An integrated team overcomes challenges to design a new multipurpose building that provides Santa Barbara Junior High students with an indoor-outdoor experience and a new sense of place.
For all the beauty of Santa Barbara Junior High School’s historic 1930s Spanish Colonial Revival-style architecture, inside and out the school lacked modern flexible spaces where students and faculty could come together. The original multipurpose room and play courts were too small for today’s needs and deemed seismically unsafe by modern code standards.
Construction over the years had also claimed part of the school’s original back courtyard, relegating what could have been shared outdoor space to a kind of alley. “It was chopped up into little zones, and wasn’t really cohesive as a single courtyard,” says LPA Design Director Helen Pierce.
The design enhances the indoor-outdoor experience for students.
The Santa Barbara Unified School District commissioned LPA to design a 15,000-square-foot building that could serve a variety of needs, while creating a new larger enclosed courtyard that could give students attending school more of an indoor-outdoor experience.
This new mixed-use facility is centered around a two-story basketball court and athletics gymnasium, with a vaulted ceiling, wood beams and large clerestory windows. The gym doubles as a cafeteria, with seating that folds out of the walls. It creates a unique hybrid space — not as isolated as most gyms, because of the large openings directly onto the court, and more active than a typical school cafeteria. Adjacent single-story areas such as a kitchen and café open directly onto the space, while locker rooms and a faculty PE office are tucked behind.
“Making the spaces as flexible and open as we could was really the key,” says LPA Design Director Silke Frank.
The building we’re doing isn’t actually historic, and the buildings that we replaced weren’t historic, but the rest of the campus is, and we wanted it to fit contextually.
The contemporary building is designed to fit the Santa Barbara vernacular (designed by architect William H. Weeks) but not mimic it. The sloping Spanish-tile roof and classical columns pay homage to the past, but the building is more crisply contemporary — the columns, for example, are angular, not rounded.
“We did have to go through a historic landmark committee review, but more as a courtesy,” says LPA Managing Director Steve Key. “The building we’re doing isn’t actually historic, and the buildings that we replaced weren’t historic, but the rest of the campus is, and we wanted it to fit contextually.”
The gym doubles as a cafeteria, with seating that folds out of the walls.
Before groundbreaking, the project team unearthed a major surprise: unstable soil. The school had been built on the site of a former landfill. In addition, in 2015 the Federal Emergency Management Administration had reclassified the new building’s site as part of a flood zone, requiring an additional raising of the ground level by four feet.
To address the issues, LPA structural engineers designed a support system that drove piles about 100 feet underground into the bedrock.
“It wound up as a modest, light building that sits on top of an enormous amount of infrastructure,” Pierce says. The structure cut into the budget, but the pedestal ultimately added nuance to the design. “It really raises the building in importance on the campus and creates this overlook to the courtyard from the sort-of porch of the new building,” says Pierce.
The new building’s footprint was moved back several feet from the site of the older concrete gymnasium, nearly doubling the courtyard’s square footage and creating something like a classical quad, reminiscent of English schools like Eton and Oxford. Instead of a covered arcade, LPA’s landscape architecture team lined the perimeter with trees, creating a leafy, parklike enclave.
The new facility is centered around a two-story basketball court and athletics gymnasium, with a vaulted ceiling, wood beams and large clerestory windows.
“Bringing that all together into one space gives you a destination,” Frank says. “It gives students and faculty a place to stay on campus and want to be there.”
The need for extensive foundation work also allowed the design team to take a ground-up approach to delivering a flexible, energy-efficient building. Natural ventilation takes advantage of the region’s relatively cool coastal climate during the school year, while relying on robust insulation to avoid wide temperature fluctuations. The building taps into the school’s existing central steam-boiler plant for its radiant heating. All told, the building is designed to reduce energy use by 75% from an industry baseline. The building is also wired for solar panels that could someday be placed on the roof to generate enough power (about 40,000 watts) to supply 100% of its energy use.
Santa Barbara Junior High opened its new multipurpose building just before the 2021 school year: a welcome gathering space after a year of remote learning.
“It’s actually one of my favorite projects I’ve ever worked on,” Key says. “It’s a building that is so simple, but the broader setting it anchors creates a special kind of presence.”