Thanks to an aggressive construction schedule, the brand-new Frank J. Gargiulo Campus in Secaucus, New Jersey, opened in record time to welcome High Tech High School students enrolled for the 2018-19 school year.
High Tech High School is a state-of-the-art county vocational magnet school equipped with more than 70 leading-edge classrooms and specialty spaces, serving approximately 1,200 students in grades 9-12. It is situated within Laurel Hill Park near the Secaucus Junction train station and is part of the Hudson County Schools of Technology (HCST) public school district. Students previously attended an aging, undersized facility in North Bergen that was established in 1991.
The Frank J. Gargiulo Campus is also home to KAS Prep, an alternative high school program, and Hudson Technical, a post-secondary certification program.
An Innovative Vision Becomes Reality
More than a decade ago, HCST was inspired to create a sophisticated education space that would support career-based learning communities for high schoolers. The goal was to connect real-life applications of knowledge and skills to help students link their educational experiences to their futures.
To transform this vision into reality, HCST engaged RSC Architects as its design and bridging architect to help develop this innovative facility. The Hudson County Improvement Authority also played a key role by raising the funding for the project and by managing final design and construction of the project in collaboration with several key firms: DMR Architects (architect of record), MAST Construction Services, Inc. (owner’s representative and construction manager) and Terminal Construction Corp. (general contractor).
Under a $143.1 million design-build contract funded by county and state sources, construction of the 350,000-square-foot, three-level Frank J. Gargiulo Campus began in May 2016. Despite a few project delays, substantial completion was achieved ahead of schedule in July 2018.
Unusual Obstacles: Burial Grounds and Endangered Birds
Roughly a century ago, a former Hudson County hospital stood on the grounds that are now home to the new school campus. There were concerns that construction workers would unearth unmarked graves from this bygone era when medical institutions buried unclaimed bodies in what’s known as a potter’s field.
“With the help of the state’s preservation society, prior to construction we conducted numerous archaeological digs, identified and confirmed the burial grounds, and designed around those areas,” says MAST Construction Services’ Vice President, Paul Skabich, who served as Project Executive. “Luckily, no remains were discovered during construction,” he adds with a chuckle, noting how such a discovery would have inevitably slowed the project’s progress. “The Hudson County Improvement Authority did commission a granite monument to mark the burial grounds, an effort that our firm also managed.”
Endangered wildlife in the area also threatened to delay the project up to two months. Shortly after construction began, the Bergen County Audubon Society, a chapter of the National Audubon Society, notified the design-build team that certain rare birds were nesting throughout the building site. At the time this area contained 27 known migratory species, including osprey and yellow-crowned night herons, which were protected under nesting stage provisions outlined in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
The design-build team performed a workaround in the form of construction monitoring through certified environmentalist consultants who conducted a biological site assessment approved by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. “This assessment identified trees in which migratory birds were nesting and, as a result, a handful of trees could not be cleared until the young birds left their nests,” Skabich says.
Hands-on Education Fosters Authentic Learning
High Tech High School exemplifies a progressive, 21st century learning environment by combining technically-focused, hands-on education with a challenging academic curriculum. The robust learning program is divided into “Career Academies” concentrated on multiple areas of vocational-technical education: culinary arts; architecture and engineering; applied and environmental sciences; and visual/tech and performing arts. These academies are housed within the facility’s three wings, which are connected to a main corridor that leads to a two-story, fully sky-lit atrium supporting the school cafeteria and several socializing spaces.
“It was important to bring as much natural light into the large floor plan as possible,” says Jeffrey Schlecht, AIA, a Senior Project Manager at RSC Architects. “This central atrium, which is very bright and easily identifiable, is an inviting place that relieves the tension of the connecting indoor spaces.”
Innovative design measures consisting of unique color schemes and architectural forms/accents help to differentiate the campus wings and support wayfinding in the large, complex space. For example, a green palette is used to identify science labs and red tones are used for performing arts spaces. The curve-shaped auditorium is one the campus’ most stand-out structural elements, its arched perimeter wall clad in a stunning blue metal finish.
Another project highlight is a state-of-the-art fabrication lab where students have access to an assortment of industrial-grade, digitally-controlled machinery to work on things like carpentry or hot metal fabrication. During design phases the project team had to consider large pieces of equipment with very specific layout and power requirements, and select appropriate mechanical systems to keep the space environmentally safe. The result is a large, open room with unfinished ceilings, oversized roll-up doors to move projects in/out easily, and 14-foot-high clearance in most areas. A 40-foot-by-80-foot space with 30-foot clearance is designated for larger projects, such as the construction of small, mobile homes that could be donated to a local housing program.
Sustainable Structure Doubles as a Teaching Tool
The Frank J. Gargiulo Campus was designed to meet the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’s (LEED) rigorous Gold Certification standards and requirements for sustainability. Features like water-efficient landscaping, geothermal heating and wind turbines were incorporated to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases and wastewater emitted from the campus. Other conservation elements include various MEP systems, energy-efficient lighting and many building envelope components.
