Education Blog

Students break ground at new school

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Mineral County Miner

Posted: Thursday, May 29th, 2014
By Lyndsie Ferrell

CREEDE—The Creede School joined representatives from Neenan Company and Consilium Partners for a celebration and groundbreaking ceremony on Thursday.

Ominous clouds stayed at bay long enough for the ceremony to take place before moving in from the west. Creede students gathered around to hear about their new school. Brand new shovels were placed around the area to be used for the groundbreaking part of the ceremony. School Board President John Howard spoke to the crowd, “As I have said from the beginning of this project; we don’t need a new school. We need a new building to put our great school in. We already have a great school.”

The new building will be what is called a 21st Century school. The idea was to bring fresh air, natural light and green energy into the plans to enhance learning and take full advantage of the beautiful landscape surrounding the school.

Modern day technology will be placed throughout the building allowing learning throughout the halls, classrooms and other facilities. The school will be self-sufficient and run mostly on recycled energies, such as solar power. The building design has been drawn according to the needs and wants of the community.

Mineral County Commissioner Scott Lamb said, “This is a great day for the county, kids and the community.” The excitement of getting started emanated from the crowd as shovels were passed around and everyone took a turn digging into the soil that would soon become the new school. The children stepped forward and were able to participate in the groundbreaking as well.

Construction on the school will begin in June and should be finished in August of 2015.

For the complete article see the 05-29-2014 issue.

What’s the Buzz around Neenan?

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As a new school year begins and summer winds down, we wanted to share a few of the projects that The Neenan Company was awarded over the past few months. All of these projects have very tight schedules, requiring Neenan’s integrated architecture and construction staff to jump right into design and get started. The projects range from a small renovation to a new $30 million hospital, check out the highlights below:



Start – November 14, 2013

End – January 8, 2015

Size – 60,000 square feet

Type – Healthcare, Rural hospital

Location – Prineville, Oregon

Description – Currently in the design phase, the health care campus project for St. Charles Health System, will replace their current facility, Pioneer Memorial Hospital, and will be renamed as St. Charles – Prineville. The new facility will be slated as a Critical Access Hospital and will feature an Emergency Department, imaging and laboratory services, two surgical suites, 12 inpatient beds, a retail pharmacy and more.


Senior Center

Start – October 21, 2013

End – May 26, 2014

Size – 14,000 square foot addition

Type – Municipal, Community center

Location – Fort Collins, Colorado

Description – The City of Fort Collins Senior Center expansion is currently in the design phase. At this time, this public project is working to raise funds through a campaign committee. The project consists of an expansion of the current Senior Center, located on Raintree Drive in Fort Collins, Colorado. The new project will accommodate the ever-expanding senior population, and will house fitness and wellness facilities for the users of the center and will also add additional parking spaces.


Ridgeview Classical School

Start – June 3, 2013

End – August 30, 2013

Size – 7,600 square foot renovation

Type – Education, Charter school

Location – Fort Collins, Colorado

Description – Currently in construction, Ridgeview Classical School is a public K-12 Charter School, chartered through Poudre School District. The challenging renovation was initiated due to growth in the school. The renovation of the stand-alone building will provide six additional high school classrooms and a conference space.

Carrying out small by design school spaces

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In 2011, we wrote about Big Ideas for Small Schools and the small school movement. Mapleton Public Schools’ small by design educational model is one where greater attention to students and increased choice on the part of students and parents, ultimately leads to greater academic success. This educational model was translated into school facilities at the Skyview Campus and our design team created dynamic spaces to intentionally serve the students, here’s a few:


Clayton Intervention

Specialized intervention spaces were developed throughout the building to encourage small group learning and individual assessments.  These transparent spaces provide a window into the development of children while encouraging staff to learn from each other.  Providing locations throughout the building allow for ultimate flexibility.


Project Center

A campus library, utilized by all schools, encouraged Mapleton Public Schools to transform a traditional library within each building into a project center.  Sharing the space between two schools increased flexibility and allows for multiple uses.  Maximizing day lighting, providing a connection to the outdoors and furnishing the project center with flexible furniture allows for presentations, book studies, robotics, painting, individual study and community meetings.   The project center became an integral piece of each school.


Clayton Classroom Extension

In collaboration with the design team, Mapleton converted every square inch of each of the new spaces into usable learning environments. Circulation space is designed to become an extension of classrooms for team building, group meetings and peer to peer development.   The space is at the end of a hallway that connects two wings of the single facility.  This large space transforms into a hub for learning.   Daylighting from large windows increases student comfort and provides connection to the outdoors.  Hard surface flooring and flexible furniture allow for changing activities.


