Building a District

Over 17 years, a continuous collaboration between architect and client has transformed San Antonio’s Alamo Heights Independent School District.

San Antonio native Jim Oppelt grew up just a few blocks from Alamo Heights High School in the 1980s, passing its original 1950s-era campus every day in his parents’ car. Years later, when he was an architectural intern in 2005, his first project was a gymnasium renovation for the school, which is part of the Alamo Heights Independent School District in the heart of the San Antonio region.

“The Alamo Heights schools have always been special to me,” Oppelt says. “I’ve seen the district grow and evolve as the community has grown.”

Today, Oppelt is part of the LPA Design Studios team that has spent more than 17 years working with educators, students and the Alamo Heights community to reshape the district’s facilities. Remarkable for its length and scope, the relationship has focused on a research-driven design process that has included every element of the district’s operations and goals, including sustainability, development of outdoor spaces and the long-term health and wellness of students. From new science and art labs to sports fields and athletic facilities, the collaboration has fueled a new generation of campuses that support the district’s mission to inspire students to pursue lifelong learning.

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A new STEM building at the junior school STEM academy offers state-of-the-art equipment for hands-on learning.

Over the years, the designers and Alamo Heights leaders have tackled many of the same issues facing districts around the country — a limited amount of land, aging facilities, expanding class sizes and continually evolving technological needs. The relationship has allowed them to push the design envelope, developing campuses that represent new educational best practices and places where faculty and students can thrive and be productive.

“We work together like a hand in a glove,” says Mike Hagar, AHISD’s Assistant Superintendent of Business and Finance. “We can be honest with each other and not shy away from tough subjects.”

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The rapport among LPA’s designers, the district and the community has steadily grown over the years. Communication and transparency have developed a level of trust that led to 80% of Alamo Heights voters approving a $135-million bond measure in 2017.

“What’s different about our relationship is it’s a partnership, and it’s a very open, fluid conversation,” says Kate Mraw, LPA’s Director of K-12. “We regularly talk about lessons learned and how we can continue to elevate what we offer.”

The AHISD first commissioned San Antonio’s O’Neill Conrad Oppelt Architects (which later merged with LPA) in 2005 for renovations to five campuses, as well as an upgraded district headquarters, with a focus on reducing operating costs. Before work began, the design team met extensively with teachers, principals, administrators and the superintendent to learn how existing spaces and equipment were being used and to explore what could be done differently. Over the next 18 months, every campus received new windows and mechanical systems. Special attention was paid to Alamo Heights Junior School, a facility dating to 1959, where the projects included a library renovation, fine arts spaces and a 125-seat theater.

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The high school’s new athletic facilities include a space where students can build strength and stamina using top-notch equipment.

As the community grew, the scope of the relationship between LPA and the district continued to expand. The design process moved beyond the classroom to include different aspects of the district’s evolving goals, including sustainability. In 2010, after the community approved a $44-million bond, increasing energy performance was a major goal. For the first time, the district went solar, installing 900 kW of photovoltaic systems at all six campuses, the district’s maintenance and transportation building and an ahead-of-its-time energy-storage system, resulting in reduced peak-demand electricity use and reduced operating costs. Alamo Heights High saw the construction of new science and fine arts buildings; Cambridge Elementary, Woodridge Elementary and the Howard Early Childhood Center were renovated.

The 2017 bond financed a four-year series of projects, including additions and renovations to the six campuses. The work at Alamo Heights High School focused on the science, technology and arts curriculum but also explored different places to come together. “That really elevated the campus to feel more collegiate,” Mraw says.

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Designers focused on creating comfortable spaces to support students’ cognitive and emotional growth.

One of the largest projects to emerge from the 2017 bond was the AHISD Natatorium, a 26,000-square-foot aquatics center for use by the entire district. LPA designers leveraged the expertise of the firm’s Sport + Recreation team to develop the aquatics center on a tight 2.3-acre site on a satellite campus. The flexible, multiuse facility features a 39-meter-by-25-yard pool with a movable bulkhead, two pairs of 1-meter and 3-meter diving boards, training tools including a trampoline and over-the-water diving belts and seats for 400 spectators.

“Your jaw drops when you walk inside,” Hagar says. “And the building is occupied almost 24-7.”

Most kids had been going off-campus for lunch, and now they want to be on-campus all the time.

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The glass-walled student dining commons overlooks the high school campus’ outdoor courtyard.

At Alamo Heights High School, LPA’s diverse team again worked with Sport + Recreation designers to lead the renovation of Harry B. Orem Stadium, including a new grandstand and adjacent athletic complex. New STEM buildings were also added to the high school and junior school. Each project fit specific needs for the campus, reflecting long-term goals.

