Dreaming Big in South Carolina

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by Jeff Link

From the outside, the Richland Two Institute of Innovation (R2i2) looks like your everyday school. But after touring the campus, one quickly realizes that R2i2 could be a paragon for 21st-century learning, a future-oriented educational institution conceived with equity and sustainability in mind.

Located in a northeast neighborhood of Columbia, S.C., the $41 million, 213,000-square-foot facility, designed by the local offices of LS3P and M.B. Kahn Construction Co., unites a branch of the Richland County Library with the administrative offices of the Richland School District Two. The building also features a café, full-service commercial kitchen, and 600-seat conference center that has hosted everything from wedding receptions to business meetings. And, last but not least, it is a public school, serving juniors and seniors from Richland School District Two’s five high schools.

The students, half of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, shuttle to the facility once a week from their home school to learn about technology, the culinary arts, and the industrial arts. The classes aim to produce the next generation of disruptors, teaching students how to develop mobile apps, launch food truck businesses, and design renewable energy systems. They also prepare students for careers at local employers, which include the Husqvarna Group, Volvo Car Group, and Boeing, and for continued study in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, perhaps at the University of South Carolina nearby.

R2i2 unites a Richland County Library branch with the administrative offices of the Richland School District Two, while also serving as a public high school for juniors and seniors.

R2i2 draws students from Richland School District Two’s five high schools to learn about technology and entrepreneurship.

The R2i2 roof hosts a 285-kilowatt photovoltaic system and a solar hot-water thermal system.

The facility itself is a lesson on alternative energy technologies. Its roof is sheathed in a 285-kilowatt photovoltaic system that has offset an estimated 962,000 pounds of carbon dioxide during its nearly two years of service. A solar hot-water thermal system, also on the roof, preheats water for food preparation. Also located on the school’s 31-acre site are a 1.8-kilowatt wind turbine, a 10,000-gallon underground cistern, three electric car–charging stations, and a student energy lab powered by an instructional solar farm and backed by a hydrogen fuel cell.

With access to these renewable energy systems as models, students build, test, and optimize their own small-scale facsimiles. Guiding their work is the project-based Clean Energy Technology curriculum developed by the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that aims to advance public education policy and practice.

The facility welcomes all residents and businesses to Sandhill, a not-so-sleepy bedroom community of palm tree–lined shopping complexes, light-manufacturing facilities, landscaping and agricultural suppliers, and single-family residences about 15 miles from the South Carolina State House. Rick Ott, senior executive vice president of M.B. Kahn, says the protean suburb desperately needed a unifying structural center. M.B. Kahn and LS3P’s joint proposal to Richland School District Two “took the bigger vision,” he says. “Ultimately, our competition thought about how to build a building. We approached it from, ‘How do we make the community a better place to live?’ ”

Still, their design was a bit open-ended, acknowledges LS3P vice president and principal Allen Taylor, AIA. “When we designed this space, we didn’t know what these programs would be, and nor did the district,” he says.

It’s a curious design horizon: creating a building with the flexibility to keep pace with an evolving curriculum and advancing technology, but also with the ability to serve the social and professional needs of a growing community. But with state funding for public schools declining and federal budget cuts for public education imminent, this mixed-use model may become attractive to more communities across the country.

These schools might also be better suited for preparing students for the demands of a changing workforce. According to a July 2017 report published by Dell Technologies, an estimated 85 percent of jobs students will enter in 2030 don’t exist today. The ability to learn “in the moment” and adapt to emergent technologies will become paramount as a determinant of career success. R2i2 offers a preview of how design may give students a leg up on their competition.

ARCHITECT visited the school in May to learn how the pieces of the building fell into place.

Echelon campus site plan

The mixed-use model of R2i2 aims to serve the social and professional needs of a growing community, while still maintaining flexibility to keep pace with evolving curriculum and technology.

The Vision

Back in 2012, the original intent of the project was to create a new office that would consolidate 240 administrative staff under one roof near the district’s population center, says Richland School District Two director of new construction Ed Watson. Meanwhile, the district was adding more than 300 students per year, putting it on track to require a new high school within eight years. Pursuing a stand-alone administrative office, which wouldn’t serve students directly, presented problems of optics. “The district didn’t want to be seen as building the Taj Mahal,” Ott says.

Luckily, he continues, the district had about $40 million left over from a $306 million bond referendum, passed in 2008 with 67 percent approval, which had gone unspent during the lean years of the Great Recession. In a joint bid, M.B. Kahn and LS3P won an RFQ to forecast the district’s educational needs 10 to 15 years in the future.

Through a series of public charrettes and meetings, the idea emerged to pair the administration and vocational programmatic elements under one roof, which was possible due to district’s sizable savings. But the linchpin, Ott says, was to make the building the community’s focal point, which led to the addition of the conference center and meeting rooms along with the commitment of Richland Library, a subsidiary of the county council, to build a wing for $10 million (bringing the total budget to $51 million) through a shared-use agreement and 100-year lease on the ground occupied by the branch. That meant Richland County wouldn’t have to buy land, and the district would save an estimated $1.5 million on parking and shared infrastructure.

Bringing diverse stakeholders together took some hand-wringing, Ott admits, but it ultimately led to a way to give residents increased access to and responsibility for a public school.

Rick Ott, senior executive president of M.B. Kahn, on the community-focused process that led to R2i2’s design.

Throughout R2i2, the flooring finishes transition from terrazzo to carpet to polished concrete. Seating alcoves are visually connected by flooring patterns of ribbons and circles.

The building’s circulation spine is defined by a 36-foot-tall dividing wall between areas opened to public and those restricted to the school.

Floor-to-ceiling windows illuminate the library.

The Central Spine

Despite having a bevy of K-12 design experience, including projects with the district, M.B. Kahn and LS3P initially lacked a convincing unifying theme for the project design, says LS3P vice president and principal Mary Beth Branham, AIA. However, M.B. Kahn had built other modern schools with a high net-to-gross ratio and large open bay spaces, where 60 to 80 students might spill out for demonstrations and projects. The defining spatial principle, Ott says, was the elimination of corridors, making available all spaces for teacher-led instruction, collaborative projects, presentations, and independent study.

LS3P, for its part, had recently designed a nearby business incubator from which it could draw inspiration for a semi-industrial space in the school that might accommodate everything from forklifts to food trucks to rocket engines.

After much hemming and hawing, and a litany of PowerPoint decks with words like “flexibility” and “collaboration” tossed around a bit too loosely, the team emerged with the breakthrough: a large circulation spine, defined by a 36-foot-tall dividing wall that cuts through an expansive central lobby and extends outside, above the roofline. Branham says the dividing wall—with its numerous interior apertures—is a deliberate architectural gesture to retain the building’s openness and connectivity but physically separate the building’s public areas from its more restricted zones.

To the left of the spine from the main entrance is the reception area, where all visitors must check in. Informal seating alcoves, the café, a coffee bar, and computer stations, all publicly accessible, are flanked by a boardroom and other spaces available for short-term use. Patterns of ribbons and circles visually connect the programs as the flooring transitions from terrazzo to carpet to polished concrete.

A staircase off the central spine leads to the administrative wing, containing three floors of open and private offices that overlook the student learning lab. “If you’re working in the administrative offices, you can look down and see the kids you’re working so hard for,” Ott says. “We wanted to make that connection.”

On the opposite side of the lobby is the library, a lively space filled with books, computers, and lightweight furnishings illuminated in part by floor-to-ceiling windows. Opened in February 2017, six months after the school welcomed its first students in August 2016, the library design spins off from that of the academic wing, but is distinct in subtle ways: Colors are lighter and the atmosphere is more playful, featuring a whimsical carpet patterned with children’s toys and supergraphics— “learn,” “relax,” and “play”—embossed in polished, diamond-cut concrete aggregate, which catch the reflection of ring-shaped pendant lights.

R2i2 Floor Plans

Rings of Security

Of course, in this unprecedented era marked by frequent school shootings, the building’s openness and shared-use functions justifiably raise questions about security. While serving as a panelist focused on school security during an Association for Learning Environments conference held at R2i2 in late April, Taylor was asked, “How do we maintain daylighting and open environments, but still provide a level of security?” His response: “[B]y using access controls and rings of security within a school.”

“That doesn’t mean, ‘How many metal detectors can we get in the building?’ ” Branham notes. Instead, R2i2 uses less conspicuous deterrents: keycards to restricted areas, a security guard, and a single public entrance near a registration desk where school visitors are asked to present their IDs. “We wanted to strike a balance between providing security and an excellent 21st-century learning environment,” she says. “Going to learn inside a black box with no windows is not the solution for blending those together.

The dividing wall is also integral to security. Positioned to restrict public access to the school and administrative offices, it utilizes sight lines through its apertures to preserve a visual connection among the building’s many functions. Outside, the wall comprises a three-layer, high-performance EnduraMax system with a Lamina Stone veneer by Atlanta-based architectural masonry manufacturer Echelon Masonry. The finish transitions to drywall as the wall slices into the interior space at a slight angle. Openings in the partition look onto the school’s learning lab and, together with a three-story curtainwall at the building’s north entrance, keep the lobby and community resource area bright and welcoming.

LS3P vice president and principal Allen Taylor on R2i2’s industrial look and stone veneer elements.

The building’s finishes include Lamina Stone, exposed precast concrete, and vertical metal panels.

EnduraMax Wall System

The central spine retains the building’s openness and connectivity but restricts public access to the school and administrative offices.

Sustainability and Cost Savings

R2i2 sits on a slightly mounded grassy tract of land near a shopping center and a mid-rise condominium complex. The building’s Lamina Stone veneer, says Tod Cox, an architectural masonry consultant for Echelon Masonry, not only feels in step with its built surroundings, but also adds warmth and dimensionality to the more industrial construction materials of precast concrete and vertical metal panels. A low-slung accent wall, running parallel to the façade, repeats the use of the stone veneer and makes the large building appear less imposing.

The EnduraMax system offers benefits beyond aesthetics, Cox says. The three-layer system of polystyrene insulation panels, Lamina Stone masonry units, and EnduraMax mortar is lightweight and highly energy efficient. Front and rear channels carved into the insulation help prevent moisture retention, and the collective cladding system has an insulation value of R-9.2, which contributes to the overall thermal performance of the wall.

The efficiency of the building’s envelope is just one element of a wider sustainability program, driven in part by favorable legislation that came at just the right moment, Ott says, when the project’s rooftop solar panels were almost shelved due to cost. The South Carolina Distributed Energy Resource Program Act, signed into law in 2014 by then Gov. Nikki Haley, includes a provision that allows the state’s power company, South Carolina Electric & Gas, to offer tax-exempt entities credits for their solar electricity production. Unlike a tax rebate, the earnings can be applied directly to a utility bill. “This pushed the payback to 13 years, and allowed us to bring the technology to the ground level and incorporate it into the instructional program,” Ott says.

From January 2017 to April 2018, according to Watson, the solar energy incentive has shaved roughly $110,000 from R2i2’s $600,000 total utility costs, paying back at a rate of 22 cents per kilowatt-hour. Along with anticipated cost savings from the energy-efficient design of the building’s massing and glazing, and the use of low-cost, durable materials, the solar payback has allowed the project to stay within budget.

The Makerspace and Energy Lab

Make no mistake: R2i2’s student innovation center is an impressive space, with a large open area flanked by eight classroom bays and outfitted with 3D printers, small-scale wind turbines, and digital dashboards. But it is testimonials from the teachers and students themselves that drive home the role that architectural design plays in instruction at R2i2.

Instructor Kirstin Bullington says students in her Next Energy and Fuel Cell Engineering class have an ongoing solar energy partnership with their counterparts at Saré Bilaly, a rural school in the Kolda region of Senegal that experiences frequent brownouts. (The partnership is funded in part by a Global Teacher Grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.) Based on the recommendations of Senegalese students at another collaborating school in Kolda who expressed a need for phone chargers and light by which to study, Bullington’s students designed, built, and sent 21 solar kits and battery packs.

“We build, test, and optimize the energy systems we study,” Bullington says. “The nice thing about doing that [here is that students] can see authentic examples of the systems they’re building.” She points up to a wall-mounted dashboard, where the energy production of the building’s solar panels displays in real-time. While the building may produce more than 1,000 kilowatt-hours a day, she says, “a family of four uses about 800 kilowatts per month.”

