When the city of Gary, Indiana decided that they wanted to develop the property where the Charter School of the Dunes sits on Lake Michigan, the charter school’s board needed to find a new home for the school. Fortunately, they found another site situated on the lake. Unfortunately, the site rests between a freight rail line, a parking lot, and a busy highway: not exactly a conducive environment for a school with a mission to teach students environmental consciousness. Further complicating matters, the cash-strapped charter school board had budget of only $8 million for the project.
The Chicago office of the architecture and engineering firm CDM, led by senior architect Eric Davis, took an innovative, no-frills approach to address both the site and budgetary constraints. The sandy site cannot take the weight of masonry. In response, Davis’ design uses lightweight reengineered building systems, particularly insulated metal panels clipped onto a metal frame. Normally, these panels run vertically and the frames run horizontally. Davis, who has been designing schools since the 1980s, knew that horizontal girts make an enticing ladder for young climbers. By flipping the composition onto its side and running the panels horizontally, the ladder disappears, and the direction of the window frame captures views of the surrounding landscape.
The building’s three volumes turn their back on the unsightly vistas via a horseshoe layout that opens up on the wetlands and the lake beyond. A simple shed roof pitches upward, leaving a generous wall on the courtyard side. Reinforcing the wetland and lake palette, Davis chose green, tan, brown, and blue from standard panel color choices.
“In some cases, it’s pattern-making, and in some cases, it’s strategic,” said Davis.
He noted that the windows in classrooms for the smaller students are placed at their eye level. Dark charcoal bands at the top act as solar collectors that preheat the makeup air before it reaches the furnace. A garage door in the gym/assembly room opens up to the grasslands, and a portable stage can move out into the dunes. Davis said he takes the trinity of “reduce, reuse, recycle” seriously. All of the panels are demountable with bolts, rather then welding. The intent is for the school itself to act as a teaching tool and lab for conservation.
“The kids in Gary face a lot challenges,” he said. “I think this school helps them see things beyond their immediate community. There’s something of a display before them. We’re turning the school and the environment into a much more hands-on experience than they’re used to, rather than feeling that this world is foisted upon them.”