Building Blocks

Building Blocks

Courtesy LVDA

When designers at Lothan Van Hook DeStefano Architecture (LVDA) set out to design an affordable, LEED Platinum primary school in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood, principal Avram Lothan said they were just as focused on what the project would not be. “If we don’t address the architectural limitations, it’s going to look like a food warehouse off the highway,” he said, noting the prosaic building materials. Tilt-up, precast panels enclose the 61,000-square-foot school on the city’s West Side. “Our goal was to figure out how to make architecture out of it.”

With an elegant metal screen sweeping over boxy volumes of bright color, renderings of Legacy Charter School certainly defy the comparison to utilitarian shoeboxes. The size of the building’s precast panels limited its maximum window area, so the architects aimed for maximum daylight while tightening the building envelope to improve efficiency. There are few windows on the east and west sides of the building, minimizing heat gain and cutting down on duct work for the building’s mechanical system.

The simple design allowed LVDA to shrink the building’s price tag and its carbon footprint, favoring passive systems over expensive add-ons. “The way we get to a LEED platinum building is not to pile on a lot of technology,” said Lothan. “It’s a very nimble project.”

Brise soleils shade the south side of the building. Elsewhere, corrugated aluminum panels and a lightweight metal lattice encircle the facade, acting as a rain screen and passive cooling device, while giving the building some aesthetic rhythm. Legacy is not without modern gizmos. The design includes 6,000 square feet of photovoltaic solar panels on the roof—enough to offset 10 percent of the building’s electricity usage at times.

Noting “a boot camp mentality” at some schools in neighborhoods afflicted with crime like North Lawndale, Lothan said the interiors of Legacy are organized to maximize transparency. Clean sightlines, shared spaces, and an abundance of glass obviate the need for an array of security cameras and metal detectors.

The charter school’s pedagogy calls for universal one-on-one tutoring as a way to improve scholarship and de-stigmatize private attention from teachers among the student body. Enrollment is a manageable 500 students. “The whole curriculum is designed to focus on the individual,” said Lothan. “They treat the children with a huge amount of respect and they expect a lot of them.”