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Innovative North Atlanta High School is a National Model for High-Tech School Design

There’s little that comes easy to the architects turning parking lots into playing fields and cubicles into classrooms to transform an 11-story office building in north Atlanta into a cutting-edge high school.

One of the first challenges: Rigging the bank of eight elevators so it wouldn’t take 45 minutes to load all of the 2,400 students at the new North Atlanta High School on the floors they need to land on. So architects designed an extra staircase and borrowed a sophisticated system used by high-rise hotels that directs students to express elevators headed to their floors.

“It’s safe to say there isn’t another school like this in the nation,” said Bob Just, head of K-12 education for Cooper Carry, the lead architect group on the ambitious project.

Metro Atlanta is dotted with conventional schools in rather unconventional places, just like the corporate complex that housed nearly 5,000 IBM employees that will open as a high school in fall 2013.

Schools have sprung up in converted shopping centers, big-box showrooms and corporate headquarters. Classrooms have even taken root in old newspaper buildings and garages.

School systems have for decades looked to vacant or under-used buildings for new digs, but architects and experts say the trend has only accelerated amid the slowdown brought on by the Great Recession.

“This is becoming close to common with the economic downturn putting so many building owners in a tight spot,” said Tom Sayre, the managing principal of the Sizemore Group architecture firm, which has worked on several of these projects. “And it’s hard to build from the ground up. Some centers built in the wrong location failed, and a school is a great tenant to occupy a lot of the space.”

These types of projects, known in the industry as adaptive reuse, have left some innovative imprints on metro Atlanta. The International Academy of Smyrna was once a furniture showroom. DeKalb Academy of Technology and Environment is in a converted office building. Other classrooms have been built in warehouses, shopping centers, a converted garage and the old building of the Gwinnett Daily News.

Process goes both ways

Architects working the projects figured they’d be designing new ones rather than finding new uses for old ones when they were in training, but they have quickly adapted to their new mission.

“We never talked about adaptive reuse in school. It’s nothing that we train for in school,” said Just, who graduated in the 1980s. “But we’re being innovative because we have to.”

Sometimes, the trend works in reverse. A developer turned a high school in Atlanta’s Little Five Points neighborhood into the Bass Lofts. Businesses are scouting out schools that recently have been shuttered across Atlanta.

But as suburban Atlanta’s population grows, expect education officials to continue looking for unused buildings in prime locations for potential classroom space.

That’s what happened with the new spot for North Atlanta High School. Jere Smith, the school system’s director of capital improvements, started scouting the property in 2002 as the possible home for a new middle school, and discussions heated up two years ago when it was clear Atlanta needed another high school.

Relatively few employees still work at the IBM com-
plex, while most have scattered to other offices around 

Atlanta bought the land in 2011 for about $56 million, and school officials plan to spend another $70.9 million turning the sprawling 56-acre property into a school. In all, the school district expects to spend $132 million on the project, including moving fees and other costs. The building that now houses North Atlanta High School is expected to be turned into a middle school.

Challenges and advantages

The IBM property had plenty of built-in advantages. It already had a system of winding roads built to easily move thousands of people, a parking deck with almost 1,000 spaces, a picturesque retention pond that’s home to lounging turtles and two towers with about 800,000 square feet of space — more than double what a typical high school needs.

Architects soon set about figuring out how to turn the corporate complex into a modern classroom. They decided to overhaul the main building, an imposing concrete tower built in 1977, into the main student center. The top eight floors will be used for classroom space, while the bottom three will feature a cafeteria, administrative offices and a library.

Impressive floor-to-ceiling windows line every wall, giving visitors sweeping vistas stretching from Vinings to Buckhead.

Other changes were more difficult. A tower built in 1987 that was deemed unfit for classrooms and too pricey to mothball will be razed. In its place they’ll build a smaller building with a 600-seat auditorium, a theater and a gym. Designers are also planning to convert unneeded surface parking lots into sports playing fields so they can leave most of the rugged woods that dot the campus untouched.

Just said there’s no precedent for what Atlanta’s trying to do, but that the city had few other options given the explosive growth in northside.

“You need to do things like adapt existing property. They needed 60 acres, and where in Buckhead do you find 60 acres just waiting around needing to be developed?” he said.

Reusing existing buildings also means designs that likely wouldn’t fly today are already grandfathered in. The IBM complex, which towers over a retention pond near the Chattahoochee River, would face more regulatory and environmental hurdles if it were to be built today.

“If we were designing a building from scratch, it’s not that different from what we see here,” said Smith. “But if we had to clear all these fields, put in the infrastructure and get the permits for this today, we couldn’t do it.”

Experts said schools will continue to set up shop in unused office parks and retail centers in fast-growing places, if only because they have little other choice.

“These buildings need to be reused. We can’t continue to build everything new,” said Sayre. “They’re typically in great areas with high traffic counts that would be great for schools. And some schools, if they had to buy the land, they’d be off a dead-end road beside a swamp.”

Source: Greg Bluestein,  AJC

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