MESA Multi-Use Space

Every space is a learning space. Integrating the large interior classroom windows throughout the corridor encourages students to take their learning beyond the walls of their classroom, while still providing visual control and supervision. MESA students learn through the arts, this learning style formed the building design. Hard surface floors are integrated for multiple activities, walls are covered with self-healing tack boards to encourage display of student art and adjacencies were designed with other subjects, further encouraging connection and collaboration between subject areas.


The attention to the detail, both large and small, at Mapleton Public Schools enhances learning at every turn.  Students within the District have fabulous spaces to learn and grow thanks to their small by design model.

Improving student performance in Alamosa

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Beginning in the fall of 2011, students filled the hallways of the new Alamosa Elementary Schools for the first time. The project began as a way for the school district to improve academic performance and developed as a way to blend traditional culture with 21st century opportunities.

Student comfort and performance guided the design of these 72,500 square foot schools. Through design work sessions with the staff and community, the Neenan design team developed a variety of teaching spaces, display areas, kid niches and community areas.  The buildings are broken down into components reducing the scale for young students. Inside the school, textures and vivid colors of the surrounding environment inspire and invigorate the students and staff. Nearly every space has daylighting and outdoor views, which is proven to increase student achievement.

Did these innovative designs actually impact educational outcomes in Alamosa?

We asked the elementary school leadership, this question and were excited to learn their answers. They noted several academic celebrations since their move into the new facilities:

•  Outscored the state in reading and math in 3rd grade assessments

•  Growth increase in 6out of 10 academic areas

•  Closed the gaps for the English Language Learners faster than the state average

•  Student attendance rates are above 95%

•  Influx of parents who participated or were  involved in parent engagement activities that included concerts, academic nights (reading/math), and physical education activities

•  Staff attendance was at an 95% yearly average

•  Gave 100% of our students “proud moments” and an academic award for individualized citizenship and academic achievements

A building cannot teach, but the environment will influence the learning that happens.  By focusing on the children as the client, we created a space where students want to learn and do learn.

As a result of the superior education outcomes, the Alamosa School Campus was awarded the 2012 Merit Peak Award from the Rocky Mountain Region of the Council for Education Facility Planners (CEFPI). This award recognizes K-12 projects with an outstanding planning process, learning and physical environment, and community involvement.

Alamosa Design Team: Ann Marie & David

Embodied Energy and the Built Environment: An Interview with Brian Dunbar

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As part of our blog series on Neenan’s collaboration with the Powerhouse Energy Institute, we recently had the opportunity to speak with Brian Dunbar, a LEED Fellow and Executive Director for the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University on the topic of embodied energy.

 Professor Brian Dunbar (Image courtesy of CSU)

The Institute for the Built Environment was created in 1994 as an inter-disciplinary, research based, group of faculty, students, and off-campus professionals with a mission to foster stewardship and sustainability of the built and natural environments through inter-disciplinary research and education. The Institute often consults on sustainability and green building and has trained over 1000 professionals on green building and LEED through its outreach programs. Here is what Brian Dunbar shared with us on the topic of embodied energy.

Q: How would you describe the relevance of embodied energy to design and construction today versus 10 years ago?

“Some in the engineering and design profession caught on to the concept over 30 to 40 years ago during the energy crisis. I think it became a relevant topic then but it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that the conversation ramped up with increased interest in energy modeling and material selections in projects.”

Q: Who are leading thinkers and doers with regards to modeling and quantifying embodied energy in the built environment and construction industry as a whole?

“A government agency, NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) created BEEs, which have been around for 20 years to try to quantify embodied energy in materials in production and manufacturing. Then there is a private group called the Athena Sustainable Materials institute based in Canada, looking at building systems for embodied energy. NREL (National Renewable Energy Lab) in Golden, CO has also furthered the concept of embodied energy. And, SOGES (School of Global and Environmental Sustainability) at Colorado State University has brought together like minded individuals such as Keith Paustian and his work with the Carbon Footprint Group Metric Group, who are recognized researchers in carbon emissions in natural environments and are now translating their work to the built environment.”

Q: What role do entities like the Institute for Built Environment, the newly formed National Academy of Environmental Design, and the USGBC have in furthering discussions of embodied energy as it relates to the built environment?

