Urbanize Austin: First look: New middle school designs unveiled

An ambitious collaboration integrates community, sustainability, and modern learning environments

A new middle school is in the works in Mueller, and designers recently unveiled renderings and details that reveal a thoughtfully planned, good-looking campus well-suited to the urbanist community.

Mueller, as most Austinites know, is a master-planned development built on the grounds of Austin's former city airport. Over the years, the neighborhood has grown along the lines of what planners envisioned, becoming an relatively dense, urbanist mix of housing, public parks, retail, entertainment, and cultural facilities (plus a nearby medical district and big-box center)—all meant to be walkable, bikeable, and convenient to public transportation.

Located at Tilley and Zach Scott streets and currently going by the name New Middle School in Northeast Austin, the new Austin Independent School District facility was designed to live up to and work within the urbanist standards of the surrounding community. The campus was designed by LPA, a firm that originated in California but now has studios in Texas, where it has several completed and current projects, including a number of educational institutions.

The new Mueller school’s 130,000-square-foot campus is sited on 10 acres that were once the airport’s runway and is meant to fulfill AISD’s vision of “reinventing the urban school experience,” according to LPA press materials. LPA’s vision reaches a little further; its architects and designers worked with AISD, Mueller developer Catellus, and the city of Austin to create a campus that would also honor Mueller’s aviation history in a sustainable space that allows educators to take an approach that is interdisciplinary, project-driven, and in step with current practices.

The school’s large, wing-shaped roof references the original Mueller airport, as do the gym that resembles an aircraft hangar and the runway-inspired wayfinding graphics throughout the campus.

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The campus, which will serve 800 students who live in northeast Austin neighborhoods as well as in Mueller. It’s intended to serve as a community hub as well, functioning as a park and public asset for the surrounding area. The campus will include a tree-lined promenade entrance, wide sidewalks, pedestrian- and bike-friendly urban edges, and collaborative, flexible learning spaces such as breakout areas, activated outdoor spaces, and technology-rich environments. The central, parklike courtyard will have social learning areas and meeting spots as well as being available for activities and instruction.

A community room, dining commons, library, competition gymnasium, track and field facility, and roof deck will all be community-use facilities. “The design recognizes the importance of planning the campus like a city,” said Federico Cavazos, project architect at LPA. “Our experience in mixed-use developments really helped us combine the goals of the school and community.” The school also creates a strong link with its surrounding, transit-oriented neighborhoods.

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Echoing in particular the Mueller community—the first neighborhood in Texas to earn LEED designation for Neighborhood Development with a Stage 3 Gold Certification—the New Middle School is designed to meet LEED Gold standards as well. All the roofs on the campus will be solar ready, durable and environmentally friendly materials will be used throughout the project, and irrigation will use recycled water only. The design is expected to reduce energy use by 32 percent from a baseline standard.

The process for arriving at the design involved collaboration with a wide variety of stakeholders, as well as meetings with community members, parents, teachers, and staff. “This school is the direct result of a wonderful collaborative process with educators and the community,” said LPA design director Kate Mraw. “AISD really trusted the design team to develop a design that is educationally innovative, environmentally responsible, and contextually beautiful.”

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In addition, the project was developed in a design-build process with Texas-based companies Joeris General Contractors and Coleman Landscape Architects, which made it possible for AISD and others to keep track of estimated costs throughout the design phase.

The New Middle School is funded with money approved in a 2017 AISD bond. Along with Menchaca Elementary School and Casis Elementary, it is one of three school projects funded by the bond that LPA is heading up. The firm also designed modernizations for AISD at Covington Middle School and Lamar Middle School. LPA recently earned its sixth American Institute of Architects' Committee on Architecture for Education award, the industry’s highest honor for school design.

Construction on the New Middle School in Northeast Austin started in August 2021 and is expected to be complete by Fall 2023.

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