"Main Street at Montgomery Blair High School serves the same purpose of Main Street in a small town, in that it is the primary way to access all major storefronts of that town."
Montgomery Blair High School
After more than 10 years of studying, debating, meeting, planning, designing and finally construction, Montgomery County Public Schools has opened the doors to the new Montgomery Blair High School, replacing a dilapidated and severely overcrowded facility originally built in 1933. The new and improved high school covers 378,000 square feet on 42 acres and is designed to serve a capacity of 2,800 students.
Montgomery Blair High School was a controversial project from the start. The site itself created several design challenges, first and foremost the design of a safe facility along a major freeway on the outskirts of Washington D.C. (Refer to the section below titled Site Problems.) The surrounding community was a source of controversy as well, concerned that a new high school would congest the neighborhood and that there would be too many teenagers "on the loose." And yet another source of controversial discussion came from neighborhood churchgoers, expressing their concerns that a large high school would dwarf their classic, steeple church located across the street.
With these concerns and others, the job of the design team grew, helping Montgomery County Public Schools officials work with the community so that Montgomery Blair would be a win-win for its students and the community. Demonstrating a sensitivity to the concerns of the community, architects designed a tiered high school so that its front, directly facing the neighborhood, would only appear to be one story. In actuality, the school is three stories. This provides a tiered and layered effect for an appropriate transition from the community to the school.
Second, addressing community concerns of congestion, the design team worked with the Maryland State Highway Administration and the Montgomery County Department of Transportation to widen and redesign the two roadways adjacent to the site, easing the flow of traffic. This included designing three separate parking areas and drives, one each for buses, students and staff. Also, the communitys worries regarding teenagers "on the loose" were alleviated by designing a closed-campus with several enclosed courtyards for students to use during lunch periods.
This not only addressed the communitys concerns, but by minimizing the need for students to be outside the building, aside from extracurricular activities, the design also addresses the districts concerns for student safety. Architects used a "Main Street" concept to virtually eliminate outdoor student traffic while providing a space for appropriate congregation of students via this main hallway. Main Street at Montgomery Blair High School serves the very same purpose of Main Street in a small town in that it is the primary way to access all major storefronts of that town. Main Street at MBHS allows access to all major areas of its town. This three-story Main Street corridor, however, raised several critical design challenges based on goals set by the on-site design committee, including how to best locate the media center so that its main entrance would feed conveniently from the main corridor. The media center is now the schools central anchor along Main Street. The on-site design committee also called for a large commons area where students could easily access their lockers and socialize with other students during their free time. For these reasons, architects designed this long corridor with walls that playfully snake in and out, offering a fresh look in stark contrast to traditionally flat, white walls. These curving walls provide natural congregating spaces where the walls snake out. Most of the schools lockers are located along Main Street as well.
Incorporating the districts math, science and technology magnet school within the high school was also a crucial design requirement established by the administration. To accommodate the magnet school the design team organized classrooms by subject area. Math, science and technology were mainly located on the third floor and half of the second, with English and language arts on the remainder of the second floor. In addition to classroom location, designers had to blend all of the elements of the magnet school and the high school together to get common use of areas such as the media center, auditorium, cafeteria/student activity center and technology. Integrating the magnet program with the remainder of the school population was a primary focus of the school as voiced by the students in the program.
As with any multi-million dollar school construction project, staying within budget can be a difficult task. With construction costs ballooning during construction, the design team, construction manager and the owner quickly realized that on its current path the project would exceed budget limits before completion. In this case, there was simply not enough money to cover any costs exceeding the budgeted amount. Architects put their pencils to the paper and looked at ways the district could reduce last-minute construction costs and came up with several solutions, including; re-engineering the sound wall separating the site from the Beltway; substituting concrete masonry block for much of the exterior brick which is normally associated with higher labor costs; using stamped sheet metal instead of picket railing on the stairways; using vinyl composition tile on the schools main corridor; and substituting drywall and impact-resistant panels for masonry on the third floor. These adjustments to the original plans combined to save the district more than $2 million, enough to ensure that the project would be completed under budget. These cost controls allowed for additions to the program, including theatrical lighting in the television studios and an auxiliary gymnasium.
Since opening this fall, Montgomery Blair has been featured frequently in the local media. Each time, the stories and pictures focus their attention on the schools brilliant colors, innovative design and open spaces. The creative use of turquoise ceiling tiles in lieu of traditional white, the curving deep red walls along Blair Boulevard, and the mix of several other warm colors throughout the facility are just a few examples of the designers creativity and innovation featured by the local media.
Finally, if there were one aspect of Montgomery Blair High Schools architectural design that stands out the most, it undoubtedly lies in the weeklong, on-site design process facilitated by the architectural firm. The architects met with teachers, students and administrators who would be working in the new high school and acted as their pencils and paintbrushes to put down on paper the spaces they saw in their minds. The architects came to the table with a blank page and allowed the major stakeholders in the school to become its designers. "The architects were the vehicle that made our dream come true," said Phil Gainous, Principal of Montgomery Blair High School, in an interview with a local newspaper. "The main hallway, dubbed Blair Boulevard, was named and designed by students. This idea for an area where kids could come together and congregate came from the students. We all had input into the process. Were really proud because its our building."