“What we need very quickly is a heightened awareness and education. We’re in need of hard data that comes in a readily usable form that built environment professionals can use to make informed decisions about embodied energy on projects. USGBC has helped to further the conversation yet there is a lot more to be done. There are few credits that address embodied energy in the USGBC’s LEED system, for example. But we also need tools and resources that are user friendly so project teams can decisively implement the concept of embodied energy in their project decisions.”

Q: How do you see industry rating systems like the LEED rating system and Cradle-to-Cradle assisting in informing the public and industry professionals about embodied energy in the built environment?

“LEED and related systems have done a remarkable job of bringing so many different sustainable building concepts to the minds of the project decision makers. Now we need to think about how and where embodied energy will be a more relevant and pertinent part of the decision making process once the rating systems more overtly define embodied energy as a central part of that process and put it in front of design teams.”

Q:  Finally, what trends do you see emerging around the concept of embodied energy?

“What I have begun to see, thanks to the USGBC and many other partners, is an overall effort towards transparency. There is a growing nucleus of professional leaders pushing for radical transparency where design professionals and industry leaders open their books and show us what is in that product or material. Then embodied energy will be part of a transparent and open materials selection process. I think we will see a growth in materials transparency and selections for design systems and I am anxious to see this process grow to the point where industry leaders consistantly demand more informational transparency as well.”

As you can see, from our discussions with Professor Dunbar, a lot of good work has been done, but more needs to happen. We would like to thank Brian for his time and insights, not to mention his continued efforts to improve the built environment. So what do you think the future of the embodied energy topic in the built environment will be?

Bill Petersen


Emerging technologies, emergent design:

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We have seen, through the rapid democratization of technology over the last 10-15 years, an increased access to computing power, manufacturing advancements and shared knowledge for a growing segment of the global population. These advancements in access to computing power and knowledge sharing have enabled individuals and businesses to also develop their own ideas and technologies. The World Economic Forum, for example, has created several initiatives that enable individuals, groups and organizations to utilize design and emerging technologies to develop their own creative solutions to the pressing issues we face.

With a laptop, rapid prototyping technology, and 3D printing, individuals can now design custom components for replacement parts, develop their own ‘backyard’ R&D company to solve unique problems and share those technology advancements with the larger world. At the same time, universities and industry are developing nanotechnologies to create new materials that have the potential to impact the built environment with superlight building materials that are stronger and use less material than ever. These materials also outperform today’s technologies.
Architects and designers are also applying integrated design methodologies to design carbon neutral buildings that push the envelope in sustainable design and material applications across a wide variety of project types. The Pixel building by Grocon in Melbourne, Australia for example, captured headlines earlier this year with its carbon neutrality, vacuum toilet system, anaerobic digestion system and water self sufficiency. The building also features “pixelcrete”, wind turbines, a living roof and tracking photovoltaic roof panels.

Photo: Gavin Anderson

Such advances in technology and methodologies enable building professionals to design, develop and deliver more advanced building solutions. These solutions provide clients with greater efficiencies, project specific customizations, better performance, and lowered fabrication costs while minimizing the material demands and environmental impacts.

Which emerging technologies and methodologies will you apply to your next project?


Bill Petersen, Jr. AIA

Playing While Learning Together

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Today’s classroom designs reflect an on-going evolution in how teachers and schools communicate necessary knowledge, critical thinking and applicable problem solving skills to students.

ES Classroom - The Neenan CompanyHowever, school design remained largely unchanged until the last decade. Prior to the Internet and growing interactivity of learning materials and knowledge, classroom environments and design reinforced and reflected a very top-down approach to teaching. Many of these learning environments were designed to purposely focus the students’ attention towards the instructor located at the head of the classroom, dictating knowledge to students for rote memorization with rigor and discipline. Space making and school design were inherently designed to be hermetically closed environments in which the students were confined for their day’s lessons. Instructors were also disinclined to encourage non-hierarchical learning methods.

Interaction and interactive learning was unknown and underdeveloped until the early 2000s. But as learning curriculum and delivery platforms have rapidly evolved in the last 5 to 8 years, school design has changed considerably in response to conflicting requirements of evolving school curricula. One primary concern has emerged — how to provide safe, secure learning environments and school communities separate from the larger community, while at the same time create and design schools that are beacons of community involvement, interactive learning, adaptive space use and rapidly changing technology and content platforms? Architects, contractors and education professionals must now balance these conflicting and seemingly disparate needs into a singular built environment that fosters evolving methods of community-based, collaborative learning environments, as well as individual learning opportunities.

