Rebuilding the Foundations

by Robert Nieminen

“Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity.”

We here at Interiors & Sources are no strangers to misfortune. In 2008, when our home office in Cedar Rapids was hit by a devastating flood and our headquarters was beneath 5 feet of water, the question wasn’t whether or not we would rebuild—it was “how will we do it better?”

Armed with the knowledge of the numerous benefits inherent in sustainable design, our parent company, Stamats, decided to pursue LEED Silver certification for our revitalized, 30,000-square-foot facility last year. It is now a distinction that we wear as a badge of honor.

So when we were in the process of selecting the projects to feature in this issue, two of them immediately stood out to us because we understand all too well the heartache of loss and the resiliency it takes to rebuild after tragedies, such as those that struck the towns of Joplin, Mo., and Vernonia, Ore.—or most recently, Moore, Oka., which occurred just as this issue was headed to press.

In the aftermath of the F-5 tornado that devastated Joplin in May 2011, the school district, faculty, administration and parents moved quickly to find a temporary home for students for the coming school year. As contributing writer David Macaulay reports in our feature article, that process happened in just 55 days, with designers and community members transforming an old department store at the north end of the city’s biggest mall into a comfortable, flexible new space for 11th and 12th graders.

A new high school for Joplin, which the district and design team at CGA Architects/DLR Group are calling a “21st century school environment,” is now under construction and will be completed in 2014. Not only is the interim school a feat in planning and design, but it serves as the template for the permanent high school.

Perhaps lesser known by media standards but no less tragic was a devastating flood in 2007 that severely damaged all of the schools in the small town of Vernonia. The new Vernonia K-12 campus is a complete replacement of the previous school, situated on higher ground and designed to function as a hub and civic center, with over 50,000 square feet available for community use. Because of the town’s strong connection to the natural environment, a high priority was placed on sustainable design, and the project is expected to achieve LEED Platinum certification. Read our story on this amazing project here

In stories like these, we rediscover that education—the focus of this issue—isn’t just about well-designed spaces or even curriculum, for that matter (although they are indeed critical). As most people who have endured the effects of a natural disaster can attest, it’s a sense of community that often buoys our spirits and inspires us to rebuild what was lost—to reinvest in our future, which is ultimately what education is all about.

Of course, these days, any discussion about the future can’t be had without mention of sustainability, and rightfully so. What is sustainability if not ensuring that future generations have something to inherit? Part of that insurance policy involves making sure we aren’t contaminating the very basic element that gives us all life: the air we breathe. In one of two Green Notes articles in this issue, Dr. Melinda Burn explores the topic of indoor air quality in our schools and argues that formaldehyde-emitting adhesives can have a big impact on IAQ. The good news is that new options promise to help clear the air and make life a lot easier for architects and designers.

In the second Green Notes article (and in the spirit of our focus on learning), sustainability expert Holley Henderson, founder of H2 Ecodesign, shares some insights from her 2012 book, Becoming a Green Professional (Wiley), offering those of you who are interested in becoming a sustainability expert some tips for navigating the sometimes murky waters of sustainability consulting.

Lastly, be sure to turn to our profile of the second-annual I Like Design student internship contest winner and finalists. This year’s crop of finalists developed some standout concepts in response to the challenge issued by Gresham, Smith and Partners, where our winner will be spending this summer working as a paid intern.

I don’t know if Aristotle was right as far as prosperity is concerned, but when faced with hardship, I think the halls of education are a great place in which to take shelter.