• An ombré of blue glazed brick breaks up the muted material palette at the school’s main entrance. - photo by Luis Ayala, AIA

Sheldon Lake Elementary in northeast Harris County is a performing and visual arts school brought alive by a circle of brightly clad drums.

Architect Stantec
General Contractor Durotech
Structural Engineer Garza + McLain Structural Engineers
MEP Engineer CMTA
Civil Engineer S&G Engineering Consultants
Landscape Architect Blu Fish Collaborative
Food Service Foodservice Design Professionals

Sheldon Lake Elementary is a performing and visual arts school in northeast Harris County. The majority of the publicly visible facades are typical brick-and-glazing wall systems interspersed with metal cladding. That is what visitors see from the nearby access road of the Sam Houston Tollway. The school sits far enough off the highway that it almost disappears into the larger campus of the neighboring C.E. King High School and adjacent undeveloped properties. Breaking this monotony is a blue shimmer of glazed brick accenting the main entry. This swatch of color introduces the main concept of the project the “drums”: ovular, vertical extrusions of colorful glazed masonry with a pattern that pixelates from darker to lighter shades of a single color as they reach toward the sky.

The architects at Stantec who designed the school conceived the drums, each of which is assigned its own color — green, yellow, orange, blue — as a playful way to house specific program elements and inject some excitement into what is otherwise a pro forma design brief. “A goal of the project was to make the school feel like an exploration from drum to drum,” says Laura Sachtleben, AIA, senior principal at Stantec, “not the typical straight-line path from classroom to classroom.”

One drum houses an art studio; another, a future maker space; and yet another, the music studios. The largest drum is centrally located and contains a theater in the round that converts to a black box. The stage opens to the cafeteria on one side, and to the “learning stair” on the other. Another quadrant of this drum borders the main gathering space of the interior, which connects to the outdoor space. The one artistic program element not housed in a drum is the dance studio, which is accommodated in a more typical PE-style gym.

The heart of the project is the central courtyard, where the lustrous, jewel-toned drums can be seen tumbling through the form. The courtyard serves as a public gathering space and features a small covered stage. There are also gathering and seating areas, and, on one end, the courtyard opens onto the playing fields.

The interior of the facility is well connected and free flowing. The instruction spaces are placed logically in relation to the drums and are filled with natural light. Glazed walls along corridors allow for interplay among circulation, break-out areas, and larger gathering spaces. In some ways, the transparency might seem to make this 88,000-sf facility feel smaller and on the verge of tightness. But the play of transparency and visibility of the courtyard, which can be viewed from almost any location within the school, actually eases the feeling of density and allows it to breathe.

The administration areas are the least connected to the courtyard. While this is practical, it hints at a missed opportunity to integrate the school’s older occupants. Throughout the school, subtle variations in corridor widths, interwoven with more static alcoves for small congregations, contribute to a sense of journey and reflection for the younger occupants: Students are provided with the opportunity to consistently immerse themselves in the activities and instruction of the school, while the administration wing seems an island unto itself.

Choosing to push the focus of the school inward to the courtyard, which is encircled by the essential aspects of both the architecture and the pedagogy, teaches its inhabitants on multiple levels. The result is compelling.       

Andrew Hawkins, AIA, is principal of Hawkins Architecture in College Station and a visiting lecturer in the architecture department at Texas A&M.

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