Program of Requirements & Solutions:
REQ = Requirement; SOL = Solution
REQ: Improve adjacent roadways to ease the new high schools impact on traffic congestion in the neighborhood.
SOL: Worked with Montgomery County Department of Transportation and the Maryland State Highway Administration to widen and redesign the two roadways adjacent to the site, easing the flow of traffic. This included designing three separate parking areas and drives, one each for buses, students and staff.
REQ: Be sensitive to the neighborhoods concerns about having 2,800 teenagers "on-the-loose."
SOL: Designed a closed campus in which student would not feel closed in. Used a "Main Street" concept to provide plenty of space for students to gather between classes, during lunch, and before and after school. Also designed several courtyards for students to gather outdoors while remaining inside the school.
REQ: Design a high-tech, state-of-the-art high school without imposing on the older, established look of the surrounding community.
SOL: Architects designed a tiered high school that would nestle into the community so that its front, directly facing the church and its surrounding neighborhood, would only appear to be one story. In actuality, the high school is three stories.
REQ: Dont detract or take away from the traditional look of the classic steeple church across the street.
SOL: In addition to the tiered design mentioned above, designers decided to complement the front elevation of the church by designing a similar front entry to the school. As a result, Blair High Schools entry looks remarkably similar to the churchs, steeple and all.
REQ: Incorporate the districts math, science and technology magnet school into the designs of Montgomery Blair High School.
SOL: Designers clustered subject areas into neighborhoods, including math, science and technology on the third floor and half of the second, with English and language arts on the remainder of the second floor, and electives and fine arts on the first floor. Blending the elements of the magnet school and the high school for common use by all students was achieved by linking math rooms directly to science, computer and technology labs that could be used by both programs simultaneously.
REQ: Make safety a top priority during the design process.
SOL: As each portion of the building was designed, questions concerning how the design would affect student safety were posed. The closed campus "Main Street" concept is the core solution addressing the safety issues concerning the schools design.
REQ: Use the "Main Street" approach to design safe student traffic flow between classes.
SOL: Main Street provides clear visibility to see nearly the entire student body between classes, facilitating administrative supervision during these brief periods when trouble is most likely to occur.
REQ: Locate the media center so that its easily accessible to all areas of the school.
SOL: With guidance from the on-site design committee, architects made the media center the core of Montgomery Blair High School, the central anchor of Main Street.
REQ: Provide plenty of natural light in every classroom.
SOL: Although windows are easy to include in classrooms on the outer wall, designers decided to cut large, square courtyards in the schools design so that every classroom could have windows and access to natural light.
REQ: Separate the noisier areas from the quiet academic areas.
SOL: All noisy areas are located on the first floor along Main Street, including the cafeteria, fine arts, athletics, electives and other extracurricular activities. The quiet academic areas are located on the second and third floors.
REQ: Design neighborhoods for each of the major programs, including English and language arts, math, science and technology, and fine arts and electives.
SOL: Generally, the third floor and part of the second are dedicated to math, science and technology; English and language arts are located on the remainder of the second floor; and fine arts and electives are located on the first floor.
REQ: Creatively design core spaces in the building to serve multiple purposes, including large student assemblies. The design committee wanted more efficient use of large square footage areas, such as the cafeteria, which is typically only used during breakfast and lunch hours.
SOL: Addressing this design requirement, architects incorporated a tiered-level cafeteria to allow for easy conversion into an assembly area, whether for guest speakers, programs or student assemblies. When seating is arranged for an assembly, the cafeteria/student activity space can accommodate the entire student population in only two sessions. By designing a tiered-level cafeteria, the space has been divided into different levels, or pockets, which students are encouraged to use as study areas during the spaces off-peak hours.
Although a 750-seat auditorium provides another premium assembly space, what would the principal do if he wanted to assemble the entire student body? The architects found an answer. In meeting the design requirement for a gymnasium with three regulation basketball courts, the architects decided to incorporate a large assembly area into that space as well. Designing the basketball courts side by side allowed room for large retractable bleachers in the gymnasium. When pulled back to the wall, all three courts could be used by staff and students. However, for large assemblies or basketball games the bleachers could extend over the two outside courts, leaving center court open for the program. This design accommodates the schools entire student population.
REQ: Provide plenty of gathering space for students between classes and on lunch break.
SOL: Use the "Main Street" concept to design a corridor with curving walls and lots of bright colors to create a pleasant environment where students would want to gather. On Main Street there is ample space for students to mingle, in addition to several courtyards where students can gather outdoors while remaining within the school building.
REQ: Provide ample work space for teachers and staff.
SOL: Architects designed individual teacher work stations in the work rooms located on each level of the school. The work stations include desks, storage spaces and file drawers.
REQ: Separate bus traffic from student and staff traffic.
SOL: Architects included separate drives and parking for school buses, students and staff, as well as visitors, to ease the impact on traffic the school would have on the neighborhood.Site Problems & Solutions:
Type of Construction: