Words: Adrian Dominguez
Photos: William Speer and Ryan Gamma
The challenges of education are not limited to factors within the curriculum, especially for the students enrolled in the autism department at Fruitville Elementary in Sarasota, Florida. According to the Fruitville Elementary website, the school traces its roots to a 19th-century one-room schoolhouse. As it exists now though the school is almost 80 years old and home to one of the best special-needs programs of its kind in Sarasota county. Yet according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, during the 2014-15 school year, the approximately 50 Fruitville students enrolled in the eight autism classes inhabited what the school called a “portable city” consisting of 18 modules of portable classrooms on the south and east sides of the school’s campus due to lack of space on campus.
This dilemma of being “squished” as described by Fruitville teacher Laura King in the Herald-Tribune also came coupled with the inadequacy of these portable classrooms to provide a focused environment for the students enrolled in the autism department. The weather becomes an extra concern when walking to external classrooms. Problems with focus and distraction become more difficult to tune out due to the paper-thin walls of the portables, the sound of traffic, and other loud distractions that were not uncommon in the portable city. Lastly, the stigma of being considered separated from the rest of the student body by real physical space had King expressing concern about not singling the autism program students out. It was clear that there needed to be a solution that would keep the kids in the program engaged with their peers while dedicating a safe and stable environment that was critical to their academic success.
So when the idea of a $6.5 million building addition towards dedicated space for the autistic program was proposed during Sarasota County School Board discussions over the preliminary $396 million budget for the 2014-15 academic year, the concept was received very warmly by the department. Realizing the logistics required for providing an answer to the issue of safe and dedicated space for these young learners, the school reached out to enlist the services of principal architect John Bryant of Sweet Sparkman Architects and Interiors to realize their proposal.
As Bryant explained to us, there was an idea beginning to take shape: “There were some nice historical architectural buildings on site, a bunch of different periods within Sarasota architectural history. They had a nice use of brick on some of the existing buildings on-site, so we had wanted to use brick in the design of the building but in a contemporary way. There was a building from the 50s, 60s, 70s, so we really wanted to do a contemporary brick building as part of the campus.”
Combining decades of different historical styles represented by the older on-site buildings with a cohesive and contemporary architectural addition, this project looked to expand the campus to accommodate special-needs classrooms while keeping them on campus. Support of the logistical needs of the autism program while also preserving and renovating the existing campus space was the main objective.
The plan to move forward in making this dream a reality needed a design that alleviated concerns over space limitations and easy access for students in the autistic program. The resulting work was headed by Bryant in conjunction with John F. Swift Construction managing the construction. And of course, Fruitville Elementary faculty, maintenance, and staff did their part to make sure the autistic education program was properly integrated into the school. Even the students pitched in ideas when asked by their teacher, Melissa Stanley. When interviewed by the Herald-Tribune she mentioned some great suggestions like a chimney, manual doors, and even blocks for more building were made by precocious first and second graders! Outside of the interesting blend of styles the project had standard structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing consultants.
As stated by Bryant, several key considerations had to be taken into account when determining the design philosophy. They would start with the look of the building and its cohesion with the campus aesthetic in general. “I would definitely say it was contemporary. There was a historical motif in the original building on site – the original schoolhouse on-site had sort of a mission style entry facade and the principal had asked us to incorporate that motif into the building somehow.”
Bryant said that the team used a variety of diverse methods to help design this project including hand sketching, various digital programs like REVIT and SketchUp, and traditional physical models. The finalized design was conceived as a two-story building envisioned as long and low, with a staggering window pattern between the first and second floors. As for classroom contribution is concerned, the project added eighteen new classrooms with eight designed for students with autism and special needs.
Beginning with one of the aforementioned key issues among Fruitville faculty was concern over ease of access to the rest of the school, crucial to the autism program students not wanting to feel left out. This would mean sitting in the new building adjacent to popular areas on campus. “When we started we looked at a number of possible sites within the campus” Bryant stated. “There were a few other potential areas, but we really wanted the building to be located within the heart of the campus and we wanted the special needs students to have easy access between. The cafeteria was adjacent, the media center was adjacent, so it took a little extra work to site the building where it did but it helped create a stronger sense of the campus.” The project also included campus-wide improvements such as renovations to the existing administrative, classroom, and recreational areas along with the design of two new parking areas and an enlarged bus loop with a covered walkway.
Another challenge was in utilizing specific brick placement to achieve the conceptualized design. As stated by Bryant regarding the construction challenges: “Because it was a very strict brick coursing, we were very intentional about the brick coursing and the brick coursing had to line up with window sills and window head heights.” The biggest challenge was just being sure of all the brick course alignment openings aligned at the proper place and it all worked out but it took a lot of coordination on the contractor’s side. Offset brick details like darker corbelled brick were used to create some vertical striations for a seamless aesthetic transition from the lower level to the second floor when windows between the two floors didn’t line up. This sharp brickwork accentuates the window pattern and repetition of the classrooms within according to Sweet Sparkman.
The material for the primary building structure was common 8-inch reinforced masonry followed using hollow-core concrete plank for the second floor and steel bar joists for the roof. The cladding used was a standard 4 x 8 Belden clay brick, with a cavity consisting of a 2” air gap and 2” rigid insulation board. Aluminum storefront windows and prefinished aluminum panels for use in accent colors were also incorporated in addition to CMC cut aluminum handrails for the stairs.
To tie in with the mission style motif of the older buildings a pattern was cut into the striking orange railings as Bryant went on to state, “it’s not a contemporary motif, but what we did was we took almost like a sine-curve, that “S” shape, and that’s what gave us the pattern that was cut into the railing. That sort of half-moon shape pattern that you see in the orange railings was actually the mission style motif, and that was a nontraditional pattern that we incorporated.”
This design shared between the contemporary building addition and the older buildings on campus resulted in a difference that still married the concept of old-and-new together in a way that feels uniquely distinct. He adds “Then we just tried to bring color into the classrooms and into the hallways, like we did some of those brightly colored orange ceilings and walls.”
Rounding out further details via Sweet Sparkman, the north and west facades are clad in brick veneer with pronounced accent bands at every third course that project ½” beyond the adjacent face. The east and west facades are comprised of stucco surfaces that appear to fold down from the roof surface and erode to reveal decorative egress stairs clad in colorful aluminum panels. Sticking with the color motif, orange benches placed at staggered heights within the green space to accentuate the intricate brickwork.
The project took about 9 months of design followed by 12 months of construction, completed in 2016. The finished project successfully increased the classrooms available by 10 intermediate level elementary rooms and 8 states of the art classrooms and instructional space dedicated to the autism program, located in the heart of campus. Due to his work on Fruitville Elementary John Bryant earned the firm the coveted national 2017 Brick in Architecture Award K-12 given by the Brick Industry Association.