K-12 renovations find hidden value to develop energy-efficient, indoor-outdoor facilities that support educational goals.
Sidney Lanier High School stands tall as a San Antonio community fixture, a 450-foot-deep brick castle with roots dating to 1915. The building has been part of the lives of generations of families, but windowless classrooms, a confusing layout and outdated technology hampered educational curriculums, morale and safety.
The renovation of Lanier High School, completed in 2021, is a case study in how to design and deliver an energy-efficient facility that saves money, cuts construction length and creates modern learning environments to support the district’s goals. LPA’s integrated team worked with educators and community to unlock the potential of the old building, while recognizing its heritage.
The end product produced dramatic results. The new facility is flooded with natural light. In the past, none of the classrooms had windows; now 100% of classrooms have access to daylight. The facility’s predicted energy use is 60% below the industry baseline. The renovation worked within the district’s budget to address crucial community issues, update technology and create new learning spaces.
LPA’s structural engineers helped open Lanier’s interiors, using the building’s good bones.
“These improvements to Lanier High School are a shining example of what a community can accomplish together when we collectively work on behalf of our children,” San Antonio Independent School District Trustee Patti Radle said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Reaching a renovation’s full potential — achieving more bang for the buck — takes a willingness to push the envelope and explore ideas to support educators and students. A multidisciplinary approach and a commitment to raise expectations can tackle the challenges of declining enrollment and underutilized space for learning environments, while focusing the limited budget on adding new facilities and technology.
A thoughtful, research-driven renovation also offers significant environmental and sustainability benefits, reducing the need for new materials, cutting emissions and energy costs in comparison to new construction, and updating perfectly suitable, and often structurally sound, older buildings with cutting-edge, efficient systems.
“Compared to a ground-up project, renovations save time, money and materials, both during the reconstruction and over time,” says Kate Mraw, Design Director and leader of the firm’s K-12 practice. “One of the most sustainable things you can do is reuse a building.”
Lanier’s traditional brick façade was preserved, but the top was cut off and replaced with glass to add light to the dark interior spaces.
An Integrated, Informed Design Approach LPA has worked on several recent projects that illustrate the value of aiming higher in a renovation project, using informed design with an integrated team to achieve different levels of success. Balancing the tricky interplay of structural engineering, interior and educational design, as well as landscape architecture to activate indoor-outdoor spaces, can be a rewarding experience that achieves results beyond the initial goals.
For Lanier, the challenge was taking a building with great bones and turning it into a 21st-century learning experience.
The design team’s structural engineering team found that the building was structurally sound and flexible enough for a strategic redesign. Mechanical and structural interventions could open up Lanier’s classrooms and hallways, breathe new life into the school and preserve the essence of the building, while adding modern learning environments.
It feels like a brand-new building inside after the renovation. And the work we did to make it flexible and adaptable means it’s set to have another life after this one.
Parents, educators and students played a large role in the process, sharing their own views about what was important about the school in their academic, social and cultural experience.
“There’s a connection between the quality of the building and the level of student engagement,” Lanier principal Dr. Moises Ortiz says. “If the kids feel they’re in an instructional setting that challenges them and promotes them to be more competitive, they’re going to grow.”
The building was, in effect, reimagined as a “city within a city.” LPA took a surgical yet comprehensive approach, introducing large light monitors on the roof and removing the top section of the walls to add glass, inserting atriums to open up the interiors, carving out a light-filled entry and incorporating new shared spaces, including stadium staircases, amid the school’s now wide, brightened hallways.
Upgrades to energy systems, lighting and HVAC cut electricity usage. Major structural elements such as the roof were upgraded, and the flexible classroom design offered new places for collaboration and socialization. A digital “mural museum” was established to preserve one of the school’s enduring legacies.
“It’s like The Wizard of Oz going from black and white to color,” LPA Project Designer Federico Cavazos says. “It feels like a brand-new building inside after the renovation. And the work we did to make it flexible and adaptable means it’s set to have another life after this one.”
Sidney Lanier High School before the renovation.
