Back To School in Los Angeles

Back To School in Los Angeles

Better late than never. After completing a multi-billion dollar school building program that produced what even some of its administrators admit was fairly conservative architecture, the LA Unified School District decided to abruptly reverse course when devising prototypes for both new schools and replacements of its thousands of temporary classrooms. The district, under the leadership of an ambitious new facilities director, even went back to the drawing board after its initial short list to find more compelling proposals.


The result: largely prefabricated, kit-of-parts schemes from local firms Hodgetts+Fung, Swift Lee Office (SLO), and Gonzalez Goodale. The designs—which can be built quickly, cheaply, and en masse— range in size from 6,000 to 30,000 square feet and will be flexible, sustainable, and easy to maintain. The district plans to build four to five projects to start, and if that goes well could be doing many more. The designs meet the needs of a district which—its close to $20 billion in bond monies mostly spent, and its staff reduced drastically— is now forced to do more with less.

“The opportunity to do something like this was always there, and we knew it, but no one was willing to do it,” said Gloria Lee, principal at Swift Lee.

The LAUSD currently has about 9.300 temporary classroom buildings. While built to the district’s standards, most are drab, aging, out of character with their neighboring schools, and falling apart. Their replacement came up as part of the district’s large master planning effort. The larger architectural prototypes could also serve as new schools, libraries, or recreation centers.

After an initial RFP in June the district narrowed down a list of 80 designs to a short list that LAUSD Special Facilities Project Manager Brianna Garcia calls “very straightforward and box-like.” But then top district officials decided to broaden the list to include more ambitious proposals. The winning designs were chosen in December. The designs will cost from $270 to $400 square foot to build, estimated Garcia.


“We thought what we had was a bit too conservative. We were convinced that we should bring in new ideas,” said Richard Luke, LAUSD Deputy Director of Planning and Development, who admits that the district’s recent wave of schools were hemmed in by their incredibly fast turnaround schedule. In order to encourage smaller firms to enter, the district also removed its usual pre-qualification requirements. The effort to innovate has been pushed by the district’s Chief Facilities Executive, James Sohn, who came from the LA Community College District and replaced director Guy Mahula just over a year ago. “James is looking for all kinds of ways to do things,” added Luke, of the director’s push for innovation and efficiency.

Hodgetts + Fung’s smaller prototypes, measuring about 6,000 square feet, will have ultra-light prefabricated fiberglass roofs and flexible modular composite walls with fiberglass skins. The roofs will be slightly curved (like surfboards) to provide more structural stability, not to mention a very unique, swooping profile. Their panels can be easily changed to accommodate custom designs, and will also include a unique rotating system of solar panels to maximize solar exposure.  Units will be lit by clerestory windows and skylights. The modules can be joined together for expansion and laid out in an endless amount of configurations.

“I can’t believe they’re letting us do this,” said Hodgetts, who points to the prefabricated, off-the-shelf, industrial-style systems as part of a great local tradition started by the likes of Neutra and Eames. “It’s a no-brainer. It’s so easy to build and replicate. A five year old could do it.”


“We’ve never built anything with a fiberglass roof,” added Garcia, who still sounded a bit amazed.

SLO’s design is the most eco-friendly of the bunch. The two-story, 25-30,000 square foot buildings, which can be used to make anything from 24-unit classroom buildings to libraries, will have a rigid steel moment frame exo-structure complemented with a changeable inner structure that will allow for very flexible floor plans. Their patterned steel skins can be clad with varying panels; from steel mesh to vegetated screen walls, allowing from climate control and visual variation.

The firm is hoping their modules will be net zero, which would be a first for the district. Their mechanical systems would include electronically-controlled fresh air intake, no refrigerant, and undersill units that minimize footprint and allow for the structures to be opened up with courtyards other public spaces.

“We want more air, more light, and a low environmental impact. It will teach students about science, technology, and environmental responsibility,” said SLO principal Gloria Lee.

Gonzalez Goodale’s scheme is a modular shell structure with a sloped roof and prefabricated glass curtain walls, maximizing light and airiness. The prototypes can be re-organized in several, adapting to changing sites and educational models. They include concealed solar rooftop panels that magnify light to a single point to be about twice as efficient as normal solar cells.  They’ll be clad with rigid frame rain screen shells that will provide insulating air spaces, and can be metal, plastic, or any material the district chooses, pointed out firm principal David Goodale.

“We might pay a little more to develop the prototypes, but after we finish a few it will be much cheaper and more flexible than your typical fixed building,” added Goodale.

“They all provided something that works for us and is really new and different,” said Garcia, who noted that the work on the prototypes would begin immediately. Luke said the facilities department was trying to secure at least $64 million from owed state construction funds for the new prototype effort. Future funding could come from recently-passed Measure Q, a $7 billion measure going to school modernization. Those funds won’t be available until 2014.

Meanwhile the goal now, said Luke, is “to stay focused an build.” Hodgetts, for his part, still feels like he’s dreaming. “It feels so good to finally realize something with this character,” he said. “This is the kind of thing we’ve wanted to do for years.”