When Old meets New

One of our favorite ways to recognize unique and interesting projects is by awarding architect firms with the Top Block Award, which is given to a project of distinguished design whose primary building material is concrete block.

ArchitectureWorks received the first award of 2020 for their design of Highlands School in Birmingham. The project replaced an aging gymnasium with a new student life center focused on provided wellness and connectedness to the private school campus.

The firm worked with a pre-K thru 8th grade private school on a 12-acre campus located in a residential neighborhood to identify ways to improve their campus. Though land-locked, the school has a buffer of dense forest surrounding the core buildings. After a master planning process in 2015, the firm worked with the school to develop the first phase of improvements to the campus.

“By the summer of 2017, we’d identified the scope of the new building and were able to start construction in the fall,” said Jessica Bennett, associate architect with ArchitectureWorks. “We worked hard to stay within budget, and total time was around two years from start to finish.”

The existing campus gymnasium was aging and did not engage the campus’ beloved quad, so she worked with the school to create a new facility. In addition to replacing the gym, the building also included a new lunchroom with commercial cooking kitchen, four new classrooms and support spaces, and informal student gathering spaces.

Concrete was used throughout the design, mainly in the gym and storm shelter area. The school also boasts polished concrete floors which hold up well in a school environment.

“We love the durability of concrete,” said Jessica. “Kids can be hard on surfaces and rather destructive, so the use of concrete was especially important in the gym and the storm shelter on the backside of the gym. It was the obvious choice.”

The overall vision was to provide a space on the campus focused on the wellbeing of the students, where fitness, nutrition, and education can coexist. The new building opens to the rest of the campus through a series of large porche, with some of the porches facing the quad while others open to a rocky outcrop that defines the edge of campus, creating outdoor classroom spaces.

“We really tried to keep things open to the site and to feel like it had always been there,” Jessica said. “It fits perfectly with the existing landscape, and has a great feel to it.”

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