A Focus on Academic Spaces
On a recent spring day, hammers and saws could be heard echoing through the Boys’ Garden and across the quad as students in the Maker’s Lab intensive class put finishing touches on sheds they were building for a local Habitat for Humanity organization.
The project was designed to help students work as a team and give back to the community. Intensives allow students to immerse themselves in a single topic as a way to close out the spring term and the academic year.
“The students in this class learn many life skills, including using tools correctly and safely and practicing construction techniques,” said science faculty member Franklin Bell, who teamtaught the course with mathematics faculty member Andy Brown. “These are lessons they will take throughout their lives. Not to mention that these students will have a great introduction to the Maker’s Lab space if they choose that for their Springboard [senior capstone] class next year.”
The students’ work, which required math and engineering skills, had temporarily taken over a concrete slab outside of–and some of the lower classrooms within–the Burgin Center for the Arts. Students carefully worked around each other, making the most of their available workspace, including a former art classroom and the hallway leading outside.
Finding space for expanding programs is challenging, said Associate Head of School for School Life Julie Maurer ’90, P ’18, ’20, ’22, ’23, noting that the lower level of Burgin became home for Maker’s Lab because space wasn’t available elsewhere on campus.
A shoehorn approach to finding places for programs is less than ideal, and there are other similar existing situations and potential future challenges to consider.
“When we looked at the campus, we kept circling back to a focus on our academic spaces,” Maurer said, noting that arts and athletics have both been enhanced in recent years. “We haven’t focused attention on our academic spaces in quite some time.”
Because environment influences learning, it’s time to pay attention. Earlier this year, Mercersburg’s Board of Regents approved a campus master plan to address four areas of need that will preserve the school’s history, ensure present-day educational success, and allow for future sustainability. Campus master plans typically are completed within 15-20 years, and the school expects to stay within that timeline as it begins to implement the four ambitions:
- Transform the academic experience.
- Refresh the residential life experience.
- Enhance the campus life experience.
- Support a measured approach to existing facilities and environmental stewardship.
Head of School Quentin McDowell P ’25, ’27 compares a campus master plan to a computer’s operating system. Ideal performance requires consistent upgrades.
“This is just campus master plan iteration X,” McDowell said. “We take what was the original design, and we continue to enhance it, to evolve it, but it’s all based on the same fundamental principles.”
While each part of the campus master plan has value, the school’s leadership team has identified updating academic spaces as a priority.
“To me, that’s called 1A, that’s really getting at our academic spaces and making sure that we’re creating the kinds of environments where students are going to thrive, that are optimal for learning and for the programming of Mercersburg,” McDowell said.
Today’s classrooms need to be light, open, and adaptable to different types of activities.
“While our teachers have been creative in how they set up their spaces–using modular furniture, for example–we need to invest in flexible spaces beyond just the furniture,” Maurer said. “We are doing a lot more collaborative teaching, and we need flexibility.”
Taking the step from realizing the need to providing for it occurs through campus space analyses:
- Geography: Where things are located.
- Flow of traffic: Time in between classes and the flow of the day.
- Conditions of buildings: What needs to be remodeled or redone? What needs to be new? What doesn’t exist?
“We have programs now that didn’t exist 20 years ago: Maker’s and robotics labs are now standard practice, but we had to find existing spaces and make use of those, as opposed to creating spaces that are optimal for a world which now focuses more on engineering and production and in the creative innovation spaces,” McDowell said. “There are so many things that go into this, and it’s part of why we have partnered with an external firm.”
Intensive Origin Stems from Senior Project
The Maker’s Lab intensive grew out of a senior project from last year where two students built a shed for a family that had just moved into a new Habitat for Humanity house in nearby Chambersburg, PA. That project, a “She Shed,” was constructed by Nicole Treml ’22 and Maddie Koutavas ’22.
“One thing that was really important to us was that this shed was built and designed by Nicole and myself. We learned a lot—including how to frame and side a shed. We also learned how to use trigonometry to calculate the perfect angle for our rafters,” Koutavas said.
The students wanted to make this their senior capstone project following a “How Habitat Works” presentation to the student body. The design, materials list, and construction plan were determined by Treml and Koutavas under the guidance of their instructors.
“These skills are irreplaceable, and I will use them throughout my life, especially in my college career in my endeavors to become an engineer,” Treml said.
Originally published in the Franklin County Free Press.
Reprinted with permission.
Direction and Framework
In developing recommendations for Mercersburg, The Blanchard Group, professional campus planners based in Richmond, VA, studied the history of the school in order to understand founding Headmaster William Mann Irvine’s vision for the campus and its evolution since 1893. The Blanchard Group combined that background with present and future needs, and coupled those with a knowledge of what is working on other independent school and college campuses.
An enduring campus master plan needs direction and framework, said architect Jeff Blanchard, principal at The Blanchard Group.
“The school’s primary academic buildings–Irvine Hall, Lenfest Hall, and Rutledge Hall–have not been updated in many years,” Blanchard said. “The school’s top priority is to create new spaces for science, math, Maker’s Lab, and robotics to meet the needs of 21st-century programs and students. This will free up space in Irvine Hall, allowing for a better balance in the academic program. Academic programs from Rutledge Hall also will be relocated. In addition, the ambition includes reimagining the library space to provide more academic support activities.”
