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St. Agnes Academy - Houston, Texas
By: Jennifer Walker - Journey

St. Agnes Academy has been a pillar of the Catholic community in Houston, Texas, for more than century. More than 8,000 women have graduated from the school, many of whom have passed the tradition of attending St. Agnes to their own daughters, granddaughters, and even great-granddaughters. As the times changed, the school never lost sight of its original focus – to prepare young women to achieve their highest potential in all facets of life. 

The school had moved into its current building in 1963, and much renovation was in order. It realized a growing need to upgrade its science labs and fine arts department. The science labs were inadequate for the school’s impressive science curriculum, leaving the school no choice but to make its students go to the school next door to take advanced sciences courses, says Sister Jane Meyer, head of school at St. Agnes.

“Three of the labs were the same labs that were here when the school was built. And, we converted classroom space for two more labs for a total of five labs,” she said.

School leadership was ready to give its students the kind of facilities they deserved, so they submitted proposals to various architects for bids for science labs, a fine arts center, and an auditorium. One firm stood out among the six that answered the call.

“We were impressed with the professionalism of Turner Partners Architecture, the size of the firm, and the video that they presented that gave a possible rendition of our projects,” Sister Jane said.

Once Turner Partners was on board, the project began to morph. In the early days of planning, St. Agnes leadership had a good grasp on what the project should look like. They thought the current home economic rooms would be the best place to put the new science labs. They also wanted the project to be as “green” as possible, conserving energy and reducing maintenance costs.

However, when Turner Partners performed a comprehensive facilities assessment study and master plan for the school, it recommended a different course of action.

“Parents, faculty, students, and alumni had long anticipated and rallied behind the schools’ promotion to interest girls toward a future in the competitive field of science,” said Jack A. Duran, AIA, executive vice president of Turner Partners.

It made sense, then, that rather than renovate current space for the science labs, the school should build an new two-story building for the science center.

“This building would serve multiple key purposes, as a premier science laboratory/lecture space and the campus’ new entrance housing the student services center,” he said.

The idea also presented somewhat of a problem, though. Fit tightly on 16 acres, St. Agnes had little room to expand. Even adding the new building would require much cooperative site planning and way-finding improvements. Turner Partners was up to the task.

St. Agnes considered the idea, eventually narrowing their focus of the new building not only to serve as a science center but also a fine arts center. St. Agnes also suggested adding a third story to the building so that it could include its counseling and administration offices in the new space. Thus, the new building would be called the Science Center and Student Services.

Turner Partners went further to suggest that the school gut the old home economics area, incorporate a storeroom and photo lab, and make the arts center.

“They also suggested enclosing a walkway for the art gallery,” Sister Jane said. “They gave us a plan for renovating the first floor where the old science labs were and bringing the entire first floor up to code. They also worked with us to add an elevator in the main building and renovate the chapel.”

The plan was finally perfect, and St. Agnes began to use standard practices to raise the $8 million for the initial phase of the master plan, the Science Center and Student Services building.

Construction began in summer 2006 for the building that would add five counseling offices, an academic support center, four administrative offices, four restrooms, eight classroom/lab combinations, and two classroom/lab combinations with a large preparation lab between them. This allowed four classroom/lab units on two of the floors.

The centerpiece of the building is its grand, three-story rotunda that was designed to “evoke a lantern signifying St. Agnes Academy’s role as a beacon for the spiritual and intellectual growth of its students,” Duran said.

The school also was equipped with built-in seating in corridors and alcoves to provide students with the opportunity for individual study and to encourage fellowship.

“Lobbies function as student lounges and double as gathering and workspaces, which promotes group discussion and collaboration,” Duran said.

The laboratories were outfitted with state-of-the-art teaching technologies, including laptop computers. The labs also included advanced media center /central control stations and wireless networks so that educators and students can engage in an interactive instruction platform. And, a multi-purpose meeting/conference room on the ground level houses video conferencing capabilities to participate in distance learning.

The art students also were able to have a hand in the project. They designed the gate at the front of the school and have artwork displayed in the new building and in the art areas, such as the art gallery.

The exterior façade, primarily of brick and precast stone panels, resembles the existing campus architecture. While the masonry veneer has been peeled away at the corners to expose a metal clad structural skeleton, the vertical curtain wall circulation system symbolizes a new anatomy of scientific inquiry.

Outside, the campus’s network of landscaped courtyards provides an environment rich in natural light to view the nature and daily interactive activities outside. The laboratories above are awash in natural light that can be controlled through use of exterior sunshades and interior blinds.

The new building was completed just in time for the beginning of the 2007-2008 school year. St. Agnes wasted no time moving ahead with its other plans. The first floor renovations were completed in 2007, and the second floor was brought up to code in 2008.

Turner Partners Architecture, www.TPALP.com, is based in Houston, Texas, and offers space planning, interior design, architectural design, construction and bid documents, specifications, bid and negotiation services, construction contracts, and administration services.

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