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Rebuilding for the Future

The devastating tornado that struck Joplin, Mo. in 2011 destroyed the city’s high school but not its spirit. This is the story of how a resilient community and some fast-moving designers transformed a former big-box store into a 21st century learning space for displaced students.


By Dave R. Macaulay | Photography by Alistair Tutton Photography

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At 5:41 p.m. on Sunday, May 22, 2011, the world changed forever for residents of Joplin, Mo., when a catastrophic F-5 tornado swept through this city of 45,000 residents. With winds topping 200 mph and stretching more than a mile wide, the powerful storm killed 161 and destroyed over 25 percent of Joplin, including 7,000 homes and nearly 2,000 buildings.

Among the wreckage stood a badly-damaged Joplin High School (JHS), which had served 2,200 students just before the disaster. The loss of the revered building was a heavy blow, and as the city began its arduous recovery, the JHS administration and school board wondered: What about next year?

Creating an interim high school fell to Corner Greer & Associates (CGA) of Joplin. Their task? To transform a vacant retail space at the north end of Joplin’s largest mall, once occupied by a Shopko department store, in time for the new school year’s start on August 17th.

Chad Greer, AIA, of CGA invited DLR Group to supplement his staff with their expertise in K-12 architecture and 21st century school design. In turn, he served as the project architect. “My job was to facilitate discussion with the school district and user groups, and deal with the city since we were under emergency orders from the governor, while also coordinating our efforts with FEMA and the Corps of Engineers,” he recalls.

Designers and contractors had just 55 business days to complete the new space, so CGA and DLR Group went to work immediately after Memorial Day, outlining a program for the big-box store through paper sketches and CAD drawings. The team engaged high school staff and students, administrators and other stakeholders through brainstorming sessions, and they set up a command center—dubbed the “War Room”—in one of Joplin’s undamaged middle schools to further collaborate with district personnel.

What emerged were dramatic new ideas for a 21st century learning environment, spurred on by necessity and far removed from the classic double-loaded corridors of the old high school, originally built in 1957.

“The district was already aware of the concept and agreed this interim school could serve as a true ‘incubator’ to define different types of teaching and learning spaces,” says Kevin Greischar, AIA, principal with DLR Group. “Yet administrators also wondered, ‘What exactly does 21st century education look like?’”

The design team soon realized the 95,000-square-foot space had its limitations: there was no room (or time) for a gymnasium or auditorium; the kitchen and science labs had to be housed in modular trailers outside the building; and classroom size would be severely constrained. So the Joplin School District chose instead to use the interim space only for juniors and seniors (approximately 1,100 students). Freshmen and sophomores would be sent to Memorial High, a district building near downtown that also escaped the tornado’s approach.

Integrated design was critical to meeting the 55-day goal. First, the project team focused only on materials, finishes, lighting and other systems that were readily available. To expedite the process, says Greischar, “all contractors needed to be present at all times. Every day we would issue a new set of drawings. The sequence of construction started to drive the information we needed, which then drove our processes.”

As a result, classrooms and common areas feature pre-finished drywall. The use of MDF introduces richness and warmth to many interior spaces; likewise, super graphics displaying the school’s eagle mascot were employed throughout to create interest along the corridors and bring a touch of spirit to the facility.

As completed, the colorful interior layout utilizes ceiling and carpet tiles for improved acoustics, and high-efficiency lighting to compensate for the lack of windows and daylight. This college-like environment is based on two major bisecting corridors, with a core of classrooms down the middle and six community spaces at each end.

Studios serve the purpose of classrooms. They include moveable walls, allowing classes to merge and giving teachers the flexibility to move out into adjoining open spaces as needed. These collaborative areas blur the lines between classroom, circulation and study/independent space; it is not uncommon to see teachers and students working out assignments, moving seamlessly between lecture and tutoring. They become social hubs as well.

Info-Links provide immediate access to shared workstations and high-definition monitors. Here, students can collaborate, plug in and recharge, or display what is on their laptops as part of project-based learning. Students can also schedule time in one of several glass-enclosed Think Tanks (conference rooms) located throughout the space for group assignments or quiet time.

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