Location: 309 East 103rd Street, New York, NY 10029, USA
Design Team: Shannon Bambenek, Kees Brinkman, Kathy Chang, Steven Chen, A.B. Moburg-Davis, Marc Gee, Peter L. Gluck, Bethia Liu, Jill Reinecke , Elaine Sun, Stacie Wong
Area: 27800.0 ft2
Photographs: Erik Freeland, Theo Morrison
Structural Engineer: Robert Silman Associates P.C.
Mechanical Engineer: Rodkin Cardinale Consulting
From the architect. “Our dream was to have a space that showed we would defend our families’ interests [and] had a soaring ambition for them and ourselves… In a democracy, we believe that … shared spaces, not private dwellings should be the most beautiful in our lives… There is a hush when people enter here… an intake of breath when one realizes that this is really how things should be.”
- Ivan Hageman, Co-Founder and Head of School
The East Harlem School is an independent, not-for-profit, year-round middle school (grades 4-8) that recruits students from low-income families in East Harlem. The school provides scholarships for all enrolled students. It is the first independent school to have been built in the Harlem community in decades. The new 27,800 square foot building, completed in the Fall of 2008, allowed the school to triple in size to meet the urgent educational needs of the neighborhood. The school is committed to maintaining an intimate cohort of students, in which each is recognized as an individual and as a contributor to the community.
This dual purpose is echoed in the design of the building. The lower floors, which are linked by a formal public stair visible from the street, contain public spaces: a large cafeteria, gymnasium and entrance lobby. These floors are sheathed in translucent, acid-etched glass through which the daily activities of students and teachers are visible from the street. The upper floors contain classrooms and other academic spaces, which are veiled by a composition of windows and panels of varying colors and degrees of reflectivity. This fabric-like screen marks the sheltered isolation needed for the serious work of learning, study, and discipline that goes on in those spaces. As part of the pixelated façade, window openings are placed in relation to interior planning rather than imposing any formal exterior logic. Corridors were also conceived as informal rooms, to allow casual teacher-student moments to occur outside the classrooms. By programming in multi-use purposes for circulation spaces, it de-institutionalizes the hallways and gives a sense of place.
Considering the school’s future, we worked to maintain a level of flexibility throughout the building. The rooms are able to be reconfigured to accommodate the changing needs of the school as its pedagogy evolves. The long-span structure design with deep lateral beams, allows all the classroom walls to be non-structural partitions. The concentration of the mechanical ductwork and equipment in the corridor ceilings also provides flexibility in configuring the space from the corridor out to the façade, front and back.
The school had an extremely tight budget caused both by the high cost of construction that plagues inner-city schools, the project’s timing at the height of the building boom and the fact that its site was within the 100-year flood zone. The foundations required complicated friction piles to anchor the building to keep it from floating, and complete waterproofing of the lower floors. Instead, the cellar slab was raised to be just above the water table, making the first floor 3 feet above the sidewalk. This raised first floor required a ramp from the street to comply with regulated accessibility requirements, but it also created a path for the students’ arrival to school, allowing the Head of School to monitor the morning procession from his office perch.
Our office acted as both architect and construction manager in an Architect Led Design Build (ALDB) process, providing a level of intensive quality control and substantial cost savingsat every stage of the project. This dual role allowed us to fully participate in the construction process and involve the manufacturers and sub-contractors in the development of the design. By engaging the actual players in relation to their specific area of expertise, we were able to creatively partner with vendors. In one example, our partnership in product design with a locker manufacturer resulted in the production of a new, custom locker design at the standard price. Streamlining the construction and procurement process resulted in final costs significantly lower than the Guaranteed Maximum Price, allowing for quality upgrades to stronger and more durable finishes and over half a million dollars in savings returned to seed the school’s endowment.