• Warm wood at the entry offsets the structure’s dark, metallic exterior. - photo by Timothy Hursley

The new Innovation Lab at the Lamplighter School in Dallas respectfully evolves the campus’ cherished architectural legacy.

Architect Marlon Blackwell Architects
General Contractor Hill & Wilkinson
MEP Engineer RWB Consulting Engineers
Structural and Civil Engineer RLG Consulting Engineers
Landscape Design Talley Associates
Lighting Design Essential Light Design Studio
Accessibility Access by Design

The Lamplighter School is an early childhood private school in North Dallas that serves 455 students. Its core campus was designed by O’Neil Ford and completed in the late 1960s. The village-like plan of humble timber and EIFS buildings with pitched roofs ran in stark contrast to the singular form schools mostly assumed in that era. In the ’80s and ’90s, former Ford employee Frank Welch added an octagonal library (now a media center and fine arts building) and gymnasium. Welch opted to create contrast with his contributions, while maintaining a degree of respect for his mentor’s work. His buildings are beige brick with copper roofs.

Both architects worked intimately with the Lamplighter administration to create environments that support and embody the school’s philosophy of collaborative, hands-on learning and mutual respect. “For our students, we view architecture as the third pillar to learning,” says Dr. Joan Buchanan Hill, the head of Lamplighter. “Students need to be inspired through teaching as well as their environment.”

In designing the school’s latest addition, the Innovation Lab, Marlon Blackwell Architects took a similarly collaborative approach. Meryati Blackwell describes the firm’s relationship with the board and staff as positive and productive. She says, “We really rolled up our sleeves to understand what they do, and to give them that and more.” Their building, which includes a wood shop, robotics lab, and teaching kitchen, follows the tradition of respectful contrast and evolution.   

The 10,000-sf Innovation Lab presents a tweaked version of the campus’ existing built fabric — angular copper-clad volumes capped by inverted pitched roofs that address the natural landscape. The intention was for the architecture to age into its environment, much in the way students mature through school. In the two years since completion, the copper cladding has taken on a warm gray hue that relates to the existing campus. Wood-clad porches at each end of the building provide outdoor gathering places and focus views on the landscape, designed by Talley and Associates to conjure images of the Blackland Prairie.

The interior is rational, with ample use of glass partitions that maintain visual connectivity. The walls are basket-woven pine wood planks whose texture provides visual interest as well as acoustical performance.

The Innovation Lab has met with the unforeseen effects of the pandemic. Today, the building serves as first-grade classrooms. Workshops have been converted over to spaces for Zoom calls. The kitchen provides a controlled environment for student/teacher lunches. The building accommodated this adaptation with ease. The simple, sanitary-looking palette and glass partitions seem tailor-made for this time of face masks and social distancing.

Blackwell also reworked the campus’ Barn — an actual barn, complete with barnyard animals — which is widely revered as the spirit of the school. This structure was rebuilt, due in part to its dilapidated condition, and its new incarnation is a hallmark example of Blackwell’s exploration in the diagrammatic section. The approach evolves the structure without losing the sense of “barnness.” The interior volume is left unobstructed for an open teaching environment and a cantilevered chicken coop.

In a captivating way, Blackwell’s additions further the school’s mission to inspire students through the built and natural environment. While the future of education remains uncertain due to the pandemic, Lamplighter will continue to serve as a model for how we can engage children, no matter the circumstance.

Michael Friebele, Assoc. AIA, is an associate at CallisonRTKL in Dallas.

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