A select group of Washington, D.C., ninth graders have started classes at the city's new $63 million Phelps Architecture, Construction & Engineering High School, known as PACE. A hybrid of trade school and college preparatory school, PACE offers an introduction to architecture, engineering, and construction as well as training in subspecialties like computer-aided design and drafting, interior design, brick masonry, and heavy-equipment operation. In a school district that is 95.4 percent minority-the highest in the nation-PACE promises to add diversity to the future AEC workforce.

  • The entrance to Phelps Architecture, Construction  Engineering High School, photographed this summer as the renovated building neared completion.

    Credit: AGC of DC

    The entrance to Phelps Architecture, Construction & Engineering High School, photographed this summer as the renovated building neared completion.
Although PACE is publicly funded through tax dollars, local organizations stepped in to get the school's building renovated and its curriculum developed in record time: 14 months, from inception to completion. The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), which received a U.S. Department of Labor grant several years ago to pilot education projects nationwide, became involved through its D.C. chapter, which wrote white papers to persuade city officials to back the project. (The grant has run out, but chapters across the U.S. continue to pursue education initiatives, says AGC director of workforce development Liz Elvin, noting recent school openings in St. Louis and Nevada. Some of the initiatives are vocational schools within existing high schools, while others are charter schools. "PACE is unique," Elvin says, "in that it's a stand-alone public school" that is also part of the local school system.) The initial crop of 132 freshmen was chosen through an application process managed by the D.C. public school system, a procedure that will be repeated yearly. The school's capacity is 622 students.

  • Edwin Schmidt
    Edwin Schmidt

The District of Columbia needs "about 25,000 new employees [in the building trades] every year because we have such a robust construction industry here," says Cherie Pleasant, AGC of DC's chief executive officer. In addition, many projects require a healthy percentage of D.C. residents and minorities on construction teams. Those numbers "are not always easy to meet," she notes, but "we could step up to the plate if we had a school to actually train people." AGC of DC is providing ongoing support to PACE by building its website (pacehs.org) and purchasing school uniforms.

Also donating their services are the D.C. chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA/DC) and the Washington Architectural Foundation (WAF), which have developed the school's architecture curriculum based on what college programs look for in first-year students. "Architecture has a lot of problem solving and teamwork, and students have to have a portfolio of work," says Kelly Malloy, who leads the AIA/DC-WAF advisory committee and is an associate at WDG Architecture in Washington. She hopes that by reaching students "at the perfect age to be thinking about what they want to be doing," PACE can help build diversity in the profession.

Located in the city's northeast quadrant, PACE is housed in a 1933 building originally erected for another vocational school that was shuttered in 2002 due to declining enrollment. The fast-track renovation-a design/build partnership by Celina, Ohio-based educational facilities firm Fanning/Howey (lead architect), D.C. architecture firm Bryant Mitchell, and Turner Construction-"blurred the lines of traditional process, roles, and materials," says Edwin Schmidt, a Fanning/Howey principal and executive director of the firm's D.C.-area office. At one point, Schmidt says, he found himself painting trim and sills in the building to meet the schedule.

The renovated school has been certified LEED Silver by the U.S. Green Building Council and is intended to be an educational tool itself: Walls offer examples of herringbone, basket weave, and Flemish brick patterns, and ceiling pipes are exposed and color-coded so that students can follow their paths throughout the building.