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Renovate, Expand, Move, or What? An Urban School Design Charette

  • Julia Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, the view from 16th and Spring Garden Streets.

Julia. R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School is the kind of school I wish I’d gone to. Granted, I grew up in rural southern Oregon so it wasn’t an option, but Masterman’s diverse student body from every corner of Philadelphia, committed teachers, and strong community where it’s okay to be a nerd make me swoon in retrospect. And it’s not just me, Masterman was recently ranked 53rd among the nation’s public schools by U.S. News and World, and first in Pennsylvania by Business Week. But in spite of a highly-competitive admissions process for each new class of fifth graders, the school community has struggled with overcrowding for 15 years. Built in 1932 at 17th and Spring Garden, the beautiful neoclassical school building was designed for 800 students. Today, it educates over 1,200 students.

  • Afternoon dismissal: Hallways are crowded, but classrooms are much more so.

Just how overcrowded is that? Well, the gymnastics team practices in the hallways of the third floor, the cross-country team trains by running up the stairs, and the soccer team runs about a mile to the nearest practice field. Some classrooms have been subdivided into two cramped instructional spaces. Thirteen teachers have no assigned classroom and must cart their materials from room to room. Math teacher Kathy Dopkin says, “In five periods I may be in three different classrooms. The kids never know where to find me.”

Masterman formed an Overcrowding Committee in 2007 to brainstorm solutions. It was the Committee’s idea to sponsor a design charette. They enlisted the Community Design Collaborative and AIA Philadelphia’s Education Committee to plan and manage the charette as part of Design on the Delaware 2008, AIA Philadelphia’s annual conference. The Collaborative recruited Wallace Roberts & Todd, LLC (WRT) to lead the project, with volunteer cost estimating and engineering support from Studio JAED and Duffield Associates.

This volunteer team first met with a group of students, teachers, parents and administrators to discuss the school’s needs and assets. Gathered in a library that also does double duty as a classroom, the grown-ups had an immediate consensus on the school’s best feature: its kids. As Masterman parent and CDA&I principal Cecelia Denegre, AIA put it, “It’s amazing that the kids perform as well as they do in these substandard conditions. Imagine what they could do if they had a decent space!” 

  • On the site visit, Maarten Pesch, Julie Disston, Vera Kiselev, and Rae Monroe of WRT confer on Masterman's rooftop playground.

Next came a site survey to document existing conditions for the charette. The team found some positives: good bones, loads of original architectural details, and several classrooms “lost” to mechanical equipment that might be reclaimed. The bad news was that the mechanical systems needed significant upgrades and left absolutely no room for swing space, an on-site area to house temporary classrooms during renovations.

The charette began with remarks by Masterman principal Marjorie Neff, student body co-president Beau Feeny, and teacher Kathy Dopkin, a virtual tour of the school by WRT, and plenty of coffee. Four design teams drawn from design professionals attending Design on the Delaware 2008 and rounded out by Masterman administrators, students, and teachers were then charged to explore one of the following designs:  1) renovation of the existing school, 2) renovation of the existing school and expansion on the school site, 3) expansion onto an adjacent site with surface parking, and 4) expansion onto an adjacent site with underground parking.

  • Charette participants Barbara Horowitz, a Masterman teacher, and William Wolfe, an architect, look over floor plans together.

To a non-designer like me, the room looked like a whir of highlighters, colored pencils on trace and teams brainstorming until “pencils down” at 3 in the afternoon. Shortly afterward, the teams presented their ideas to a review panel with expertise in school construction and planning, preservation, structural and mechanical engineering, cost estimating and education, as well as an audience of over eighty Masterman parents, students and teachers.

  • Working through lunch, Rae Monroe, Mara Natkins, and Buck Simpers brainstorm on ways to expand Masterman with a new addition linked by a pedestrian bridge across Brandywine Street.

The fourth option—expansion onto an adjacent lot with underground parking—emerged as the ideal solution. It offered the simplest strategy for replacing the most compromised and difficult-to-upgrade spaces in the existing school—the gym, computer and science labs, and the cafeteria. A new addition on the existing parking lot across Brandywine Street could also act as swing space and create another entrance for students to relieve morning and afternoon congestion. And subsurface parking would make the addition pedestrian-friendly, upholding the school’s welcoming face.

  • Adrienne McKinney, Beau Feeney, Eli Levy, Mara Natkins, and Jennifer Crawford field questions about their scheme.

The charette process reflected one of Masterman’s primary strengths—collaboration across very diverse backgrounds and perspectives. The charette yielded both hard facts and new ideas that are helping the school community work out a solution to their overcrowding problem. In addition, the charette’s findings are not limited to assisting Masterman. Its creative approach can provide valuable information to advocates seeking to improve other urban public schools.

The final report for the charette was recently completed and now being used by the school community to organize support for their project.

Posted by Haley Loram


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