LA School Prototype Wins International Award

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Swift Lee Office of Los Angeles recently won the Holcim North America Silver Award for their design of a zero-energy school building for the LA Unified School District, in a competition conducted by the Swiss-based Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction.

More than 6,000 submissions for projects located in 146 countries competed in the current round of awards, which promote sustainable responses to contemporary technological, environmental, socioeconomic, and cultural issues from the building and construction industry. Principal Gloria Lee gave the following presentation at the Holcim Awards 2011 North America media breakfast in Washington, DC, on October 21st, 2011.

Our family moved to this country when I was thirteen, in search of the American Dream. To our family and many others, the American Dream was gaining access to amazing education in public schools in the U.S. I am a fortunate beneficiary of that dream coming true, but at present we cannot guarantee the promise of that great dream for the future generation of our country.

Across the country, we are experiencing an unprecedented state of crisis in public education. In California, the Board of Education recently declared a state of urgency, in which over 18 billion dollars have been cut out of the K-12 education system and 75% of the current stock of classrooms is over 25 years old, in desperate need of modernization or replacement. Some are portable classrooms that have reached the end of their life.

In response to this exigent need, the Los Angeles Unified School District held an open competition calling for innovative classroom design solutions that can meet the challenges of the future.

With the overstock of aging classroom buildings, rapidly changing pedagogies, technologies in classroom and more parents opting for charter schools, the District needed fresh new ideas, solutions that are flexible, adaptable, agile, technologically innovative, and most importantly prototypical for the Los Angeles Unified is the nation’s second largest school district with more than 700,000 students in over 730 +schools. So they were looking for a prototype design they can build on many of their campuses quickly and efficiently.

We want to applaud the Los Angeles Unified District for having the big vision to call for a prototype school building for the future. For having a hunch that there must be innovative prototypical solutions to a repetitive problem they were faced with.

As we look to the sustainable future, we are challenged to think differently about how we practice sustainable architecture and we saw great potential in customizable prototype design and in solving repetitive problems such as school design.

So we entered the competition and won.

The point of departure for us was about asking ourselves what ‘other’ problems we also want to address beyond the obvious and stated problem of flexibility, adaptability, and repeatability. We wanted to aim high and make the prototype high performing, customizable with potential for specificity so it’s not one shoe fits all.

We also set out to concern ourselves with how it might be manufactured,
assembled, tackling the problem with more of an industrial design approach, more as a kit of parts, thinking in pieces and parts and components, trying to minimize the number of parts. The notion of ephemeralization, “doing the most with the least” coined by R. Buckminster Fuller played a key role in how we approached the problem as a whole. And lastly, but very importantly, we wanted the prototype to be a model of sustainability and a net zero energy consumer.

We realized that in order to reach our goal of net zero energy we needed to focus on ways to reduce the buildings energy use as much as possible, because this in turn would reduce the need to generate power on site. Looking at NZE as consuming as much energy as the building produces over the course of a year, a school is in many ways an ideal test case because the times of day that the building is occupied coincides with easy solar access, and may have low or no occupancy during the hottest summer months, and is unique from other building types in this way. Lighting is the biggest energy user followed by space conditioning so we focused on these aspects of the design, through the use of tall ceilings, abundant daylighting, natural ventilation, high performing envelope, and a very low energy refrigerant-free heating and cooling system.

So the final solution was to devise two totally independent structures: the exterior two story building shell and the interior mezzanine structure. One is a fixed system, a pre-engineered metal building, and the other, a flexible, made to order steel structure inside, ready to be configured and reconfigured and both are designed for disassembly after its useful life.

The other aspect to our design was strategic at an organizational level. We organized the project into four different systems of varying degrees of flexibility from the exterior structure and core, to exterior skin, to interior partitions, to the most flexible and site specific climate control system which include ventilation and light shafts, and solar skin.

Today, we have the tools to design customizable prototypes. With BIM becoming more commonplace, we can design more parametrically creating several iterations based on a prototype with more ease than ever before. We have sophisticated CNC manufacturing technologies, advanced energy modeling and simulation software to help us design specifically responding to the solar orientation, to the local climate, using local and contextual material and finishes in treating the skin, and also make the building be grid neutral!

In closing, and on behalf of Nathan and the rest of the team, I want to thank the Holcim Foundation for their generous support and encouraging acknowledgement for our efforts in sustainable design. This is a much-needed boost for this project. Because, despite the District’s vision and efforts thus far, when dealing with such a large public entity, the project will inevitably face many obstacles in the future. And having the international recognition of our project will be of great help in seeing the project to fruition. Thank you very much.



The AIACC represents the interests of more than 11,000 architects and allied professionals in California. Founded in 1944, The AIACC's mission supports architects in their endeavors to improve the quality of life for all Californians by creating more livable communities, sustainable designs and quality work environments.

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