• A large live oak acts as a natural gathering spot near the school’s playground. - photo by Costea Photography

Pleasanton Elementary School capitalizes on its site’s existing live oaks by blurring the boundary between inside and out.

Architect LPA
General Contractor Joeris General Contractors
Civil Engineer Moy Tarin Ramirez Engineers
Structural Engineer Alpha Consulting Engineers
MEP Engineer DBR Engineering Consultants
Food Service Cosper & Associates

The town of Pleasanton sits on the northern edge of the Eagle Ford Shale Play. As in other small south Texas towns touched by the fracking boom, the last 10 years have seen the cityscape transformed by a rash of hastily built man camps and pre-engineered metal buildings offering “equipment rentals” and “fluid solutions.”

The new Pleasanton Elementary School, however, represents a more thoughtful addition to the built landscape. The facility for second- through fifth-graders represents a sound investment that will continue to serve the Pleasanton community now that the fracking boom that helped create it has ended.

In 2015, voters approved a $63 million bond package to fund the construction of a new elementary school. The San Antonio office of LPA began by engaging with the Pleasanton community. A committee of school staff, administrators, local parents, community leaders, and business owners help identify issues while acting as a sounding board for potential architectural solutions.

The flow of traffic in and around the site was identified as a key problem to be resolved. Pleasanton Independent School District’s other educational facilities are all located adjacent to one another on the west side of town, and the addition of another 1,200 students had the potential to overwhelm the adjacent streets on school days. LPA worked closely with a traffic engineer to devise a circulation system that plugged into the existing street grid and ensured ample pick-up and drop-off space for parents while separating that traffic from bus traffic.

The 140,000-sf facility features a two-story, U-shaped plan that frames a large open courtyard oriented to funnel prevailing winds through its length. The placement of the building on the site preserved several mature live oak trees that have been incorporated into the overall design (Pleasanton is known as “The City of Live Oaks and Friendly Folks”). Three of these oaks are featured in the central courtyard while a particularly large oak sits on the west side of the building, providing shade for the school’s playground.

The school’s formal entry is located on the east side, where the morning sun welcomes students and visitors alike as they pass through a wood-clad entry portal and past the school’s administration offices and media center. Individual classrooms sit on either side of a double-loaded corridor, but the dimensions of this space are generous, allowing it to act as an informal gathering area. Interior windows create a visual connection between the corridor and the classrooms and are scaled to act as intimate seating niches for students.

“The windows become extensions of the teaching spaces, kind of like little front porches,” says Jim Oppelt, AIA, of LPA. “Each teacher decorates the perimeter of the window opening and adds cushions or pillows, all of which tie back to the personalization in the teaching space.”

In addition to the standard classrooms, two flexible collaboration classrooms are located at the far end of the courtyard. These “maker spaces” open directly into the courtyard, allowing learning on the inside and outside.

“We have seen the courtyard used for instruction, reading, individual study, and even active play,” Oppelt says. “Everyone remembers being a kid and being lucky enough to go outside once in a while, and the courtyard is flexible enough to allow teachers to use it for a variety of lesson types.”

The brick and standing-seam metal of the building’s exterior can be found on the other school structures located in Pleasanton’s educational campus. The new school expands that basic material palette with the inclusion of wood and corrugated metal panels. The resulting composition harmonizes with what existed before while establishing itself as something new. Ample landscaping helps obscure the light steel fencing that forms a secure perimeter around the central courtyard and other outdoor spaces. This helps the school achieve a delicate balance between being open and welcoming while at the same time protecting its young occupants from the outside world.

LPA was also involved in renovating the district’s other facilities, where they incorporated some of the design features of the new elementary school, including the collaboration spaces and outdoor learning environments. “We really wanted to bring a fresh and modern look to all of the campuses,” says Dr. Matthew Mann, superintendent of the Pleasanton Independent School District. “The libraries at both the high school and junior high were designed with elements taken from the elementary school, including the use of wood, glass, and creating a very open and spacious environment: very inviting spaces that really have become the center of each of the schools.”

These more open interior and exterior spaces have become particularly critical this year as the school district has worked to make its schools safer in a COVID-19 world. According to Dr. Mann, both the larger classrooms and other upgrades made in recent years have proven to be critical investments.

“The enlarging of many of the classrooms … has been a tremendous help in creating the space needed to social distance. We also did a major upgrade in our technology and brought in short throw projector smart boards to all classrooms at every campus. This has allowed us to pivot to providing digital instruction and distance learning that would not have been possible prior to the new elementary and remodel.”

Brantley Hightower, AIA, is the founding partner of HiWorks in San Antonio and the author of “The Courthouses of Central Texas.”

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