Path to Better Outcomes These transformations can change the way students see the opportunities in front of them. For Smith High School in Carrollton, Texas, an old building that was a catacomb of hallways was renovated into a high-tech, light-filled learning area called Innovation Alley. The updated wing features pathways in engineering, architecture and construction, media arts and business innovation, all on display behind glass walls, advertises new educational opportunities and engages students.
To create the new space in the older building, substantial structural change was needed, including moving several columns and drilling new foundations. The entire roof was replaced as part of the upgrade, which will extend the life of the entire building. The design also created an inspiring library renovation with team rooms, e-sports labs and a “Starbooks” café adjacent to daylight-filled labs and innovation spaces for students.
“At schools like this with declining enrollment, the interior classrooms basically become underutilized space,” says LPA Dallas Studio Director Craig Drone. “This strategic renovation didn’t just activate this overlooked space. By transforming it into a series of media centers, virtual reality spaces, seminar rooms and flexible labs, it gave the students career tech opportunities and creates connections that celebrate culture on campus.”
The inclusion of collaborative spaces was critical to the renovation of Sunkist Elementary in Anaheim, California, which was looking to develop more purposeful spaces to expand the learning experience on campus.
LPA faced a similar challenge in rethinking an older facility and modernizing classroom space at Sunkist Elementary in Anaheim, California. A school overhaul repurposed 1960s buildings and added new facilities to create a cohesive modern campus and elevate the educational experience. Equity became a key theme in the design process; the district agreed that the older, renovated facility should have the same qualities as the new buildings. Baselines were established: All classrooms, whether new or renovated, should have adequate daylighting, meaningful views to the exterior and access to collaboration spaces.
In the renovation, LPA’s landscape architects worked with educators and designers to develop exterior collaboration spaces. The redesign opened classrooms to new creative opportunities while repurposing existing underutilized space. Focused on visual and performing arts, the intervention added daylighting through purposeful windows and display areas where students can showcase their work for parents and passersby. This also activated an adjacent courtyard and outdoor plaza.
“The inclusion of collaboration spaces was critical for the school,” says LPA Design Director Ozzie Tapia. “They were transitioning from a very traditional model to now having access to more purposeful spaces to expand their learning experience on campus.”
There’s a connection between the quality of the building and the level of student engagement. If the kids feel they’re in an instructional setting that challenges them and promotes them to be more competitive, they’re going to grow.
For Oak Grove High School in San Jose, a new tree-lined walk ties the campus together and activates underused outdoor spaces.
Adding these kinds of shared collaborative spaces can help activate an entire campus. At Oak Grove High School in San Jose, California, a dark, dreary second-floor library and exterior space was turned into a combination student union and open outdoor learning environment.
The design team added a series of skylights and new windows to open up the former library space, gutting it and replacing outdated mechanical systems. A set of sweeping staircases now spills out of the second floor, connecting the library with a new quad for gathering and socializing. The comprehensive design ties the campus together, with new tree-lined walks directing students to the quad. Visual tie-ins — such as restoring old redwood siding and reusing a tired, old gray shade structure and turning it into striking, bright-orange sculptures — help activate space, turning disused outdoor space into a new arrival courtyard and learning patio. “It was very important for the school’s culture to bring students together and provide an equity of space,” says LPA Design Director Helen Pierce. “It created a space for the students to come together where they actually wanted to be together.”
A dark second-floor library and exterior space at Oak Grove was turned into a combination student union and open outdoor learning environment.
A New Legacy Renovations don’t merely shore up or repair aging buildings. They don’t have to be seen as a tradeoff or cost-cutting move. Sustainable and strategic approaches to adaptive reuse can truly transform older schools. A renovation can tie the school’s legacy to the future, while adding daylighting, collaboration spaces and improved security and wellness for students.
Smart renovations are about a research-driven approach that considers all aspects of the design. A holistic analysis finds the value and maximizes budgets. Renovation is about opportunity and potential, reinvesting and repurposing old assets to create a facility that will work for the next generations.