It took an architect, a philanthropist, and an international network to bring back an elementary school in Shaanxi Province, China. The magnitude-7.9 earthquake in May of 2008 in Sichuan Province, which also affected Shaanxi to the north, damaged thousands of schools and killed thousands of students in schools that collapsed completely. Shaanxi wasn’t as devastated as Sichuan, but some areas lost almost half of their primary and middle schools. Three village schools were lost in the largely agricultural Qian Yang County, in southwest China, hours west of Xi’an.
After the earthquake, the local community in the county asked San Mateo, Calif., resident Rosalyn Koo for help in rebuilding. Koo, 82, a native of Shanghai and former executive vice president of San Francisco architecture firm MBT Associates (now owned by Perkins+Will), has raised funds to educate her goal of 1,000 Shaanxi girls by 2013 through the California-based nonprofit 1990 Institute—and happened to be visiting her girls in their senior high school homeroom during the quake. (That school suffered no damage.)
At the same time that the community asked for help, Koo’s friend and frequent informal collaborator, Jennifer Devlin, AIA, of EHDD Architecture in San Francisco, called Koo to offer her services. “The girls were fine, but the devastation was a tragedy, and she was trying to figure out what to do,” Devlin, 46, says.
By that fall, Koo had her plan: build one seismically safe and environmentally sustainable building to replace the three damaged village schools in the Zhang Jia Yuen village of Qian Yang. “I saw an opportunity to build a green primary school as a model for people in China to follow,” Koo says. As soon as October, Devlin was on the ground in Shaanxi to observe the local typologies and begin the design process, pro bono. “I was honored to help Roz, who I consider a great mentor, find expression for her dream,” Devlin says. Koo raised $226,000 for the $500,000 project; the rest came from the local education department. Devlin and her colleagues at EHDD worked with Koo, China’s Northwest Design Institute, the BaoJi Design Institute, and Koo’s former co-worker, Bay Area–architect Dien Tseng for help with translation and navigating local code. “The very important component of the success of this project was that Roz was connected to the political and social structure of the community,” Devlin says, “as opposed to an outsider coming in.”
After six weeks of design, six months of building, and time for review and approval, the 12,500-square-foot coed Zhang Jia Yuen Elementary School opened in June 2010 to K–5 students.
Koo’s first request for the school was that it be built to withstand a magnitude-8.0 earthquake, so Devlin designed it to meet California’s strict code—and then to the new Chinese construction and seismic codes once they were issued toward the end of the design process.
Although the local school typology in Shaanxi is “a two-to-three story box sitting very formally and symmetrically opposite an opening gate” Devlin says, “we immediately put it all on one level, except for the dormitories at the front of the campus.” Local houses, however, tend to have courtyards and compound walls. Devlin designed the school with an entry courtyard separating one building with a multipurpose room, library, and kitchen; another with offices and dorms for teachers. Behind these structures are four classrooms separated by two more courtyards, and then a playfield and vegetable garden in back.
For the walls, Devlin initially wanted to build with more transparency, “which is an American notion,” she says. But “for them, the safety and security of the school is paramount.” So EHDD put slots in the brick-and-CMU walls around the school to give motorists a glimpse as they drive by, but didn’t make them wide enough that someone could get in.
Koo’s second request was that the school be green. But if the first request needed to be imported, the second was native to Shaanxi. Koo “was looking at all of the development happening in China and wanted to promote what we are doing so well in California on the awareness of buildings and the impact on the environment,” Devlin says. But, “to be quite honest,” she adds, “people living in Qian Yang County by all accounts must and do live sustainably—it is an agricultural region where all is used to the maximum.” In her scouting trip, Devlin observed corn used as food and insulation, roofs with solar hot-water heaters, and bicycles on the streets. “Our role was really to observe how they lived and recommend some adjustments as to how they might design a school to capture some natural attributes of the place,” Devlin says.
For cooling and heating purposes in a region with hot summers and cold winters—but without widespread air conditioning or heating—windows are oriented for summer cross ventilation as well as to maximize southern exposure and limit northern exposure in the winter. North-facing clerestory windows are the exception, offering daylight to help minimize the use of overhead lights. The rooms also feature ceiling fans. On opening day in June 2010, when it was over 100 F, Devlin says that with the fans and cross ventilation, “it felt a good 15 degrees cooler.”
The roofs are made of local red clay tile, with photovoltaic panel infrastructure waiting for solar panels. (Koo is currently fundraising for these.) White walls are made of concrete-insulated plaster for thermal comfort and daylight reflection. Insulation also comes from white and silver reflective silk curtains.
“Our hope is that this school becomes a model for classrooms, and not just from a building standpoint,” Devlin says. “Providing the right environment for learning is an important investment, which will yield immediate and long-term results for both the students and their communities.”
Twelve of the Koo-sponsored girls attend a teacher college close to the school, and “have adopted Zhang Jia Yuen,” Koo says, volunteering their time to visit the students and help maintain the grounds. “Given the opportunity and encouragement, girls can easily become leaders together with men—to build China into an enlightened nation state.”