New school gets metal skin
February 2012 - When the design team of HMC Architects, Los Angeles, and Coop Himmelblau, Los Angeles, the architect of record and designer of record, respectively, took on the task of designing a new campus for the Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts, they faced a series of daunting obstacles during the six-year project. One of the biggest was how to create a functional and elegant structure for a project beleaguered by limited public funding, says HMC principal and executive architect Gary Gidcumb. The shape, lines and surfaces of the buildings needed to reflect the new school’s educational focus on the performing arts while making an impact in an urban setting perched on high ground just off an expressway. The design team initially considered concrete but found a sustainable, cost-effective solution in stainless steel.
“The school’s focus on the arts made it unique,” says Gidcumb. “The location also was very prominent. Historically considered one of the highest spots in LA, the site’s Grand Avenue address was very visible off the highway and connected to what is called the arts corridor for downtown LA. Our design included three main cultural elements—a conical shaped library, a multi-angled lobby and a canted tower topping the school’s theater—with irregular shapes that made use of concrete too costly. Stainless steel was the more economical option, but we wanted to create cladding to give life to the structure.”
The result was an innovative stainless steel panel system that could be adjusted in the field. The steel skin also provided a durable, scratch-resistant, easy-to-maintain surface.
Flexible stainless steel
HMC Architects specializes in the design of educational buildings and has become a leading firm for this market in California because of its ability to combine high-end designs with a unique knowledge of building codes and functional requirements. The project required 73,000 square feet of sheet metal panels tailored to incorporate different applications such as perforations and layered systems of glass. The irregular surfaces of the structure meant the fabricator (CMF Inc., Orange, Calif.,) had to adapt the panels in the field to accommodate non-standard measurements while meeting consistent margins.
“With a publicly funded project like a school, you don’t get the chance to build it twice,” says Gidcumb. “If the team didn’t get it right the first time, it could be 30 years before the school would be able to bring in someone to make modifications.” According to Gidcumb, the fabricator was able to reposition the backs of the fasteners on the panels to adjust to changing dimensions. The tower, a sloped, canted structure, narrows as it moves up. The irregular shape required panels to be modified so they could be laid in an elliptical fashion at an angle. Shingled, interlocking steel panels gave the library’s conical shape a smooth surface while the lobby, which connects to one of the primary classroom buildings, took on a more crystal-like shape.
“When you are dealing with structural steel tolerances, it’s fairly easy to maintain those tolerances with conventional structures,” says Gidcumb. “But when the form itself is irregular, keeping specified margins becomes very challenging. You could consider a surface covering like plaster but you couldn’t achieve the same quality of finish that we got with the stainless steel. We were able to use painted metal cladding in other areas like the lobby and arts building to achieve a finish that could be easily repainted if it suffered graffiti.”
The 238,000-square-foot campus opened in 2009. It rises from the ground like a modern sculpture with contrasting surfaces and irregular angles that lead the eye to the tower. Perforated stainless steel panels with ¾-inch holes create an interesting play of light during the day and illumination at night.
“The perforated panels promote a sense of light and air to what could be a pretty heavy, chunky mass,” says Gidcumb. “The form is more crystalline at night, reducing the weight of the structure significantly. The play of materials gives the school much more than just a flat surface.”
The campus is comprised of four small learning communities: dance, theatre, music and visual arts and houses 1,700 students. The design team’s use of stainless steel, aluminum and neoprene composite helped the school score 41 points on the Collaborative for High-Performance Schools test, a LEED-analogous points scale for California educational buildings. LEED is the U.S. Green Building Council’s category for use of renewable and recycled materials. “No material is perfect,” adds Gidcumb, “but for the value you get from stainless steel, it performs very well.”
For Gidcumb, the payoff was seeing the play “Peter Pan” performed in the new school’s theater. “I had a chance to see these kids use a facility and resources that helped them put on a professional-quality play. They got to experience the use of tools and practice skills they may choose to use later in their adult life. It was wonderful.” MM