• The architects preserved the original 1926 building and replaced subsequent additions with new tilt wall buildings. - photo by Slyworks Photography

Milby High School in Houston’s East End preserves history while providing 21st-century pedagogy.

Architect Kirksey Architecture
Associate Architect Huerta & Associates Architects
Structural Engineer Matrix
MEP Engineer JonesDBR
Civil Engineer Othon
Food Service Foodservice Design Professionals
Landscape Architect Lauren Griffith Associates

Milby High School is in Houston’s East End, on Broadway Street, just inside the 610 Loop. The neighborhood abuts the Ship Channel, and its residential fabric, one of the city’s most densely populated, is interwoven with industrial facilities. It used to be predominantly working-class white. Now, it’s overwhelmingly working-class Latino. Of the 1,500-plus students who enroll at Milby each year, 85 percent are economically disadvantaged. The school offers a core high school curriculum and career technical education — whatever it takes to give its student body a leg up.

Following a 2012 bond program, the Houston Independent School District hired Kirksey Architecture to update Milby. The school’s original 1926 Renaissance Revival building had been added onto, piecemeal, many times across the decades. In 1987, it appeared in the swamp-gothic teen B-movie “My Best Friend is a Vampire,” which offers a glimpse of the existing building’s claustrophobic, cellular interiors.

Kirksey developed its design with the community through a series of town halls and workshops. “One of my favorite parts of being an architect is helping people and communities articulate what it is they need, but also what they desire,” says Nicola Springer, AIA, Kirksey executive vice president and director of PK–12 projects. The result of this engagement was a twinned directive: Honor the school’s legacy (Go Buffalos!) while providing 21st-century pedagogical spaces.

The architects preserved the original building, restoring its brick-and-limestone exterior and replacing 1970s aluminum windows with new aluminum clad wood windows to match the mullion detailing of the original awning. The interior was mostly gutted to the structure and opened up with double height spaces in some areas and a glass curtain wall that looks out onto a landscaped courtyard. Choice bits of original fabric, however, were maintained, like terrazzo floors and plaster moldings. This space, the “historic heart” of the school, is now a sort of student union, containing the library, cafeteria (prosaically named the Buffalo Grill), and independent study spaces. The old second-floor seating rake of the auditorium’s balcony was uncovered and converted into a “learning stair,” with power outlets encased in boxes made from the old gymnasium floor. The basement, which once housed a swimming pool, now accommodates an ROTC shooting range.

The remainder of the existing structures was demolished and replaced with concrete tilt wall buildings configured in two wings that enclose the courtyard. The tilt wall is unadorned, painted white with swatches of color around the fenestration, and infilled with aluminum-framed tinted glass. The forthright, brutal nature of the new construction doesn’t speak much to the historic architecture, but it does reveal the project’s slim budget. Totaling 280,000 gross sf, construction of the updated Milby came in at $58.2 million, or $217/sf. Conscientiously, the architects held the new construction well off the edges of the original building, connecting the two by means of minimal, glazed corridors.

The architecture is shaped by the concepts of “linked learning” — the encouragement of collaboration across curricula, as well as between the school and the community — and “dispersed administration” — the arrangement of programs into distinct “neighborhoods,” each with its own assistant principal. Students arrive by bus (to the north) or by car (to the south) and filter into the courtyard through open-air passages, and then up open-air stairs to one of four neighborhoods. Each neighborhood is color-coded, and the wall of its administration area features historical information and supergraphics taken from the original building’s architectural drawings and 1920s newspapers found in a wall cache during construction.

The neighborhoods include Human Resources (cosmetology, culinary arts, and health services); Manufacturing and Engineering (engineering, welding, HVAC); Business (printing and principles of); and the Arts (theater, dance, band, and visual arts). Many of these CTE programs have storefronts in the building where students, paired with local businesses, provide services to the community. For example, the Buffalo Diner is a full-service restaurant operated by the students and Pappas Restaurants. There are also a salon, a health clinic, and a printing shop.

Throughout the building, the interior is open and daylit. The spaces are simple but flexible, and will be adaptable over time as the school’s needs change. The bathrooms have no doors, a safety measure, and were designed to “feel like paradise,” which the student community specifically requested. Kirksey conducted airflow and daylight analyses on the design, ensuring that the courtyard is breezy and comfortable, even during the hottest part of the year, and that the interior is bright but not uncomfortably hot. The effort earned the project a LEED Silver rating, which is remarkable for a bottom-budget public school in a disadvantaged Houston neighborhood.

Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect.

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