Since 1990, the Graduate Design Build Program at the University of Houston’s Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design has produced one project each year for a school, nonprofit or community organization. This year’s design partner is Frank Black Middle School, which will have a $28,000, state-of-the-art outdoor classroom built for it by the start of next school year.
The genesis of the project came about through the Bunge family, whose two children both attend the school and who funded the project and Edgar Nunnelly, another FBMS parent who made the introduction to the Master of Architecture students in the Graduate/Design Build Studio.
“The campus at our kids’ middle school has significant needs due to years of underfunding,” said Dianne Murata, a member of the Bunge family. “It seemed natural to identify and develop a project that would impact education and our community for years to come. We have always felt strongly about the importance of STEM education.”
FBMS Principal Rhonda Honore said an existing space for the outdoor classroom, including a butterfly garden, pond with observation deck and pergola, was already in place from previous years.
“Unfortunately, the space was not maintained adequately and use of it was minimized by the campus,” Honore said. “Mrs. Murata brought the idea of revamping the space to make it more teacher/student friendly.”
Professor Patrick Peters, who directs the Graduate Design/Build Studio, said the process of nailing down a design for community projects follows a set timeline and happens fairly quickly.
“First, we come to listen,” said Peters, who added that his students came back to all the FBMS stakeholders, including FBMS parents, teachers, and volunteers with a handful of different proposals which were then refined and streamlined into a final version through further input. “Our process is similar (for each project), but people’s needs are different.”
Peters said that while the space could accommodate a whole class, it was also important to make it effective for smaller teams as well as those doing independent work.
“We initially began having discussions with the science teachers to identify how they would like to utilize the outdoor classroom, and what components needed to be included to effectively instruct students outdoors,” Honore said. “With a new learning structure, a balanced pond ecosystem, flower gardens and other natural aesthetics brought into the space, the outdoor classroom will be an area of interactive learning and community engagement for FBMS and Oak Forest.”
Honore said the space also will accommodate FBMS family events throughout the year. And it won’t be just a classroom for science teachers. Language arts teachers will explore the area as an inspiration for student writing prompts, and math teachers will use components of the outdoor classroom to illustrate concepts such as circumference, volume and surface area.
According to Amy Maddux, president of the parent-teacher organization for FBMS, the school was fortunate to have a lot of space to work with for the classroom.
“The project gives the school a permanent, multi-purpose structure for all types of learning, plus a strategic plan to incorporate the entire area in the future,” Maddux said.
Design students are now working on the construction designs in anticipation of a summer build-out of the 296-square-foot steel shade canopy as well as a 1,000-gallon rain tank and cantilever beams that can be used as benches, along with chalkboards made out of slate. It is the east side of the space that will house the classroom, with the west side free for further development.
Peters refers to the master plan as a constellation being born from individual stars or satellites.
“We wanted to find a way to make the garden cohere and establish a holistic vision,” he said.
Peters said the design students were also excited to do a project at FBMS because the original school was designed by prominent Texas architect O’Neil Ford.
“(Ford) doesn’t have very many Houston buildings,” Peters said.
Past Graduate Design Build Program projects included a Solar Shade Tree for McReynolds Middle School, an outdoor entry canopy for the Girl Scouts of San Jacinto Council and an outdoor reading theater for Mark Twain Elementary.
Those interested in inquiring about future projects should contact Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org.