Phelps High School: Building a School of the Future

In 2006, Phelps High School sat vacant and in disrepair. Once an anchor of Washington, DC's vocational education program, the historic campus played host only to passing vagrants and gathering dust.

Just 16 months later, the campus reopened as Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School, the first public high school in the nation to offer both college-preparatory and vocational education programs exclusively dedicated to the design professions and construction trades.

How did this school go from out-of-step to avant-garde? The answer lies in a breakthrough approach that can serve as a model for any district looking to create a school of the future.

Design/Build on a 16-Month Schedule
At the beginning of the project, the district laid out a dramatic challenge: renovate the entire Phelps campus in only 16 months from the first design session to the first day of school. Meeting the schedule required an "all-hands-on-deck" philosophy that took advantage of the design/build approach.

"With this project, we blurred the line between architects and contractors," stated Owner-in-Charge Ed Schmidt. "The architectural team painted trim and details; contractors assisted with design recommendations to save time and add value throughout the process."

Innovative construction measures helped maintain the historic feel of the campus while saving valuable time. Additions were constructed using tilt-up concrete walls with inlaid brick. This approach allowed new construction to take place in weeks rather than months, while still projecting an image worthy of the historic campus.

LEED Silver
As a school for students interested in architecture, construction, and engineering, Phelps is helping to train the next generation of "green-minded" professionals. "We are not just teaching young people a trade," said Adrian Fenty, Mayor of Washington, DC, in an article in The Washington Times. "We will teach them to learn, work, and appreciate green-collar jobs."

To maximize the impact on the learning process, designers focused on using sustainable principles as teaching tools. Students can monitor the building's renewable resources, including photovoltaic solar arrays, wind turbines, and a geothermal cold water loop. The greenhouse, horticultural labs, and gardens are maintained by cisterns and indigenous plantings. In just a few short months, Phelps will be one of the first LEED for Schools certified buildings in the DC area.

High-Tech Instruction
But sustainable design isn't the only exciting thing happening on campus. Stroll down the hall, and you'll see Phelps students working on everything from the latest CADD systems to heavy equipment and crane simulators.

Working with the American Institute of Architects and other professional organizations, the design team created an environment that supports project-based and collaborative learning. Renovations turned the 1930s and 1970s structures into modern work environments, complete with drafting stations, wireless connectivity, and plotters.

The building itself even gets into the act. Every inch of Phelps is designed to serve as a teaching tool, including exposed building systems that provide examples of best practices in construction. To see a variety of masonry techniques, students only need to visit the courtyard. To view different floor patterns, they take a trip down to the two-story commons.

Ed Schmidt said that the focus on the use of the building as a teaching tool caused many team members to go above and beyond during construction. "One electrical contractor went so far as to rip out his own work because the exposed electrical conduits weren't perfectly aligned."

$20 Million Savings
As a result of the fast-track approach, not only was Phelps ready for the first day of school, it was also delivered for almost $20 million under the district's original budget.

But the $20 million figure only begins to touch on the school's value to the community. The school receives almost 100% of its energy from renewable resources, allowing the district to invest funds elsewhere. It also serves as a local resource. The campus will be used on a regular basis for adult education classes, community events, and even wedding ceremonies.

Historic Preservation
While Phelps features a forward-looking approach to education, renovation efforts also established connections to the past. The original 1930s buildings were restored, including the preservation of exterior brick, interior and exterior woodwork, interior slate, and terrazzo floors. Many of the original steel and wood windows were restored for use on interior walls.

As a result of this balanced approach to planning and design, Phelps has received almost universal praise from community members, students, teachers, and the design industry. PBS's Nightly Business Report called it a school of the future. American School & University honored the building with its Crow Island Citation.

But the real success of Phelps can be found in its popularity among students. Although district enrollment has been declining in past years, Phelps is drawing students from the charter school population as well neighboring communities in Maryland.

"This futuristic school marks the launch of a new era of high-tech construction instruction in the District," said Mayor Fenty during opening day ceremonies. "Phelps graduates can look forward to well-paying jobs that can't be outsourced and trades that can never be taken away."