“The campus’ energy conservation is 43.4 percent above the code requirements and water conservation is 40 percent above code requirements,” notes Donna Coen O’Gorman, AIA, a Project Manager at DMR Architects. The project team hopes to submit the construction data needed to complete the LEED certification application by the end of this year.
Various parts of the campus help to reinforce students’ understandings of sustainability practices – including a 13,900-square-foot living green roof. This area features an outdoor classroom and a rainwater collection system used primarily for irrigation. Students can also access the rooftop solar panel systems to study things like energy savings and how the solar arrays function. Interactive learning in these areas and others help to encourage environmental stewardship.
“The school itself is a teaching tool,” Schlecht explains. “The district was committed to creating a high-performing, environmentally sustainable campus that will serve to prepare students to enter the world ready to learn, live, earn and grow. The LEED Gold Certification is part of this vision.”
Interactive Learning Imparts Real-World Insights
The practice of creating educational spaces that facilitate authentic, hands-on learning is important to today’s K-12 facility design schemes. “Students learn best when enthusiastically involved in real-world activities and lessons,” adds John Capazzi, AIA, President of RSC Architects. “This type of design empowers the faculty and informs a curriculum of project-based learning.”
Not every school district can afford to build a campus equipped with state-of-the-art amenities akin to a college-level facility. No matter the budget, or whether the space is new or repurposed, learning environments that are innovative and flexible are proven to help students develop essential skills and knowledge that will transfer beyond their high school years.
“We have to bring a real-world working environment into the schools so that students will be able to challenge themselves locally, and then globally,” Coen O’Gorman affirms. “We are seeing many schools make similar upgrades in order to better prepare students for varied opportunities after graduation.”
Streamlined Coordination Fulfills Project Demands
From design to construction, every firm interviewed for this article felt the project’s fast-tracked schedule was one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. To ensure the Frank J. Gargiulo Campus would be ready for occupants by September 2018, streamlined coordination between all team members was key to keeping construction on track and design execution on par with the owner’s expectations. The school facility took just over two years to construct – a major feat considering the scale and scope of this demanding project normally would have taken three to four years to complete, says Donna Coen O’Gorman of DMR Architects.
This project also kept a steady pace thanks to active support received from key leaders at the participating design and construction firms, including Ted Domuracki, the founder of MAST Construction Services. “As an owner, Ted’s influence was crucial in getting all the appropriate people involved and making critical decisions swiftly – a huge benefit in meeting demanding project schedules or overcoming unusual obstacles,” shares Paul Skabich of MAST Construction Services.
Safety – a Crucial Focus for Modern School Design
A school’s physical structure is critical to ensuring a safe educational environment. In accordance with the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs’ best practices for new school construction, the project team incorporated a variety of passive and active security measures into the building plans.
The fenced-in campus has a security booth located on the front of the property with an unobstructed view of drivers attempting to enter through one of two main gates. There is also a security gate at the underground parking entrance. Surveillance cameras monitor the keycard-accessible buildings, along with all parking areas, and highly-visible blue light emergency phones are strategically situated throughout the property. Protective steel bollards at the main building entrance were installed to deter car-ramming attacks, and bulletproof glazing serves to fortify vestibule areas.
Career Academies Prepare Students for Future Vocations
High Tech High School, part of the Frank J. Gargiulo Campus, offers a variety of vocational-technical programs that are categorized into unique “Career Academies” designed to foster collaborative interactions and authentic learning.
The Culinary Arts Academy offers three areas of study: culinary (for those aspiring to become chefs), baking and pastry, or food service management. Three teaching labs connected to the school’s main kitchen and a banquet room facilitate immersive education on a variety of topics, including food safety and sanitation, nutrition principles, and commercial food preparation. Participating students have the unique opportunity to utilize produce grown in the school’s rooftop vegetable garden or from the indoor hydroponics lab.
The Design and Fabrication Academy contains a host of hands-on learning environments for students interested in pursuing architecture or engineering careers. The program focuses on everything from mechatronics/robotics and industrial design to woodworking and metal fabrication to computer programming and architectural design/drafting.
The Applied and Environmental Science Academy fosters critical problem-solving skills through experiential laboratory settings focused on physics, biology, chemistry, bio-medical chemistry, ecology, geology, horticulture and environmental science.
The Media/Visual Arts and Performing Arts Academy allows students to explore a variety of vocational pathways, offering classes in audio/visual production, broadcasting, photography, journalism, dance, drama, music/audio technology and more. Many unique spaces support this program’s interdisciplinary education model, including: choral and instrumental music studios, an audio/tech recording lab, a TV production studio with a functioning control room, a 120-seat black box theatre, and a 325-seat performing arts auditorium.
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