Contemporary school designs are responding in creative ways that foster non-traditional learning spaces and environments outside of, and complementary to, traditional school hierarchy and classroom design. These new designs create break-out spaces for impromptu learning opportunities, quiet window seating and outdoor space for individual learning, as well as interactive spaces for group play and collaborative problem solving and learning.

As the internet, digital media and interactive learning continue to evolve and become more prevalent in classroom and school environments, school design must continue to evolve and provide adaptive and transformative spaces that can serve the current and future needs of students, educators and communities. Schools are fast becoming the incubators of creative learning methods with collaborative approaches to knowledge gathering, playing by learning, and community-based curricula.

What do you think the future shape of learning and of our schools will be?

William G. Petersen



Reframing Sustainable Design in Education and Healthcare

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Since 2008, the rate of construction for new public buildings, hospitals and public schools, has lagged significantly due to its capital intensive nature. What has this lag meant for sustainable design? What will the continuing yet slow economic recovery mean for sustainable design in the healthcare and education sectors specifically?

1. A wide view. Healthcare and education decision makers need to take a wide-view approach on how to achieve long-term goals such as, reducing life-cycle operating costs, attracting high-quality staff and faculty,  as well as improving patient wellness and student learning. Reducing capital investment expenses for improvements with the least amount of expenditure and expense to investors and/or tax paying citizens, remains a top priority. This set of conditions, coupled with federal and state governments formulating and enacting tighter energy codes and enforcing compliance, means sustainable design will continue to be a necessary part of the design equation.

Elementary school addition in Edgard Louisiana

2. Keep pushing the envelope. While many in the construction industry see the benefits of sustainable design, healthcare and education decision makers are often still reluctant to commit to building LEED certified buildings. Lagging unfamiliarity, perceived expense, and time involved with the certification process combined with stakeholder doubts, can undermine the pursuit of sustainable design. But, rapid improvements in applied technologies, planning strategies and sustainable design can also focus decision maker attention on developing capital project solutions that meet the growing demands of stakeholders and occupants for healthier buildings with lower long-term operating costs.

Children’s Hospital Addition in Birmingham, England. Photo by Elliot Brown.

3. Think adaptive reuse. Growing numbers of sustainable design projects in both healthcare and education  show increased benefits for building occupants that encourage decision makers to embrace sustainable design. It is now common to see projects that implement sustainable design goals without necessarily seeking LEED certification. Instead, these projects make use of other metrics to meet long term sustainability goals that decision makers set for their project. In a recovering economy where decision makers find it difficult to repeat the “Bilbao-effect” of a few years ago, many are addressing capital improvements needs through additions, adaptive reuse, and renovations of existing building stocks. Adaptive reuse in particular (2010 study), has enabled education and healthcare decision makers to continue improving operating goals with less-capital intensive projects over the lifetime of the institution, while also implementing low-cost technologies and passive strategies to existing building stocks. In the U.S. and abroad, design professionals, industries representatives, and academia are actively integrating sustainable design across disciplines to address the growing need for sustainable design solutions.

Nokia Headquarters – Adaptive Reuse in Sydney, Australia

In summary, sustainable design is no longer just a marketing trend. Instead, it provides a serious design methodology and framework that can be utilized by decision makers to help deliver healthier buildings in a market with tighter construction budgets and schedules, increasing construction costs, rising energy prices and climate change impacts. As a result, sustainable design continues to improve and inform the design process to deliver buildings serving the long-term goals of decision makers and provide better working, living, and learning environments for all.

How will you embed sustainable design into your next project?

William G. Petersen
Images by author except where noted.

What Does A School Do? Online vs Physical Environments

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Good contemporary design embodies the notion that the built environment has both measurable and intuitive effects on the well-being of occupants. In an educational context, architecture shapes the destiny of students via comfortable, interactive, healthy spaces. These interiors must then be filled with committed teachers and teaching tools to create a school. Ideally, the building and its human inhabitants operate in harmony; but in many circumstances, this is not the case. What happens, for example, when grade-school education goes online and is separated from its physical architecture?

Online programs are gaining accreditation and popularity with mixed results, begging the question of what does a school really do. Indeed, accountability for school performance typically comes down to test scores, rather than health or emotional outcomes. Add to this that different theories of education can make student achievement difficult to define and the metrics for evidence based design get fuzzy. According to Neenans Director of Strategic Planning, Julie Stanek, the motto that a good teacher can teach anywhere obscures the impact of design on student achievement. Its also a notion that puts a lot of extra pressure on teachers, even as learning takes on a more student-centered approach.

