Helen Pierce has spent her life creating buildings for the future. As the design director of LPA, an architectural firm based out of California and Texas, Pierce has focused on bringing sustainability to the forefront of her designs, incorporating off-grid, net-zero and green infrastructure to 57 educational projects throughout her three-decade career.
That includes the designing of Menlo Park’s TIDE Academy — a science, technology and engineering-focused school in the Sequoia Union High School District that won a top award for its architecture earlier this year — among other award-winning projects spanning the Bay Area, including the Los Medanos College student union and kinesiology complex in Pittsburg, and the Agnew K-12 Campus in San Jose. Pierce spoke with the Bay Area News Group about why this type of design matters, and how green design can benefit students throughout the region.
Pierce’s answers were edited for clarity and brevity:
Q: What is a green school?
A: Essentially, it’s a school that uses less resources and is more resilient than a traditional school. They’re built with environmentally friendly materials and (are) more energy efficient, so less costly to operate on a daily basis. And, they’re more resilient for both day-to-day and for long-term use, especially when considering climate change, natural disasters, and other factors.
A green school would also fit into and support community resiliency and community health and wellness. Are the schools walkable or bikeable? Do they create shade? Do they utilize outdoor space, so we’re not overbuilding and creating more things that have to be dredged from the earth? The thing is, it’s getting warmer. We all feel it. So, we’re thinking a lot about having outdoor spaces to supplement what we build, and how to create the spaces that will continue to be habitable and provide shade.
Q: What does that look like in practice?
A: We designed a school, TIDE Academy in Menlo Park, that sits fairly close to the bay. If you look at the models of the bay, it’s going to continue to rise with climate change, and storm surges will start to have effects on the flood zone. At that site, we actually raised the school — the entire site — by three feet as a resiliency measure, helping to lift it out of the flood zone. We raised all the primary electrical equipment another three feet so that if it floods, the school can get back into operation that much more quickly.
Another example is the Agnews K-12 campus, which combines grades pre-K through 12 on a 55-acre site in San Jose. The elementary, middle and high school are all built on one campus and are in very close proximity. Designing the campus gave us a unique opportunity to rethink how we build schools, and how to build them in a cohesive progression from elementary to middle to high school. How do you have a student go to the same campus for 13 years, but still feel like they’re progressing? To do that, we designed each school so they relate to each other architecturally, but differ in terms of the growing maturity of the design.
We really liked the idea that resources could be shared. A student from the middle school could go to a library shared with the high school, and interact with the students there. Staff could collaborate between grade levels. And across all three schools, resources could be made available to everyone. We were able to build less because we were sharing resources more, including the site itself.
There’s also more of the traditional green school concepts: we focused a lot on energy efficiency, working with the landscape and with daylight, the orientation of the building and where the windows were, and planting trees. We made the spaces between the buildings pleasant, habitable and supportive of wildlife, along with providing shade.
Q: How much do these types of schools cost — and how are districts paying for them?
A: I’m not an expert on this, but I know most of it comes from bonds — meaning, it comes from the community.
In terms of how much it costs, that’s a broad range. In very gross numbers, the Agnews campus is about 400,000 square feet of construction and it cost around $400 million. That’s a 55-acre site with a new elementary school, a new middle school, and a new high school, plus all of the athletic fields and everything.
But today, we’re seeing the per square foot costs for new construction in the Bay Area to be very close to $800 to $1,000 a square foot, depending on the type of project it is. And then if we’re modernizing a school — say, building new finishes, new ceilings, new lightings — we touch the building very lightly, and that could be just a couple hundred dollars per square foot.
Q: Why does this type of building matter?
A: I think that frankly, if you’re an architect today, you have to be interested in these things. We all see the effects of what happens when we aren’t — and no one can claim ignorance of not knowing the effects of building and occupying the environment anymore.
We know that where students learn matters. Spaces that are adequately sized, adequately lit, and have access to daylight and views all support student learning and teacher teaching. As you can imagine, if you worked in a cramped space with no windows, you probably wouldn’t show up to work very often. But if you worked in a beautiful office with lots of windows and great views, you’d come into work every day, right? You’d enjoy it, and you’d feel more like a human being.
At a very basic level, the spaces that we all love and enjoy as human beings, that support all our needs as human beings, are the spaces you’re going to learn and teach best in. You’re more likely to show up every day, not get sick, and thrive.
Helen PierceCompany: LPA, Inc.Title: Design directorResidence: Santa CruzEducation: Bachelor of Architecture, Drexel University
Five facts about Helen Pierce1. She studied martial arts for 20 years and holds a black belt in karate.2. She is originally from Delaware.3. She has two unruly dogs and is about to get a third.4. She enjoys playing guitar and singing for those unruly dogs!5. She loves super spicy hot food.