• Since the eaves of the structure are only 6 ft in height, the surrounding landscape was designed to prohibit collisions with the uniquely low overhang. - photo by Leonid Furmansky

Little Tiger, Austin’s first full-day Chinese immersion school, occupies an eclectic mini-campus in a residential neighborhood.

Architect Murray Legge Architecture
General Contractor Little Tiger Chinese Immersion School
Civil Engineer Urban Design Group
Structural Engineer Fort Structures
MEP Engineer ATS Engineers

In 2006, Meggie Chou, a native of Hsinchu, Taiwan, started a small Mandarin tutoring service out of the home she shared with her husband, visual artist Mike Osborne. Since then, the informal tutoring operation has grown into a year-round educational program — Chinese with Meggie Language School — which now offers courses to over 150 students between locations in Westlake and Hyde Park.

Both locations consisted of rented classroom spaces in small churches up until 2016, when a 1940s bungalow adjacent to Chinese with Meggie Hyde Park became available for purchase. The couple hopped on the sale, recognizing the dilapidated structure as an opportunity to expand Little Tiger — Austin’s first full-day, full-Chinese immersion school — which had begun operating out of rented Ridgetop Baptist Church classrooms a year before. 

Osborne spearheaded the renovation as general contractor, looking to Murray Legge Architecture for inspiration on how to reposition the residential structure for educational use. After designing the nearby Griffin School, Legge had ample experience with Austin’s Land Development Code and its provisions for compatible uses, such as neighborhood churches and community schools, within residentially zoned areas. The contractor-architect duo began brainstorming a way to unite the new property with the adjacent classrooms, and the solution was a unique, one-room schoolhouse, which would accommodate Little Tiger’s increasing matriculation while creating a small campus.

The new 735-sf structure, tucked inconspicuously behind the renovated Hyde Park bungalow, is a play on the historic American one-room schoolhouse: a gable form, rectangular in plan, with a single classroom space and a vertically protruding clerestory. The design’s low eaves make the building feel more approachable to its primary inhabitants — children under four feet tall. “The thing that was surprising for me was how that little twist made building something so familiar feel very unfamiliar and new” says Murray Legge, FAIA.

On the exterior, walls of white-painted cement board are protected by a roof of paint grip metal. Inside, the simple scissor truss roof system is elevated by the intersection of a continuous skylight — an idea borrowed from Texas architect Max Levy, FAIA. Deep, vertical baffles segment the glazed strip that runs along the roof’s peak, delivering diffuse light to the interior throughout most of the school year. Further illuminating the space, a bank of recessed, child-height windows runs along the north wall, forming a warm, plywood reading nook that looks out upon one of the numerous greenspaces created by the campus’ unique union of properties.

The building accommodates 12–15 students and contains two ADA accessible bathrooms, a kitchenette, and a utilities loft. As a precaution against future relocation and other uncertainties, Osborne required that the new structure be convertible to residential use. With relative ease, the water closets can be joined to create a full bath, the kitchenette can be upgraded to an efficiency kitchen, and the utilities loft is large enough for a sleeping space. In 2020, this forward-thinking adaptability seems not only wise, but essential for an enduring built environment.

Construction on the new building began in January 2019 and finished just in time for the upcoming 2019-2020 school year. Students ranging from kindergarten to second grade were able to enjoy their quirky new playhouse through mid-March, when spring break turned into an endless stay-at-home order. Little Tiger finished the school year virtually, giving Osborne and Chou time to adapt the campus and plan for the safe return of students on September 7.

To accomplish this adaptation, multiple shade structures were erected within the interstitial spaces of the campus to address ventilation concerns. “I’ve become kind of obsessive, reading about air exchange rates and aerosol spread,” Osborne says. “We’re really trying to reduce overall risk by having the kids outside maybe 50 percent of the time, weather permitting, not only because it’s a lot safer, but because then it gives us a chance to air out the buildings.”

To accommodate this increased outdoor programming, Osborne again employed Murray Legge Architecture to help design a comfortable outdoor classroom space. The result is “Temporary Tiger,” a lumber framework that incorporates two inward-facing, parallel benches. Seating is segmented at 24 inches and lies beneath a flexible, scalloped canopy. Plastic tables can be arranged in various configurations along the benches to ensure proper social distancing and address multiple class sizes. While the children learn, play, and exercise outside, the air in each classroom is cycled out by opening all doors, cranking up industrial fans, and letting multiple HEPA filters go to work.

As its name indicates, this outdoor solution is temporary. Ideally, Austin’s case count will bottom out before the weather inhibits extensive outdoor play, but if need be, Osborne and Legge can team up once more to forge another innovative solution.

Sophie Aliece Hollis is TA’s editorial intern.

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