Designing Public Schools in New York City for Oculus

Designing Schools, Building Communities: Building schools to meet New York City’s booming student population pushes the limits of project-delivery capabilities as construction costs continue to multiply. Amid logistical challenges, architects and officials still reach for the intangible, delivering spaces designed to last for years and provide a sense of community for children and neighborsOculus, Summer 2023.

The School Construction Authority (SCA) maintains 1,400 public school buildings serving more than one million students in the five boroughs of New York City. It analyzes the flow of students into multitudes of neighborhood and borough-wide schools, and it repairs, expands, and builds new structures—quickly—as demand changes. Currently, the SCA anticipates needing more than 6,200 new seats in Queens high schools alone by 2026. Its budget, fortunately, is appropriately enormous: $2.13 billion for 29 extensions and new buildings in Queens, adding more than 18,000 seats, and $19.4 billion to manage the herculean task of building and maintaining schools citywide from 2020 to 2024.

Thus, on a busy section of Northern Boulevard at the crossroads of Woodside, Astoria, Sunnyside Gardens, and Jackson Heights, between the Home Depot and a row of car dealerships, a new $178.85 million high school designed and built by SCA’s in-house staff of 170 architects and engineers is expected to serve more than 3,079 teenagers. It’s the biggest project in the SCA’s history, and its bylaws dictate that 40% of the scoping, design, and construction support work be done in-house, with the rest contracted to consultants. “They go to the in-house staff because they know we can handle challenging projects that are tight in construction schedule,” says Jahae Koo, director of the SCA’s architecture and engineering department.

At the moment, the Northern Boulevard structure is raw. So far, its fire-retardant-coated six-story steel shell has pre-cast concrete panels on a few sides, which will mitigate the sound from the busy four-lane road and Amtrak trains running behind and achieve an extremely high level of energy performance. Flatbed trucks roll up with more of the panels embedded with four-inch rigid insulation, which crews lift on cranes and attach to the structure. This school must open by September 2025, but it doesn’t yet have a principal, teachers, staff—or walls. “Understand, this has been going on for months!” shouts a construction manager behind a closed door, as we meet in the construction office trailers parked on the building site.

Because of the accelerated schedule, the project had to be conceived, designed, and built based on the SCA’s tried-and-true ideas of spatial organization and understanding of how to incorporate flexibility for the school’s future administrators. The structure will accommodate 96 classrooms, including six art rooms, three music rooms, and six science labs, along with three exercise rooms, a two-story competition-size gym, changing rooms and showers, two cafeterias, a 550-seat auditorium, bike storage, and outdoor handball and basketball courts. Fifteen special education classrooms will be contained in their own school within the same building—there will be multiple principals running several distinct schools with their own administrative offices within groups of floors in the two wings of the structure. The special education classrooms will have bathrooms and a dedicated second-floor courtyard open to the sky, offering students a place to play and find calm within the commotion of a high school the combined size of three city schools.

“That’s one of the challenges: How do you design a high school community for such a large number and still have an impact?” asks Koo. “It’s important that our building façade design embraces and opens to the community.” The scalloped entry plaza sits back from the street to create open space for play areas and socializing. Two six-story wings on either side of the entrance can be subdivided and administered by multiple principals to manage the huge population. The large number of science labs at upper levels anticipates the educational interests of young people who were still in elementary school when architects developed the program.

In terms of sourcing of materials, energy efficiency, building envelope, water conservation, and storage of stormwater, the Northern Boulevard building meets the latest updated codes. Its R40 roof and R25 walls, energy use index of 28, 270 rooftop solar panels, plumbing that uses 35% less water than normal fixtures, and regional sourcing of steel and pre-cast panels meet the SCA equivalent of LEED standards. All city school buildings now undergo a blower test for air tightness. Rainwater is collected in detention tanks below the plaza area.

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