A new math and science facility, located north of Irvine Hall, will create space–either in the new building or elsewhere on campus–for Maker’s Lab, robotics, and future STEM programs.
The new building will allow for improvements to existing academic facilities, said Mercersburg’s Director of Facilities Brian Nordyke P ’14, who noted that this will create more functional and flexible spaces.
Ideally, small or large groups could meet, more than one teacher could be working with a group, students could be at a desk, or in pods, with writable surfaces–and in updated laboratories, Maurer said, noting that the preliminary plan includes exterior space for students to work on projects.
“In the center of campus, that becomes a visible space, where kids can be outside working on projects, and that promotes interest,” Maurer said. “Right now, it’s kind of hidden, and instead you could have that be part of our central campus.”
While the other facets of the campus master plan are important, there has to be a starting point, and, for the present time, that focus is academics.
“Mercersburg has done a remarkable job at investing in our facilities,” McDowell said, noting that each part of the plan will be explored as resources allow. “It’s hard because all things are important, but if everything’s important, nothing will ever get done.”
Refresh the Residential Life Experience
Imagine, if you will, the Mercersburg dorm of the future.
What if your teenage boarding school self had a living space that looked and felt more like home, and what if that space contained both historical and contemporary elements?
Welcome to the campus master plan’s second ambition: Refresh the residential life experience. It has been 20 years since the last dorm renovation investment, so it’s time.
“Our goal is to refresh the residential life experience of our students by improving the boarding facilities,” said Jeff Blanchard, architect. “We understand the importance of maintaining the dormitories, but the high demand makes it challenging to make necessary upgrades to individual facilities.”
To overcome that challenge, a new 42-student dormitory situated near Tippetts and Fowle halls will be constructed. Students initially will live in the new dorm while their current dorms are renovated. Then another group of students will be placed in the new dorm.
“Once the upgrades are completed, students will return to their original dormitory, and we will move on to upgrade another facility,” Blanchard said, noting that the renovation work will begin with the older, smaller dormitories, such as South Cottage, Swank Hall, and Keil Hall.
In essence, your favorite dorm gets a face-lift, with an upgrade of high tech chiseled in.
What could that look like?
Associate Head of School Jennifer Craig has given this some thought, and she envisions spaces that contribute to students’ wellness while allowing them to balance the academic and social aspects of being a teen.
What if dorm rooms were:
- L-shaped to allow for privacy
- Various sizes: singles, doubles, triples, quads
What if dorm rooms offered:
- Built-in storage areas
- Pocket doors that slide into walls
- Standing desks
- Motion sensors, and power-saving electrical outlets and lighting fixtures
- Smart TVs
What if each dorm had:
- Common collaborative spaces with entertainment and academic elements, 3D printers, whiteboards, flexible pods, big screens
- Bathrooms with private booths, rather than semiprivate stalls
- Food areas providing opportunities to cook
- Small workout/yoga rooms
- Outdoor spaces for plantings, fire pits
Future dorms could have all or most of these elements. Perhaps they’ll have elements that haven’t been imagined.
When dorms were previously renovated, Wi-Fi was an emerging idea, not a standard offering, noted Associate Head of School for School Life Julie Maurer ’90, P ’18, ’20, ’22, ’23.
“Our buildings and grounds and our techs have done a remarkable job retrofitting those spaces,” Maurer said. “It’s really exciting to think what they could look like if we would design them with that in mind. How do we think about modern spaces for our students to be in that have the kind of modern technology and convenience that they use and need?”
Spaces where students can gather within and around the dorms also will be a priority. That includes thinking about the day student experience and how the school can be more thoughtful about the dorms they also call home. “We cherish our day students, and having students from our local communities is a big part of the culture of Mercersburg,” McDowell said.
The goal is to allow for teenage energy, encourage leadership, and provide privacy, which helps students develop identity. “Dorms are a special place. This is where an enormous amount of bonding and connecting and learning and growth happens,” McDowell said. “As much as we can, we want our dorms to feel like their home.
“It really is about community space, about intentional spaces for groups of kids and adults living together to go beyond just studying and the basics of life, but really making sure there’s meaningful space for engagement and connection.”
Enhance the Campus Life Experience
If you’re at Mercersburg but not in a classroom or dorm, where are you, probably? Hint: Most people go there three times a day for fellowship, fun, and food. All three are served in the dining hall, the one place on campus where the entire community gathers to connect at mealtimes.
This pivotal place has been identified as one of three spaces that will enhance the campus life experience:
- Dining hall renovations
- Fitness and wellness experience–exploring options for the Flanagan Pool
- Campus front door: Addition of a gatehouse on Academy Drive
“The dining hall in Ford Hall will undergo a significant renovation to create a more welcoming environment for one of the school’s most treasured community settings,” said architect Jeff Blanchard, principal at The Blanchard Group.
