Our first insight on vertical schools described why some jurisdictions are electing to construct multi-story school buildings. This post will explore how three different areas - Manhattan in New York City; Washington, DC; and Arlington, Virginia - are building "up", not "out".

In the last installment, we discussed how the current shift in the U.S. population from far-flung suburbs to the urban cores is affecting land availability and value. Our very own Carl Elefante, FAIA, FAPT, LEED AP BD+C 2018 American Institute of Architects President and a principal at QEA, recently wrote in Architect magazine that this trend toward urbanization is one of three key "threshold moments" for architecture in 2018. In order for schools in increasingly urbanized areas to keep up with growing enrollment, some tough programmatic and financial decisions need to take place. 
The second installment will present solutions used by three different school districts to balance the competing requirements of classroom and recreational space when the building footprint is limited. These precedents cover a range of densities we see in much of today's built environment, and particularly in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. 


Perhaps the most extreme domestic example of the need for schools to go vertical can be found in the New York City borough of Manhattan. With a population density of over 69,000 people per square mile, the borough is the densest area in the country.* 
A majority of Manhattan schools lack any outdoor space but this does not necessarily preclude school-sponsored physical education programs and recreational opportunities. Schools in Manhattan often leverage the island's many parks and recreation centers in addition to any on-site spaces such as the gymnasia, dining halls, or rooftops; the students' "gym" can encompass the entire island of Manhattan with its many resources. 

Aerial photograph with labels showing 16 K-12 schools within four blocks of Central Park.

Washington, DC

In the Navy Yard area of Washington, DC, Van Ness Elementary School reopened to students in 2016 with a new vertical addition. The school, which sits within a tight urban block, was transformed by QEA’s design team from an underutilized administration building into a 21st century learning facility. Unwilling to sacrifice either a ground-level outdoor play area or an expansion to house arts and music programs, the client opted to expand vertically, placing the new media spaces on top of the existing gym and cafeteria. 
With a population density under 10,000 people per square mile, Washington, DC is not as space-constrained as other cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, and still contains many low-rise  schools in areas farther from the downtown core. However, as the city’s population continues to grow, an increasing number of schools in the District will be forced to build “up” and not “out.” 

An aerial photo of the Navy Yard neighborhood with the site of Van Ness Elementary School highlighted.
An exterior photo of Van Ness Elementary School from the street.
An exterior photo of Van Ness Elementary School from the playground.

Arlington, Virginia

With a population density of just under 8,000 people per square mile, Arlington County (along with the City of Alexandria and Fairfax County in Virginia as well as parts of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland) falls into a new category of suburban communities that are rapidly approaching the same density as the “urban” area they support. As student enrollment in these land-constrained areas increases, their school systems are presented with a challenge. 
Working with Stantec, QEA is tackling this challenge head-on at the Arlington Career Center. This existing campus currently houses a variety of programs, including a Career & Technical Education program and a neighborhood elementary school. A recent decision by the county school board concluded that this site should be developed further with a new high school program, which will provide 700 to 800 high school seats. 
Because of the site’s constraints, the space requirements for the  schools' robust programs, and the likely resources for the community , the only way to accommodate the additional high school seats is to build “up.” Given that the campus is located in a traditionally suburban neighborhood, engaging the community is necessary so all stakeholders fully understand the decisions being made and the reasons behind them; the key to a successful school project in any neighborhood is to listen and learn. A  robust community engagement process will serve as the foundation for the project. Now that the site planning process has taken shape, the team is considering the best way to organize a building that has traditionally been horizontal with long corridors and minimal use of stairs. 

An aerial photo of Arlington with the site of the Arlington Career Center highlighted.

How to Go Vertical

In the next installments  of our Vertical Schools Insight series, we will elaborate on the spatial organization methods involved in the design of stacked school buildings. We will also cover important  topics such as circulation, operations, safety and security, and joint-use or shared facilities, as well as sustainability and green design in multi-story school buildings. 
*To be precise, Manhattan is the densest area in the U.S. with a land area greater than 1 square mile. The DC suburb of Friendship Village is denser at almost 82,000 people per square mile, but has a land area of only 0.06 of a square mile. All statistics per the 2010 Census. Reference