A Middle School Takes Wing

On the site of Austin’s old municipal airport, a new middle school serves diverse communities on a vertical campus designed around collaboration and sustainability.

In the heart of Austin’s Mueller new urbanism development, the three-story General Marshall Middle School reflects Austin ISD’s vision of “reinventing the urban school experience” on a campus focused on interdisciplinary, project-driven learning.

The design fits the comprehensive campus, including a gymnasium, tennis courts and sports fields, on an odd-shaped 10-acre site that was once the runway for the municipal airport. Built vertically around a central courtyard, the 130,000-square-foot, LEED Gold campus takes full advantage of the site and doubles as a community hub, with accessible facilities and connections to the local transit station.

“The campus was intentionally designed to create a strong connection with the neighborhood, which has been shown to be positive for student engagement and making students feel like they belong,” says LPA Director of K-12 Kate Mraw.

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The Austin, Texas, school, which serves eight elementary schools, reduces energy use by 75% from an industry baseline.

For Jordan Benson, General Marshall’s principal, the school’s value goes beyond the neighborhood borders. The new campus serves eight elementary schools from diverse communities beyond the Mueller development borders, part of the fast-growing district’s plan to build equity in the system. (The school is named for Dr. General Garwood Marshall, who was a beloved math teacher at nearby Huston-Tillotson University, one of Austin’s Historically Black Colleges or Universities.)

“One of the goals of this middle school is to bring the community back together,” Benson says.

The school was developed in an integrated design-build process, through a partnership with LPA, Joeris General Contractors and the district. That process started with an extensive collaboration between representatives of all aspects of the surrounding communities. A 16-member Campus Architectural Team (CAT) met regularly, exploring neighborhood needs and the district’s road map for bringing together the diverse groups.

“The design process was really collaborative, and I enjoyed that,” Benson says. “We had community members, people who are now members of our board, teachers and families who were able to input their ideas for what they wanted for their kids. And LPA was able to bring that to life.”

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Corridors double as collaborative breakout spaces.

For the Whole Community

The campus fits into the 700-acre Mueller District, which is designed as a transit-oriented and pedestrian-friendly model of new urbanism and sustainability. Mueller was the first neighborhood in Texas to earn LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED ND) Stage 3 Gold Certification. The site neighbors Austin Studios, a 20-acre film and media production complex.

“We were always aware that the campus should reflect the goals and values of the community,” says LPA Design Director Federico Cavazos. “The wide sidewalks, bike lanes and trails were all designed to make the campus more accessible and linked to the neighborhood.”

Designers were starting from scratch; there wasn’t a template in the district for this type of middle school, serving diverse neighborhoods. The design-build process helped focus the discussion on transparent estimated costs and areas where the design could find value.

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Deep overhangs on the south-facing sides reduce heat gain in the interior spaces.

“There was no existing campus for us to bounce ideas off of, so we really leaned into our CAT team,” says LPA Design Coordinator Alexa Feldman. “They helped us write the story for this new school.”

The campus serves 800 students, with a focus on collaborative, flexible learning spaces. The design recognizes that learning happens everywhere, with activated outdoor spaces, collaborative breakout areas and technology-rich learning environments designed to support the academic, social, emotional and active spirit of young learners.

Learning spaces are arranged in flexible learning neighborhoods, reflecting the district’s priorities. There is a mix of classroom types, collaborative spaces and maker spaces on every level. The furniture choices support different activities. Learning spaces open to outdoor areas designed to support different activities.“

The campus is not siloed like a traditional school,” says LPA Project Architect Clare Lassus. “Classrooms open up to different types of collaboration and breakout spaces.”

The design also promotes openness and transparency, allowing teachers to see each other at work. “I love that teachers can learn from each other,” Benson says. “In education, we’re often isolated in these rooms, and we don’t get to see how other people teach and how other students learn.”

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Spaces are designed to support different types of learning.

The campus links to the original Mueller airport with a large, wing-shaped roof; a gymnasium that resembles an aircraft hangar; and runway-inspired wayfinding graphics throughout the campus. Blue and white are reminders of the airport’s color scheme. A rooftop deck provides expansive views of the old airport site, including the remaining control tower.

The campus also supports the new urbanist community’s commitment to sustainability and healthy living. Conservation and carbon emission strategies are on display, making sustainability a teaching tool. All the roofs on the campus are solar ready; screens and overhangs reduce heat gain in the interior spaces, helping to cut energy use on the campus by 32% from a baseline standard. Water use is reduced by 60% from an industry baseline; 100% of the water will be recycled and used for irrigation and toilets.

Resiliency was at the heart, the desire to create something that works for the community for generations. Durable and environmentally friendly materials were used throughout the campus, including brick and reinforced concrete.

“There are many little things under the hood that are all about long life,” Cavazos says. “Our building materials were informed by resilience and permanence; space planning was driven by flexibility; and the building articulation is meant to evolve over time.”

We had community members, people who are now members of our board, teachers and families who were able to input their ideas for what they wanted for their kids. And LPA was able to bring that to life.” — Jordan Benson, General Marshall principal

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The dining commons is one of several elements of the campus designed to double as community-use facilities.

For the Whole Student

The campus delivers on the district’s education specs, with flexible, collaborative learning environments and a campus that addresses wellness, nutrition and access to the outdoors. STEM-focused programs provide a direct line to the programs offered at area high schools, building equity across the district.

At the same time, it is a thriving new member of the neighborhood, bringing together students and families from different parts of the city. “The school connects to the history of the site, the culture of their current community and the global perspective of the city,” Mraw says. “It reflects the district’s desire to focus on the whole student.”

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A wide central courtyard serves as a “central park” for the campus.

Austin students quickly embraced the new campus. Learning environments are filled with large and small groups. On any given day, the courtyard is the campus “central park,” a hub of activity. Soon after the school opened, administrators decided to open the courtyard before school hours, which brought new energy to mornings on campus.

“My favorite part of the campus is the courtyard,” Benson says. “I was a science teacher, so I enjoy the nature and the life that’s out there.”