Additionally, options for the Flanagan Pool space, which became available after the completion of the Lloyd Aquatic Center, are being explored.
“We recognize that we have this really wonderful and storied space in the Flanagan Pool that is now open,” said Head of School Quentin McDowell. “I want to make sure that we take the time to consider what’s best for that area. It’s likely to be fitness and wellness, and to expand that and more indoor facilities for our kids to use as they pursue healthy lifestyles and athletics. We see that as being a need, but we also recognize that we have a lot of other incredible facilities at the moment that can serve most of those needs.”
Lastly, options to provide a warm and inviting entrance at the intersection of Academy Drive and Sycamore Lane are being explored.
“A number of years ago we changed the address to be at the front entrance,” McDowell said. “We do want to funnel people through our campus. What’s the experience we want them to have when they first see Mercersburg? We want them to see Academy Drive and Sycamore Lane and the chapel and campus, but we also want them to have an experience where they see the town of Mercersburg, which is very much a part of who we are. How do we negotiate that, so when people are coming to campus, they get a full experience, but a very intentional experience, and that they also feel a sense of being welcomed and acknowledged upon arrival? The long-term plan there is to think through that very thoughtfully and consider whether or not we someday want to have a welcome center.”
Homemade Rolls in Science Class
What if a renovated dining hall included a classroom kitchen or two? What would we do with that? Think beyond the traditional home economics class because, as usual, our faculty are already there.
Take, for instance, Cory Bontrager’s chemistry class. They could be found in the True Blue Café this school year concocting hands-on projects, with the added bonus of devouring what they created. Homemade rolls in science class? You bet. That’s one lesson the kids won’t forget.
“We’ve been doing some really interesting teaching that involves cooking,” said Julie Maurer, associate head of school for school life. “Can we think about a classroom or space where students can engage in that kind of work, extending the walls of the classroom right into spaces like a kitchen? If we had a space in the new dining hall that would allow students to cook, that would be so well used. There are all kinds of really neat opportunities to think about what our dining hall could be.”
As sidewalks create pathways on campus, all four parts of the campus master plan weave together in the fourth ambition: Support a measured approach to existing facilities and environmental stewardship.
“This ambition requires ongoing maintenance programs, expanded space for maintenance operations, and utilizing new construction and renovations as opportunities to enhance our environmental efforts,” Blanchard, the architect, noted. “Environmental stewardship is a top priority, and we are dedicated to maintaining this commitment. The school has made great gains over its history with its remarkable facilities and landscapes. It is crucial that we continue to care for them responsibly.”
This ambition will include a new facilities complex and central plant, mechanical renovations to Traylor Hall, and a host of other initiatives.
There always will be a wish list, and as opportunities are presented, there are questions to consider:
• How does this fit into the long-term plan?
• How does this best serve our students?
• What are the unintended consequences or implications of these decisions?
“There’s a reason things were put in a spot,” McDowell, head of school, noted. “That doesn’t always mean that those reasons hold up over time, but we need to fully explore that before we make changes. Sometimes change can create great opportunity. That’s really what we’re seeking. How do we get a win-win?”
One major win for this ambition is the renovation of Traylor Hall, a project that has been approved and is slated to begin in 2024.
“It’s a $4.5 million building that is essentially priceless–you couldn’t rebuild it,” and yet it has a 100-year-old HVAC system, McDowell said. “Buildings get old, and deferred maintenance comes into play. It’s not the most attractive thing to talk about, but it’s incredibly important as stewards of the school to be always thinking about how we maintain these amazing facilities that we’re building.”
Mercersburg has numerous potential opportunities for thoughtful environmental stewardship where the projects are concerned, noted Director of Environmental Initiatives Will Willis P ’22, ’24.
“Renovations in Traylor will undoubtedly seek to maintain the building’s unique charm, but will also create a more comfortable space and save a substantial amount of energy by replacing the inefficient and uneven HVAC system there now,” said Willis, a science faculty member. He noted that updates on IT infrastructure offer an opportunity to reduce energy consumption while increasing technological access and speed.
This part of the plan also includes recommendations for the creation of a contemplative garden by the Irvine Memorial Chapel or a rejuvenation of the Boys’ Garden near the Burgin Center for the Arts.
“These offer an avenue for the grounds staff to creatively accentuate our grounds even more, much to the benefit of the community, while also enhancing biodiversity and habitat on campus,” Willis said.
Additionally, it’s important to note that the central plant building was constructed in 1910 and was originally a coal-fired power plant that produced electricity for the campus. It currently serves as the central plant for heating and cooling for the majority of the campus buildings.
“A planned replacement of the building and equipment presents a unique opportunity to modernize with cutting-edge technologies that will improve both reliability and energy efficiencies across campus,” noted Brian Nordyke, director of facilities.
When asked to predict what aspect of the ambitions will be the most difficult to achieve, McDowell is careful to comment.
“I’ve been here long enough to see unimaginable things happen,” McDowell said. “The power of the Mercersburg community is mighty. I have no doubt that if it’s something our school really needs, and we do it the right way, and for all the right reasons, that we can make it happen.”
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