Architect Tom Hatch Talks School Design

Acton Academy broke ground on its new campus in East Austin on Oct. 15 and will open in summer 2013. The two-building, $3 million campus at 2201 Alexander Ave. encompasses 15,600 square feet and is located adjacent to Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s MLK train station. The general contractor is American Constructors and the architectural firm is Hatch+Ulland Owen Architects.

Acton Academy is a private school for elementary, middle school and high school students, which incorporates Montessori and Socratic teachings.

The Austin Business Journal asked Tom Hatch, principal of Hatch+Ulland Owen about the project and other educational designs the firm has done.

What are some of your other school projects?

I have designed both public and private schools and have found that as many changes are now incorporated into both, they are often still mired in the philosophy of production education with a teacher at the head of the classroom, with primarily one-way communications. The more progressive schools, especially Acton, are focused on the individual strengths of each child, using an inspirational program in which each child teaches themselves, replacing teachers with guides and benefiting from older students as mentors in the same space. This approach harkens back to the one room schoolhouse, with space that is large enough and flexible enough to accommodate many forms of learning and communicating, not the least of which is the Internet’s wealth of educational advantages.

H+UO has designed a number of both private and public schools here in Austin, a new charter K-12 school in Houston, has worked with the Dripping Springs Independent School District, as well as a one-room schoolhouse in Terlingua, Texas. The scope varies from completely new campuses to major additions and remodeling, to multi-story downtown schools, to unique mixed-use projects housing educational facilities.

What were the most important features of the Acton project?

The most important feature of Acton, our latest education project, is the open floor plan, dictated by Acton’s unique and nationally honored curriculum. The floor plan can be very easily converted into three to five different learning environments, and the children participate in this ongoing design process. There are also no separate rooms for teachers to get away from the children. The classrooms have lots of windows to learn from what might be happening outside, as opposed to the old school ideal that children shouldn’t be distracted by what is going on outside. The school is very connected to its neighborhood, green spaces and Austin’s light rail, so the children can learn from our sweet small city.

What was the most challenging aspect of the Acton project?

After land search and acquisition, the most challenging aspect of Acton Academy was adhering to the city of Austin’s Transit Oriented Design Standards and Site Development requirements while keeping the project in budget.

What sets school design apart from other architectural genres?

Every architectural genre should respect and celebrate its surroundings and the local and global environment, express its function, budget, and client’s wishes while creating and elevating the built environment. Good school design should not only embrace the aforementioned, but be totally focused on the needs of the learners, by creating flexible environments that respond to the unique needs of each child. Every child is a genius in his or her own special way.

From the outside visual standpoint, how do the Acton buildings fit in with existing environment?

The latest Acton campus fits into its environment by respecting and complimenting the scale, materials, and forms of its surroundings while taking on the forms of a traditional schoolhouse of yesteryear.

Schools are often a centerpiece of a neighborhood, but primarily public schools. How is Acton going to fit in from a design perspective and is it accessible to the public?

Due to its scale, Acton will likely be viewed as the jewel of the neighborhood as opposed to being its grand centerpiece. The one fenced area will be to the rear of the campus so that it will be a very welcoming school with its storefront component on Alexander Avenue likely housing a coffee shop which can be part of the high school curriculum.

What kinds of unique materials will be used on the Acton project?

In the interest of keeping the project close to its budget, most materials and systems selected and used are quite conventional such as stucco, garage doors, rainwater collection systems, exposed wood trusses, wood flooring, with much more than a nod to green building.

When will the project be delivered and who is the contractor?

The contractor is American Constructors. They have been incredibly resourceful in keeping the project green, buildable and within the budget. The school is planned to be open in August 2013.