kas Kinkead of landscape consultants Cascade Design Collaborative, the team employed other low-impact storm water strategies: “All turf and plant beds received a deep tilling to loosen compacted soils to increase infiltration and storm water retention,” says Kinkead. “And we seeded the outer edges of the site (where low maintenance and little use was anticipated) with a meadow mix, which needs less irrigation, fertilization, and maintenance, while providing wildflowers and grasses for habitat and visual interest.” Still, says Mount, the team had difficulty getting full credit for their low-impact development strategies for stormwater management. “The school district ended up paying the full development costs to help the county pay for their centralized stormwater facility even though our project reduced impervious area and extensively used bioretention cells that release little or no water into the off-site piped system,” he says.
A year into its life, the school seems to be firmly rooted in its new home. Of course, a natural question for such a forward-thinking building is how it will fare in years to come, as teaching philosophies and approaches shift. Will its systems and layout be adaptable so it can include longevity as one of its sustainable strategies? “We always struggle with that,” concedes Mount, “and pay special attention to creating flexible teaching facilities—achieving a balance between meeting the specific needs of the current function and remaining loosely programmed for future uses.”