Inside Chico High’s cutting-edge classrooms

New structure puts students first and uses energy efficiently

For nearly four years Rick Parks (left), project manager during construction of the new classrooms, worked closely with Mike Weissenborn, facilities planning and construction supervisor for the Chico Unified School District.

For nearly four years Rick Parks (left), project manager during construction of the new classrooms, worked closely with Mike Weissenborn, facilities planning and construction supervisor for the Chico Unified School District.

Photo By Robert Speer

The first requirement of any school classroom building is that it be able to take abuse. Picture a herd of kids tromping down a stairway, and you’ll understand why.

Beyond that, though, what other qualities should go into designing classroom buildings? That was the question Rick Parks and his fellow architects at the DLR Group offices in Sacramento tried to answer when they were selected to design a new, 30,000-square-foot, 18-classroom building at Chico High School.

Specifically, they were looking for a way to create a structure that put the needs of students first while being as energy-efficient as possible.

They’d been designing such buildings for some time, following the best-practices guidelines developed by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that provides resources to schools, school districts and professionals seeking to make school buildings better places to learn as well as more efficient.

But no two schools or school buildings are alike, and the building at Chico High presented unique challenges.

Over the Thanksgiving break, when the campus was empty, I took a tour of the newly completed building—teachers began moving in a month earlier—with Parks, who was project manager on the CHS project, and Mike Weissenborn, who is facilities planning and construction supervisor for the Chico Unified School District.

The structure, which was constructed by Modern Building Co., of Chico, has two stories and two wings. In fact, it’s really two buildings joined by a short upstairs skyway. They sit parallel with each other, about 15 feet apart, on an east-west axis but staggered so that they overlap only partially.

The larger of the two—the main wing—abuts West Sacramento Avenue, presenting an impressive bank of angled north-facing windows to the street. The more westerly wing, which is set back from the street, has similarly large windows on its south side.

Parks explained that the need was for a structure that would complete the building layout that surrounds the large square, or quad, in the center of the school. It also needed to harmonize with the rest of the school’s architecture, to look new and modern but blend in with buildings that are decades older.

The buildings aren’t lavish, but they’re attractive and highly functional. “We tried to make it about good architecture, not fancy buildings,” Park said.

In talking with students early on, the DLR team learned that they wanted the structure to have a strong entryway and a commons space inside. The result is a small plaza in front of the main wing that leads into a large, two-story, glassed-in room with a tile floor, like a large foyer, that can be used for a variety of student purposes.

The classrooms are designed to use natural light. The windows are large but set high enough to minimize distractions. The views of West Sacramento Avenue, for example, show the houses and trees across the street but not cars on the road or people walking on the sidewalk.

The classrooms are equipped with sensors that automatically increase illumination on cloudy days and shut off the lights when the room is empty Restrooms have motion-activated lights.

There’s a solar array on the roof, and the buildings are equipped with an AC system that chills the air with water before it reaches compressors that pump it into the building through floor-level vents. It spreads across the floor, becomes warmed by students’ bodies, then rises, lifting pollutants with it, and is filtered out. The system is also able to “flush out” the rooms with cool air at night.

Overall, the buildings use just two-thirds as much energy as conventional school buildings, Park said.

During our tour, we found science teacher Brad Gripenstraw busy setting up his room. He’s assigned to one of the three science labs in the new structure.

“I’m really liking the natural light,” he offered. In fact, he liked pretty much everything about the new room, with a couple of exceptions: There was no place for a file cabinet, and the sinks were too shallow and splashed.

The shallowness of the sinks was due to an Americans with Disabilities Act requirement that students in wheelchairs be able to reach all the way into them, Parks explained. He acknowledged that the lack of a special place for file cabinets was an oversight.

The structure cost about $12 million altogether, Weissenborn said. About half the money came as a result of bond Measure A, which voters approved in 1998 to finance construction of a new high school in southeast Chico.

Difficulty finding a useable plot of land for the new school held up construction for several years, and by then the district realized that a decline in the number of projected high-school students had made the school unnecessary. In a controversial action, district trustees voted not to build the school and to use the money instead to upgrade the existing high-school campuses.

The good news, Weissenborn said, is that in the case of the classrooms the district was able to leverage the Measure A money to attract a $6.6 million reimbursement from the state’s school building program—in essence, getting the new building for half-price.

Asked how the students have responded to the new building, Weissenborn replied, “Oh, they just love it.” Many of them pitched in to help move boxes from old classrooms into the new ones, and “you could see them just beaming,” he added.