“We’ve always focused on developing the right project, at the right scale,” says LPA San Antonio Studio Director Sara Flowers. “The district and the community were trusting us with their time, money and resources.”

The newest centerpiece at Alamo Heights High School, known as the Oaks Building, is a glass-walled student dining commons overlooking the campus’ largest green space — an outdoor courtyard exemplifying the drive for multiuse spaces connected to the outdoors.

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The high school’s STEM building represents a key priority for the campus.

“It really turned what could have felt like a traditional high school cafeteria into something more of a student union,” Mraw says. “Most kids had been going off-campus for lunch, and now they want to be on-campus all the time.” With a large media screen, the Oaks doubles as an event space, with an onsite food-science kitchen, a coffee and smoothie bar and an art gallery showcasing the students’ work.

At Alamo Heights Junior School, the design process for a new 24,700-square-foot STEM building included engagement with the school science team and faculty. Students can use an outdoor courtyard as well as a large collaboration space on the building’s second floor to conduct experiments. Operable partitions create large, multi-classroom open rooms for larger classes or shared classes. The building’s concrete floors and steel structure were left exposed to serve as a teaching tool about how buildings are constructed.

At each stage of the process, LPA designers were aware of the larger picture, trying to fit together the district’s limited resources to achieve the larger aspiration.

“It’s always a fun challenge,” Oppelt says. “In many cases, you’re trying to fit a lot of puzzle pieces on a tight site and at the same time think of the campus and district holistically for the future.”

We work together like a hand in a glove. We can be honest with each other and not shy away from tough subjects.

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At Cambridge Elementary, a renovation helped to create a bright and colorful hallway along fine arts classrooms.

At every step of the process, LPA’s designers focused on the student. Grounded in research and best practices from multiple disciplines, the process fosters constructive dialogue with stakeholders, leading to school spaces that support cognitive and emotional growth. Early and active conversations weave community context into the design and begin to form a personal profile of the school’s learners. From there, the district’s vision and core values and the approach of its educators start to become translated in a physical design that fosters belonging, curiosity and collaboration.

Before the 2017 bond’s passage, the district and LPA launched a pilot program called Engaged Classrooms, which involved designers working with teachers and staff to outfit existing classrooms with movable furniture and storage, freeing up more space for project-based learning.

“When a teacher was ready to address a new learning unit, they could simply take the mobile shelves from their adjacent closet and wheel it into the classroom,” says LPA Design Coordinator Brita Pearson. Like many districts, Alamo Heights teachers were initially skeptical of having so many moving parts, but training changed their minds.

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The Alamo Heights district’s team observes progress of the Alamo Heights High School Athletics Complex with representatives of Joeris General Contractors, the builder, and LPA.

“There has to be professional development hand in hand with the design process,” Pearson says. “It can be a paradigm shift in terms of the teacher mindset, too.”

On a recent walk-through of an older high school classroom building, Pearson found several cases where furniture had been moved into the hallway, suggesting that students were adapting the interiors on their own to create additional breakout and collaboration spaces.

The same research-driven approach has been applied to outdoor spaces. LPA’s landscape architects were part of an integrated team that helped develop outdoor spaces that served many different roles. The research-driven approach focused on indoor-outdoor connections that can support student motivation, cognitive function, self-esteem and brain development in young students. New courtyards at the junior school and high school created after the 2017 bond, for example, are paired with operable glass doors that allow students to take their classwork and laboratory experiments outside. In addition to the main routes through campus, a series of paths wind through mature oak trees to give students more places to congregate.

“Circulation on Alamo Heights campuses became not just about getting from Point A to Point B,” says LPA Director of Landscape Architecture Kari Kikuta. “We started to have more of a dialogue about how these spaces inside and out can double as usable space.”

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The STEM building provides light-infused areas where students can collaborate or work individually.

For Flowers, the bond with Alamo Heights goes far beyond the typical architect-client relationship. She is a regular at athletic events.

“We know a lot of the teachers and students,” Flowers says.“ It feels like we’re a part of that family.”

Earlier this year, AHISD announced that the relationship will continue. Anticipating a new round of bond-driven construction, including an updated master plan for each of the campuses, the district reopened its selection process. After review, LPA earned the commission again, reaffirming the strength of the association.

Before kicking off the master plan, LPA designers visited each site in the district and walked the campuses with their principals, listening and observing. There has also been an extensive teacher-engagement session.

“We’re starting from an inside-out perspective,” Mraw says. “It’s a learning-focused, student-centered and sustainable-centered drive.”

All aspects of LPA’s team are engaged in the process, including architects, landscape architects, interior designers and athletic specialists. After so many years, communication flows easily among all involved.

“It feels like LPA is just another department in our district,” Hagar says. “By working hand in hand like that, they understand where the district wants to go.”