Mid-Century Gym Transformed for 21st-Century Learning

Mid-Century Gym Transformed for 21st-Century Learning

Aging education facilities are an issue for tens of thousands of schools and districts across the United States. The National Education Association reports that half of America’s public schools are more than 50 years old. Private-independent schools are not exempt from this deferred maintenance backlog. As infrastructure deteriorates and space plans become outdated, how can designers help students and educators better utilize their existing square footage?

From Relic to Resource

The Curé of Ars Catholic School in Leawood, Kan., represents a new case study for the cost-effective transformation of mid-century school building stock. The original project scope called for the renovation of an existing 9,000-square-foot gym space (originally the Parish Hall) into a temporary middle school facility. The design team worked closely with the learner community—using tools like the UDL Deck of Spaces™ idea kit—to rework the floor plan and meet their ambitious instructional goals of team teaching, student collaboration, and cooperative group learning. The school seized an opportunity to extend the space’s longevity, breathing new life into a building previously slated for demolition.

From Silo to Community

At first, the rigid 1960s structure appeared to conflict with the educators’ aim to empower middle level students with personal agency and self-direction. However, our design solution positions the building for the future while respecting the existing space’s original wood vaulted ceiling and stained-glass windows. Katie Pohlman and Matt Nugent, with support from other members of the Gould Evans team, delicately detailed each classroom to seemingly float within the existing shell. The remaining spatial voids are activated as new collaboration areas, including a full-size commons to support project-based learning and other variable teaching techniques. These zones are divided by windows and allow teachers to maintain oversight while simultaneously supporting self-directed student agency. In essence the teacher-to-student ratio stayed the same; learning space doubled.

From Double Corridor to Double Efficiency

Replacing space that would function solely as circulation in a typical school with flexible learning environments, Curé of Ars created overlapping uses and realized greater efficiency. These flexible spaces accommodate different types of furniture for different types of learning. This approach was inspired by a visit to STEAM Studio, which empowered the teachers to broaden their vision for what could happen in their classroom and throughout their school.

The Curé of Ars project transformed an obsolete mid-century school facility into a flexible learning environment for the 21st century. Their once disregarded space is now respected for its history—rediscovered during the design process—and its future. The project serves as an example for how aging school buildings can adapt their current square footage to become better stewards of limited funding and finite environmental resources. The school proves that, ultimately, we can find value in the most elusive place—the space we already inhabit.

Stay tuned for future updates as our team measures student success outcomes through post occupancy evaluations