Lara Blankenburg, AIA, LEED AP, Project Manager for Fanning Howey, said this dedicated neighborhood for younger students will help relieve some of the stress felt by kids when they move on from elementary school.
“It’s always tough to make that transition as a student when you’re beginning to take more responsibility for your education and you’re in a larger facility,” Blankenburg said.
All sixth-grade classes and lockers will be grouped together in a space that also allows sixth grade teachers to combine teaching and work more on the level of the student during the student’s transition. Sixth graders who choose to take elective courses beyond their grade level are free to move throughout the building, but the majority of their classes are located within the dedicated neighborhood to establish a comfort level amongst students.
New Castle’s existing middle school facility had not been updated since it was originally designed in 1969. Blankenburg said with its brutalist concrete structure, large floor plate, and lack of exterior windows, the facility more closely resembled a hospital or government-type building than an educational facility.
“As a heavy structure with minimal windows. The building didn’t allow for much light to enter the interior,” Blankenburg said. “It felt very heavy and dark.”
Blankenburg said Fanning Howey approached this renovation with a focus on bringing as much daylight into the school as possible. Large windows on the north face of the facility allow an abundance of natural light into the building (north light is ideal because occupants don’t experience direct sun load), but prior to the renovation, two classrooms occupied those north-facing windows.
Fanning Howey removed those classrooms from the north-facing windows and replaced them with common spaces and student breakout areas to give more students the opportunity to experience benefits afforded by natural light.
On the south end of the building, Fanning Howey opened up a concrete bearing wall along the second floor to allow light to penetrate from 18-foot-high south-facing windows into open corridors within the school. New Castle Middle School previously operated this second-floor space as a media center and an oversized art room, but similar to the school’s northern section, these past layouts did not allow for the space’s natural light to enter common areas within the facility.
“There was a lot of natural light in that one room, but it wasn’t going anywhere beyond that,” Blankenburg said. “Now, you can see light from one end of the floor to the other and you’re not just walking towards darkness or all electric light”
The oversized art room on the south end will split into two more traditionally-sized art rooms – one for 2-D art and one for 3-D art – and will include a multi-level commons area where students can work collaboratively.
“The multi-level commons area is going to be a very active, exciting space with students on different levels participating in different activities, and you have visual access to all those activities,” Blankenburg said.
Added common areas in the facility are meant to support a New Castle Middle School curriculum that encourages breakout teaching and small group learning. Gathering spaces and updated classrooms will include a variety of flexible furniture layouts so students can gravitate toward areas where they feel most relaxed.
“Being able to change classrooms and easily move their furniture to create unique learning locations for their students was a high priority for New Castle,” Blankenburg said.
Ironically, Blankenburg said New Castle Middle’s original design did not include any fixed walls and instead separated classrooms with movable partitions meant to afford more flexibility to teachers and students.
“By providing New Castle Middle School with more fixed classrooms, Fanning Howey actually increased their flexibility because the partitions no longer work and the noise transfer from room to room was distracting,” Blankenburg said.
New Castle administrators met one-on-one with teachers to garner input on potential design changes before working with Fanning Howey to formulate a plan that enhances the school’s curriculum. Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) are the main subjects which drive New Castle’s curriculum, so Fanning Howey created a suite of rooms on the facility’s first floor that brings those concentrations together.
Different activities like sewing, cooking, and wood and metal working are supported in this flexible first-floor space, and areas for a computer lab and robotics teaching are also included in this area so students can collaborate on advanced maker projects.
“We really leveraged technology as well as location within the building to improve security,” Blankenburg said.
Scattered entrances and exits included in the facility’s original design made it difficult for staff to maintain visibility and effectively monitor students during emergencies, so Fanning Howey removed entrances and exits deemed to be unnecessary and added monitors to those doors which they could not remove.
Front administration offices are also moved closer to the main entry so visitors can be brought into the building in a more secure fashion. Restrooms on main teaching floors are open to the corridor and include individual stalls to give teachers more visibility and reduce areas where bullying occurs. Blankenburg said she was impressed with the attention to detail shown by New Castle administrators when determining effective design strategies for improving student comfort and safety.
“The level of concern shown for the student and for student health and safety by the corporation was just above and beyond,” Blankenburg said.
“Looking at this project from the beginning, it was rather daunting,” Blankenburg said.
Fanning Howey approached this renovation project with the intention of developing creative learning spaces which were well-lit and open while still remaining safe and secure. Blankenburg said these goals were especially critical to keep in mind during the design process for this project due to the nature of New Castle Middle’s existing building.
“This particular building could have easily felt enclosed like a fortress based just on the original structure alone,” Blankenburg said. “So, going the opposite route and really working to keep it light and open and still maintain that safe zone for students, teachers, and the community is really important, and I think we accomplished it well.”
Blankenburg said this renovation presents a great example from which architects can learn about adaptive reuse projects and their capacity to transform existing building stocks.
“You can create good opportunities for learning in just about any building as long as you set your priorities and really use those as your guideposts,” Blankenburg said.
Already three months ahead of schedule, New Castle Middle School’s renovation project is set to be complete by the end of 2021.