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A School for the 21st Century

New taxes were out of the question, so the district sought alternative funding.

The district wanted a facility flexible enough to adapt to constantly changing educational imperatives, while serving as an after-hours resource for the entire community.

When the $64 million Niagara Falls High School opened last September, about 2,000 students were expected. But 2,500 showed up, including those returning from private schools and others who had crossed the border from Canada seeking a better education.

School officials were surprised but gratified by the turnout — a show of community approval after an arduous nine-year process of planning, designing and building the innovative facility.

“The school project, and all its surrounding amenities, is a perfect example of what we can achieve in this community when working together toward a common goal,” says Carmen Granto, superintendent.


Most residents of Niagara Falls had acknowledged that the city's two aging high schools needed major repairs. But there was little support for a bond issue in a city where the per capita income is $10,500 and more than half the population receives some sort of public assistance.

Following a series of public forums, the district decided in May 1997 to build a new school, and the city of Niagara Falls agreed to lease 73 vacant acres in the middle of town for the project. New taxes were out of the question, so the district sought alternative funding. Granto thought that a private energy-management company might help. It had already supplied the school district with energy-efficient boilers as part of a performance contract.

Seeing an opportunity to showcase its technical capabilities, the company agreed to serve as construction manager for the proposed high school. The school would be built with private funds and leased back to the district. The company recruited J.P. Morgan to issue and sell “certificates of participation” — not unlike bonds — to private investors. A special financing entity was set up to hold the property for 30 years, after which ownership would revert to the school district. Investors would be compensated with lease payments from the school district.

The success of the plan hinged on staying within the established budget. That meant getting the New York legislature to approve the privatization plan and exempt the project from a mandate that public-works projects be awarded to the lowest bidder and that four primary contractors be engaged for a public school project. The exemption was granted once the school district promised to employ only union labor. The school district estimates that it saved a significant amount of money by using one contractor instead of four.

With a design team assembled, it became a race to complete the project; if deadlines were missed, the entire financial arrangement would be rendered void.


Several factors influenced the design of the school. Conserving time and money was primary, as was the need to personalize the educational experience for each student. The district wanted a facility flexible enough to adapt to constantly changing educational imperatives, while serving as an after-hours resource for the entire community. The school's design also had to reflect the unique imagery of Niagara Falls. Because the site was bisected by a 300-foot-wide easement over an underground water tunnel, the building's footprint had to be compact.

Responding to these challenges, the design team created a 400,284-square-foot complex of precast concrete units with a transparent glass-walled technology core at the hub. Two-and-a-half stories high, the technology core atrium houses the Center for Information, which has a library and research area as well as a section equipped with computers and televisions. It is flexible and can be rearranged to suit changing needs. The library is positioned to allow access from the main entry and other points. As the school's see-through circulation hub, the technology core has four “support cores” of specialized function spaces on one side, and four 4-story houses, or classroom buildings, on the other.

Each support core (physical education, visual arts, performing arts and dining) occupies a clearly identifiable zone for easy public access, because all core spaces are open to the community when not being used by students. The building is used constantly at night and on weekends.

The physical-education core consists of a 2,200-square-foot main gymnasium, an auxiliary gym, a competition-sized swimming pool with diving facilities, an indoor practice track, a weight-training and fitness room, locker rooms and coaches' offices.

The performance core has a 1,700-square-foot professional theater equipped for theatrical productions, as well as a black-box theater/television studio and music classrooms. The art core includes classrooms laid out as two-story studios to accommodate large artworks, photo studios and a public art gallery affiliated with the regional Arts Council, plus two distance-learning centers that can accommodate 125 people each. The cafeteria, arranged around a central kitchen, is divided into four areas: two a la carte serving lines and two deli-style preparation areas. The cafeteria offers docking areas for laptop computers, which are distributed to every student in the school.


On the other side of the central atrium are four interconnected four-story classroom houses, identical except for color. Each house can serve up to 650 students. Predicated on a universal design plan, the houses can be programmed to accommodate a variety of organizational modes based on grade, floor, theme or academic department. Administration is decentralized; each house has its own principal, vice principal and guidance counselor. Likewise, there are decentralized facilities for each house's teaching teams, including staff offices and meeting rooms in each house.

During the school day, students leave their houses only to eat or to pursue special studies, such as art, in one of the core buildings across the atrium.

Every classroom features computer docking stations wired for Internet access, and every floor of each house has a universally designed science lab adaptable for any science, and a universally designed skills lab.

School officials are considering organizing one of the houses around a hospitality theme to prepare students for work in hotels or restaurants — a potential job-growth area in the region. In such a house, the skills labs could be converted into “practice” restaurants, front desks, hotel rooms or travel agencies for hands-on learning.


The building complex was designed to be unique: it doesn't look like a high school — it could be a hotel or office building — and has a great civic presence. The school reflects the notion of Niagara Falls as a special place, with architectural details that represent energy flowing from one point to another, like water cascading over the falls. The visual metaphor is sustained by the building's accent color (light-blue metal) and in the massing and interpretation of its forms. For example, the open stairs and blue-green metal cap at the end of each building suggest a waterfall of energy flowing from the top down.

Near the main entrance, there is a tower inspired by the high metal structures that carry electricity from one part of Niagara Falls to another. The blue-green metal and glass accents stand out against the neutral earth tones of the architectural precast concrete cladding of the complex, which was chosen for its quality, speed of installation and cost-effectiveness.

The complex is highly energy-efficient, with good wall systems and insulating glass. It is zoned with separate controls for each house and activity core, so that sections of the complex may remain open while others are shut down. In addition, the latest in temperature, lighting, security and fire-alarm technology was installed at the school. The building has 62 cameras to monitor classrooms, hallways, and parking areas for student and community safety.

Luaces, AIA, NCARB, has focused exclusively on educational design for more than a decade and served as design principal for Niagara Falls High School. He is a principal at Hillier, an architectural firm headquartered in Princeton, N.J. Honeywell Inc. served as construction manager.

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Cooperation leads to success

Superintendent Carmen Granto credits the success of the Niagara Falls High School project to outstanding teamwork throughout the planning, design and construction. Yet, a construction project often can fall into an adversarial pattern in which client, contractor, architect and vendors focus on protecting their own interests. To create a mindset of cooperation instead of confrontation, the architect, contractor, construction manager, board of education and community needed to:

  • Recognize that “we're all in this together.”

  • Trust each other.

  • Affirm that everyone is working together and not against each other.

  • Resolve conflicts by agreeing to do what's best for the job.

  • Adopt an altruistic view of what's best for the project.

Passive security design

Like every community, Niagara Falls is concerned with security in its schools. So, school administration decided to install 62 unobtrusive cameras to monitor activity in classrooms, corridors and parking areas. But even without the cameras, the school is set up to ensure passive security through thoughtful design. Elements of passive security include:

  • Sectioning the building so that people are always monitoring entrances and exits. The decentralized administrative layout puts principals' offices at the entrance of each classroom building. The main public entrance is through the library, which is always monitored.

  • Placing glass strategically to open up corridors and public spaces to view. Corridors often are where problems occur, but making them transparent cuts the risk.

  • Planning circulation patterns to maximize sightlines. Placing the library — a glass atrium — at the hub of the main circulation pattern, means staff can keep track of comings and goings to the classrooms, cafeteria and specialized support cores.

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