Knowledge today is highly transferable electronically. If its true that a good teacher can really teach anywhere, then the combination of internet-enabled intellectual exploration and online curriculums should be a winning combination. But learning still occurs in space, and the individual spaces of online students still seem to have a dramatic effect on the success of those programs. Recently, for example, Education Week was critical of online schools, quoting one student who said technology problems kept her from starting classes until September and the social isolation quickly convinced her that online was not a good fit.

Given the nature of school funding, this question is not just grounded in academics. Colorado is struggling with the problem of defectors from the online space returning en masse to their brick and mortar institutions after yearly funding allocations have been doled out on a per student basis, per location. The drop out rate of one in eight is also pretty grim. Finally, test scores for online learners vary, causing school performance statistics to also range widely.

Proponents of online learning say that its a fantastic tool for students in specific circumstances. According to one online gradeschool education provider, their system is designed for struggling students, advanced learners, homeschoolers, military or overseas kids, elite athletes and performers, and homebound children–all learners whose physical space differs from your usual ones. There is also an opportunity to create much broader learning communities that span geographic boundaries. All of these points make a lot of sense. Its hard to argue that a student who cant physically get to school should be denied educational opportunities, or that a gifted student shouldnt get credit for distance learning. The messy part comes when for-profit online institutions recruit heavily from student populations that do have access to conventional education.

Human interaction is a critical part of the learning process, which is facilitated differently by the internet and by architecture. A building can do things that a computer cannot and vice versa. Learning online puts particular onus on the student to be self-motivated, whereas being in a classroom creates a physical channel to direct education. On the other hand, the internet offers limitless possibilities. The fact is, we learn different lessons in different spaces. So, If you had the chance, how would you direct learning space priorities and dollars?

Image credits: Svadilfari, arneboell, ModernDope

Daniela Morell

Spatial Inspiration for Greatness Meeting Local Needs at Miami-Yoder School

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Even in these times of intense globalization, communities remain places with strong individual identities and distinct local needs. A community’s schools, places where students bring their hopes and dreams to be molded into the decision-makers of tomorrow, reflect these identities and needs. Good schools are designed to fit local needs. Sometimes community needs are addressed by providing nutritional assistance or full day kindergarten. In high crime areas, good school design means using academics to provide a sense of safety and worth. In drought-prone places, it can mean designing schools with responsible water management techniques. For all schools however, it means addressing local environmental issues. In the Miami-Yoder School District in Rush, CO, the biggest community need was designing a new school that communicates hope.

Today, the Miami-Yoder School has a new Neenan-designed LEED Gold facility with plenty of daylight, a new library, interactive whiteboards, and space for useful vocational skills learning, like welding or agricultural mechanics, in addition to traditional academics. Morale is up and absenteeism is down. But it wasnt always this way. For decades, students were stuck in modular classrooms with rotted out floors. In this lower income community, the school was tight on money, spending every last penny on maintenance. It was not a place that inspired students. So Superintendent Rick Walter took the school bus to see how students lived. He discovered desolate and desperate terrain. Kids did not believe they deserved nice facilities, or that the State of Colorado cared about them. He decided to change this with a building of which the whole community could be proud. Enter Colorado BEST funding, and the rest is history.

While only time will tell the ultimate output of hope, so far the building is working its charm. Hope in education is a means to a higher quality of life, says Neenan architect Andy Goldman. Spaces such as the cafeteria, and high school locker commons, are not just functional, they are designed to convey a sense of respect for the students. Such human-centered design is grounded in studies that show how classrooms incorporating natural light actually improve test scores. Not only that, Goldman adds, Higher ceilings and skylights create a sense of openness and breathing room. There are places for students and staff to congregate, to linger, and not just be rushed from one cell to the next. 90 percent of educational spaces at Miami-Yoder have enough daylight to conduct class without electric light, providing environments where all occupants can be more attuned to their bio-rhythms. The result has been increased student morale, marked not just by attending school but excelling there Goldman reports.

It also helps that the school has a naturally active design layout. Due to the physical constraints of the site, the school is long and skinny. Students and staff move from one room to the next throughout the day, which is good for getting the body moving and blood flowing to the brain.

The Miami-Yoder School is just one example of an academic facility that can inspire hope. Im sure weve all felt academic aspiration at one time or another, from walking onto a manicured university campus or stepping into the cool air of a new computer lab. Where have you felt inspired by space to greatness?

Image credits: The Neenan Company 1, 2, 3, 4