Flexible Focus Shapes New School

Efficient space utilization was a key objective for this central Ohio high school.

By Thomas Renner
From the April 2022 Issue

The Upper Arlington School District in central Ohio outlined several primary objectives in the construction of its new $115 million high school. Sustainability was essential, as was the requirement for collaborative spaces. The third goal, in keeping with a trend that started even prior to the pandemic, sought flexibility. Over the past several years, flexibility has become increasingly important in school design. The term refers to more than the physical elements; it also refers to adapting the environment to how students are grouped during the course of the school day.

Studies indicate students perform better in flexible learning environments. A report in 2020 said the approach makes classrooms more interesting, supports learning success, and promotes student engagement, among other benefits. That was the motivation of the Upper Arlington administration and community behind the construction of the 395,000-square-foot school.

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The new Upper Arlington High School houses modern and purposeful spaces for its students. (Photos: Snappy George Photography)


Much had changed since the first graduating class of the previous high school building exited the school in 1957. Included in that inaugural class was legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus, who competed successfully there in basketball, football, baseball, tennis, and track and field.

“Our board and our community felt strongly about sustainability and sustainable practices within the systems,’’ says Chris Potts, Chief Operating Officer for Upper Arlington Schools. “Efficient systems were essential, but we also wanted to create areas that promoted flexibility and cooperation. Our board continued to say we were not going to build a brand new 1950s building. Our thought process was all about preparing kids for their future, not our past.”

Futuristic Approach

As architects from Perkins&Will and Moody Nolan, along with school administrators, worked on the vision for the new school, they traveled around the country to gather ideas. It proved enlightening.

“We looked at higher ed, and we looked at the corporate world—where students will be in the future,’’ Potts says. “We saw what types of spaces they are building, and [we saw] big, wide open flexible places. [There are] places with furniture that can move and be pushed together, and small group rooms for groups of kids to huddle together.”

The previous high school at Upper Arlington served the community well, but did not meet evolving education requirements. “Those buildings were built in the 1950s where it was all about preparing kids for more of a factory model during the Industrial Age,’’ Upper Arlington Superintendent, Paul Imhoff, told ThisWeekNews.com in 2018. “Now, there are collaboration spaces for kids to work together in different size groups on projects and different types of things, which is the real world.”

The cornerstone to the project is a three-story academic building with learning studios for the core subject areas. The building includes dedicated and updated science labs, multiple collaborative areas, and 8,000 square feet of mezzanine space.

Visitors will not find wasted office space. Instead of administration and counseling offices, Potts says the school has “distributed administration” on each floor of the academic area. Assistant principals and counselors spread out across three floors, available to students any time during the school day.

Throughout the entire school complex—the high school is part of a project in which six district facilities were rebuilt or renovated—each office is just 75 square feet.

“We wanted to give learning space to our students and staff,” Potts says. “We don’t need huge offices. We’re all mobile with our iPads and laptops. Many of us will head out into the building and find a place to work.”

Student Spaces Excel

The school does not have a typical cafeteria. “We didn’t want a space that was going to sit around all day and only be used for a couple of hours and then be empty,” says Potts.

It was replaced with “Golden Bear Boulevard,” which reflects the school’s mascot. The space is filled with furniture, and can be used for eating lunch and other purposes during the school day. Golden Bear Boulevard cuts through the heart of the building, connecting academics, the arts, and athletics. “It’s used for study halls, math labs, and other things when we’re not using it for lunch,’’ Potts explains. “It’s a space that’s really flexible and promotes collaboration among all users.”

The building includes a two-story library, gymnasium with a seating capacity for 2,000, fieldhouse, natatorium, and a 6,000-square-foot fitness center. The project also included a renovated stadium and additional off-site athletic facilities.

The district also created areas dedicated to musical and theatrical arts. The marching band exits a practice room that leads directly to the 50 yard line of the football stadium. There are music rooms for the band, orchestra, and vocal musical departments.

Students participating in theater perform in a smaller black box theater and a 1,550-seat performing arts center that will be the envy of area schools.

“It was important to us to give students the type of facility that they deserved,’’ Potts says. “There’s a Broadway style orchestra pit for our amazing orchestra, and sightlines in that facility are incredible. The technology package that went into that facility would rival many of the main performing theaters here in Columbus.”

The performing arts center at Upper Arlington sits in close proximity to the football stadium. To help protect against noise intrusion, workers with Wolfrum Roofing & Exteriors installed four acoustical smoke vents manufactured by The BILCO Company. The vents are 66″x14″, the largest standard product made by the specialty access manufacturer.

Smoke vents are integral to any commercial building project. They protect property and aid firefighters to bring a fire under control by removing smoke, heat, and gases from a burning building. The BILCO vents feature industry-high STC-50 and OITC-46 sounds ratings, and are frequently used in concert halls, theaters, and other applications that seek to limit noise interference from external sources. Engineered Systems of Powell, OH procured the smoke vents for the project.

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In addition to safety, four smoke vents limit outside noise.

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The performing arts center seats more than 1,500 spectators.

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The gymnasium where the Golden Bears play is multi-functional.

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Natural light and flexible workspaces characterize classrooms.

“The architects had past experience with BILCO acoustical smoke vents and performed well,’’ says Gary Henry, Superintendent for Wolfrum. “The theater is near the football stadium, and the vents will help control noise from there.”

A Standout School

Initial steps for the project started in 2015, when the district crafted a long-term facilities master plan to address its infrastructure. Voters endorsed the project on the November 2017 ballot, and a $230 million bond issue was supplemented by a capital campaign that raised $7.5 million toward construction costs and project enhancements.

Besides age, the former school confronted space challenges. The Upper Arlington High School Class of 2021 celebrated 475 graduates—more than double the total students in Jack Nicklaus’ Class of 1957. In addition, education models have evolved. Technology has been a game-changer, and what and how students learn has changed over time.

Now, Upper Arlington has a high school focused on today’s learning modalities. “We’re investing in our children’s future and this high school will serve students for the next 50, 60, and 70 years,’’ Potts says. “It is not the school district’s building, it is the community’s building. And the community has a lot to be proud of after a four year process to design this building together.”

Renner writes on trade industry topics for publications throughout the United States.

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