• A plaza greets students, staff, and visitors at the school’s new main entry along César Chávez Boulevard. - photo by Matthew Niemann

A renovation of San Antonio’s Sidney Lanier High School improves learning outcomes for underserved students.

Location San Antonio
Client San Antonio Independent School District
Architect, Civil Engineer, and Landscape Architect LPA
Contractor Gilbane Building Company
Structural Engineer Alpha Consulting Engineers
MEP Engineer Alderson & Associates
Security/Data/IT Combs Consulting Group
Theatrical Consultant WJHW
Code Consultant Fire Protection Consulting Group
Envelope Consultant Building Diagnostics

Since its founding in 1915, San Antonio’s Sidney Lanier High School has served as the gateway to learning and creativity in its historically underserved neighborhood. For many years, the school’s curriculum provided preparation primarily for vocational careers, and its mascot, a gear, symbolized how the school prepared students to function as components in the larger economic machine. In the late 1960s, students challenged this curricular structure, staging protests that eventually led to the establishment of a college-track curriculum that remains in place today. In the following decades, the high school campus became a symbol of this community’s strength, resilience, and determination. But its main academic building — constructed in 1975 and very much a product of its time — provided many challenges.

In 1970, the United States was on the cusp of an energy crisis. This crisis ultimately sent the country tumbling into a recession, and oil prices soared and remained elevated throughout the following decade. During this time, educational psychologists became staunch advocates of energy-efficient windowless schools. Users complained that these spaces were unpleasant, but research conducted in the early 1970s showed that windowless classrooms had no discernable negative impacts on student learning, and this approach to educational design was swiftly adopted across the country. This is the context in which Lanier High School’s main academic building was constructed. Conforming to the era’s leading ideas on educational design, it was built without windows, views, or daylight.

Since that time, expert opinion on the role of windows in educational settings has greatly evolved. Research conducted by psychologists and social scientists since 1984 has demonstrated the enormous benefits of daylight and views on educational outcomes. Among these are increased attention span, enhanced cognitive function, greater engagement, and improved well-being. Despite these new findings, the opinions of the early ’70s left a legacy of windowless schools across the nation.

In Lanier’s main academic building, the lack of daylight and views created dark, depressing learning environments. To remedy this, students and teachers painted bright, beautiful murals on walls throughout the school, quickly earning Lanier its title as the birthplace of “mural culture” on the west side. Over 60 murals were created throughout the school, all painted by the students and teachers. Developed over the course of multiple generations of students, these murals became a source of pride and meaning for the surrounding community.

In 2016, the school was granted $35 million for renovations through a voter-approved SAISD bond. LPA, a firm that has a local office and has been recognized nationally for excellence in K–12 educational design, was entrusted to lead a redesign of the main building that would be include pre- and post-occupancy evaluations and an intensive stakeholder engagement process.

The pre-occupancy evaluation was conducted by means of a survey that was distributed to teachers and staff. Respondents compared the main academic building to a “crumbling prison,” saying that the lack of daylight created an unwelcoming space that discouraged collaboration across disciplines. Other responses highlighted the school’s security challenges, outdated technology, poor acoustics, and the impact of these issues on student performance. Federico Cavazos, AIA, the project architect on LPA’s design team shared: “The building was functional — and nothing more than that. It didn’t support any of the learning modalities the district was pursuing, such as collaboration between disciplines, project-based learning, transparency of education, or empowerment of students and their work.”

The stakeholder engagement process included regular community meetings, faculty and student engagement sessions, and one-on-one meetings with community members. Through these discussions, the design team learned that there was a great deal of interest in establishing a cosmetology program and a dedicated area for band practice. They also learned of the historic and sentimental importance of the murals that filled the school. Furthermore, it became clear that this building needed to have high energy performance. Cavazos explains, “Every dollar that can be saved on their energy bills can be used on maintenance or teacher salaries.”

Meanwhile, early assessments of the school uncovered unanticipated difficulties. The school’s roof was discovered to be rusting from the inside out and thus needed to be replaced, and all exterior brick walls were found to be failing, requiring reinforcement. Additionally, neither of these improvements was anticipated within the $200 per sf renovation budget, which was only intended to support an interior renovation. However, the design team found innovative ways to stretch the allocated funds. To control cost, the complete program was designed to fit within the existing 34-ft-by-34-ft structural grid. Ceilings were opened, and the existing waffle slab was left exposed to maximize ceiling heights and to celebrate the structure of the original design.

The design for the new roof incorporates three roof monitors at strategic locations, coupled with new openings in the second floorplate, to draw light deep into the building. Existing exterior brick walls were removed, repurposing the depth of the original colonnade to add usable square footage to the school. New windows were installed to infill existing brick arches; these were combined with continuous clerestory windows to introduce daylight and views in all classrooms and offices. To address security concerns, two glassy notches were carved into the building’s facade, creating formal entries that can be easily monitored. These entries are filled with natural daylight and connect the school to the surrounding community and adjacent campus promenade.

The new design for the school supports collaborative and project-based learning curricula through a variety of workspaces that vary in scale, acoustic quality, proximity to traffic, and level of privacy. This approach allows each student the opportunity to work in the spaces that are most conducive to their personal learning style. A large learning stair in the main lobby provides workspace surrounded by white noise and activity, while nearby group workrooms and labs offer an additional layer of acoustic separation for those preferring more privacy. Flexible open spaces and moveable furniture can be reconfigured to accommodate independent or group work as needed.

Before demolition work began, every mural in the main academic building was professionally photographed and recorded to create a digital mural museum. These images are intended to be viewed as part of a slideshow on screens throughout the school. As the design for the main building progressed, the project team regularly met with the original muralists and a team of teachers to curate the new mural museum. These individuals provided guidance on which murals were most meaningful and important to the community. Select murals were reprinted in durable material and installed throughout the renovated building, and additional opportunities for murals were incorporated throughout the school so that current and future students may contribute to this legacy with their own creations.

The completed renovation provides access to natural light and views for all learning spaces, with a final window-to-wall ratio of 30 percent. The main academic building now has a predicted energy use intensity of 42 kBtu, a 60 percent reduction from baseline, and the renovation saved over 3,920 metric tons of carbon through the reuse of existing elements. The architects redesigned the school as an adaptable shell with easily reconfigurable interiors, and they hope that this renovation has prolonged the life of the building by a hundred years or more.

The renovation, completed in 2021, has been recognized by the San Antonio chapter of the American Institute of Architects for its excellence in historic preservation and community impact and has been awarded the chapter’s Committee on the Environment award for its exemplary use of the existing structure and high-performance design.

As an adaptive reuse project, LPA’s redesign of Lanier’s main academic building is exemplary in its strategic use of existing building elements to control cost while facilitating the school’s ambition to provide academic excellence and a high-quality learning experience for its students. In addition to creating spaces that will improve student learning outcomes, the project is also exceptional in its sensitive and committed approach to preserving the school’s cultural legacy and incorporating opportunities for it to continue to flourish. Since its completion, the renovation has been received by the community with immense pride and care. Cavazos says he hopes this project will become a good example of “pushing on every fiscal boundary to make transformational big decisions that impact the learning outcomes of thousands of people.”

Allison Peitz, AIA, is an architect at Lake|Flato in San Antonio.

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