Students have access to 60 photovoltaic panels on an instructional solar farm outside a 960-square-foot energy lab southeast of the main building. The 250-watt panels each sit on a ground-mounted racking system near demonstration rooftops, intended for future use in a professional-level certification course on solar installation. In the lab, a blue sheet-metal bunker, students learn how solar output is affected the angle of the sun, time of day, weather, and season, and how to model and build their own small-scale systems.

“The great thing about the energy lab is that the space really allows students to drive their own learning,” Bullington says. “They can move in and out of the lab when completing this lesson at their own pace, and later when they are soldering solar assemblies, they can move from the soldering stations to the outdoors to check their connections.”

Constant Evolution

The agility of the school’s interior allows R2i2 director Kevin Alberse and his team to shift on the fly. Tables can be pushed around. Retractable walls can combine classrooms. Students can work outdoors. In a warehouse classroom, for example, students in a logistics and supply chain course may be driving forklifts to help coordinate the delivery of food donated for students on free or reduced-price lunch. In another room, laid out like a college dormitory, students may be taking online math courses, while students at the café sell their own brands of granola, nachos, and bottled water and record sales in QuickBooks software.

“I’m still trying to get a sponsorship from Coke for this room,” Alberse jokes, gesturing at rows of alternating yellow and green chairs in a presentation area affectionately known as the Sprite room. “They aren’t returning my calls—yet.”

The school has caught the eye of tech companies, like the global engineering firm Spirax Sarco, which are hiring students as interns. And it has attracted the interest of local designers. Months after R2i2 opened, the district brought in residential designer Erin Galloway, owner of Erin Galloway Interiors in nearby Blythewood, S.C., to reconsider the layout of the central area in the hopes of drawing more students. She recommended adding a curved, pull-apart sofa, cushioned seats with laptop plug-ins, and freestanding desks to make the space warmer and more inviting. “I came up with a plan to give kids the ability to sit at desks, maybe not even working, but be in close proximity to one another,” Galloway says. “Almost immediately after, they came out into the space like they were drawn to a magnetic pole.”

R2i2’s solar lab is a standalone building on the campus.

Moveable tables, retractable walls, and indoor-outdoor spaces add flexibility to the school.

The R2i2’s student innovation center offers an array of 3D printers.

Meanwhile, M.B. Kahn and LS3P continue to be vocal advocates for the school and its teachers. In the summer of 2016, M.B. Kahn hired Bullington for an educational externship, during which she observed the installation of the alternative energy systems and interviewed subcontractors. “They also included me in the district maintenance training of the solar arrays and solar thermal water heater,” Bullington says. “That experience has proven to be invaluable in allowing me to connect student learning with the building’s energy systems.”

For Alberse, who began his career as the director of a welfare-to-work program, the school’s unconventional mission presents opportunities to shape the lives of a diverse student body in strikingly divergent ways. The students, too, seem genuinely excited about the building and its possibilities for design and collaboration. “A moment ago, if you had come by the class, we were printing bionic hands,” Justin Burrell, then a high school senior, tells ARCHITECT.

R2i2 director Kevin Alberse on the school’s forward-thinking vision and curriculum.

“Prosthetic hands,” corrects his classmate, then-high school junior Kezia Gibson. She wants to pursue a career in architecture, she says, because she’s interested in how buildings are “created, built, and come to be”—and because of a CAD/CAM class taught by instructor Nicolas Jones, who has firsthand construction experience.

Alberse also touts the story of Aspen Evans, a district graduate whose experience using CATIA, a CAD/CAM software platform developed by Dassault Systèmes, helped land her a teaching assistant position at Clemson University as a freshman. “Not only does no other high school in South Carolina have [CATIA], it’s such a professional-grade software,” Alberse says. “Most can’t afford it. We can’t either—no school can—but the University of South Carolina McNair Center [for Aerospace Innovation and Research] leveraged its resources to help us obtain a perpetual license at a tremendously reduced cost.”

These are the kind of connections M.B. Kahn’s Rick Ott is hoping R2i2 will continue to inspire long into the future. “Forty years ago, I never thought I’d be putting solar panels on a rooftop,” he says. “Then again, I never thought I’d be building a building where students are assembling and disassembling their own hydrogen fuel cells. But here we are. It’s part of dreaming big.”

Photos: Matt Silk
Campus site map illustration and map: Bryan Christie Design
Floor plans, exploded axon: Courtesy LS3P
Echelon cutaway: Courtesy Echelon