Joplin, Missouri

After a deadly tornado tore through Joplin, Missouri last year on May 22, leveling the town’s high school, district officials pledged to be ready for the regularly scheduled start of the academic year—less than three months away.

Principal Kerry Sachetta never doubted that school would start on time. But, he anticipated makeshift conditions at best.  “I thought we would have rickety chairs and 20-year-old text books.” Instead, 1,100 juniors and seniors now attend class in a smartly renovated former department store at a local shopping mall. Freshmen and sophomores, meanwhile, are using an early 20th century school building that previously housed teacher development programs.

To direct the transformation of the 96,000-square-foot space from big-box retail to interim campus, administrators called in national architecture and engineering firm DLR Group and Joplin-based architect Corner Greer & Associates. Before the tornado, the district had been reviewing the team’s submittal for a proposed middle school. “We needed manpower and design expertise fast,” explains Angie Besendorfer, assistant superintendent.

With a budget of just over $50 per square foot, funded primarily by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the designers were fortunate to find the decade-long vacant store in good shape. It was free of the problems that often plague unoccupied structures, such as water penetration and mold. The project team also determined that the mechanical system could adequately serve the building’s new use.

Working within the existing shell, the designers developed a scheme that incorporated concepts new to the district, such as classrooms clustered around a common space and connected to each other with sliding doors­—an arrangement intended to encourage collaborative teaching. The school also has many spaces where kids can socialize or study in small groups, including a student-managed café.

One minor problem with the school is a lack of acoustical separation between adjacent spaces. Such a separation would have required partitions that extended all the way to the roof slab and costly modifications to ductwork, explains Jim French, DLR senior principal. However, on the whole, the design has proved a resounding success, earning high marks from students and faculty. Many of the strategies tested in the interim campus, including the flexible classrooms, will be repeated in a permanent high school that DLR and Corner Greer are now designing. The building is slated to open in August 2014.

ARCHITECTS: Corner Greer & Associates, DLR Group

BUDGET: $5.5 million

CONTEXT: A former department store was transformed into an educational campus after a tornado destroyed the town’s high school.