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Grand Rapids Christian Elementary School
By: Jennifer Walker-Journey

Peter Baldwin, principal at AMDG Architects, has seen the magic that can happen when great minds come together to tackle a building challenge. No place is it more rewarding than in a spiritual and educational setting, such as Grand Rapids Christian Schools, a large school system comprised of seven campuses in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, area that provides high-quality, faith-based education for children preschool through 12th grade.

Grand Rapids Christian Schools thrived over the years, expanding with more campuses. Four of them were devoted to separate elementary schools in distinct communities within Grand Rapids. In more recent years, however, enrollment started to decline, the buildings started to age, and finances for the school system were being worn thin. School leadership was faced with a challenge: How could it rework its elementary school program to improve the infrastructures as well as move its style of educating young children into the 21st Century?

“This is where we started with the project,” Baldwin says. “There was a strategic decision to consolidate the four schools into one. As you can imagine, it was pretty challenging. Each of the schools had very strong identities and strong legacies. They were each smaller schools but were all very imbedded in their communities.”

Baldwin has worked with numerous Christian schools on building projects and suggested each of the elementary school pull together a team to participate in a series of visioning sessions. After each team had an opportunity to develop its own goals for the completed project, the teams were brought together to vision together.

The first order of business was determining where the new school would be located. Since each of the elementary schools had such strong identities independent of each other, it didn’t seem fair for the new, consolidated school to be located in one of the current elementary schools. It was decided instead that the school system explore new locations, and leadership soon identified an old middle school on spacious property. The location was ideal and offered a fresh start for the faculty and staff when they dove into the visioning process as a team.

One of the strongest desires that came out of the visionary sessions was the strong believe in smaller learning communities. Each of the four elementary schools had about 125 to 150 students from pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. Families and faculty loved the small community atmosphere and were worried that by combining the schools they would lose the benefits that smaller learning communities offered.

AMDG Architects responded to this desire by designing a plan that provided both individual and group learning opportunities for students. The plans included three learning pods, each consisting of six classrooms, one flex room, and two team rooms all adjoined by one larger common space. The pods were designed to accommodate two or three student grades each – prekindergarten; Kindergarten through first grade; and second, third and fourth grade.

The central common space connected the components of a pod spatially as a core student gathering area for group learning and exercises, including instructional teaching, arts and crafts, and worship. The flex room can be used as another classroom, meeting room or special subject room, while team rooms, one small and one large, offer space for one-on-one teaching, small group activities, and staff or parent meeting space.  Windows visually tie pod components together, further enhancing student connectivity within each pod. 

Visioning team members also expressed a desire for the closeness within the school to be communicated to the surrounding community, as well.

In response, AMDG Architects designed a sweeping curved façade and a gracious open lobby area to express the welcoming heart of Grand Rapids Christian Elementary School. 

For the community, campus playgrounds and open green space were improved as an amenity for the entire surrounding community to enjoy, Baldwin says.  The site was also designed to cater to pedestrian traffic for both school and community use.

It was also fundamentally important to Grand Rapids Christian Elementary School that their mission be expressed in the physical environment in an intentional and meaningful way. Leadership felt that rather than having a dedicated chapel space, that worship should be welcomed anywhere within the school. Thus AMDG Architects integrated common space available for worship and prayer in every area on campus. Architects also incorporated central ideas that shape and motivate the school’s devotion to God. For example, a magnificent stained glass mural was placed in the entry of the school representing the school’s history and its reformed beliefs. An illuminating floor-to-ceiling Light of Learning mural as well as a Fruit of the Spirit Garden outside were designed to physically reinforce the importance of expression of faith in design.

With the visioning team’s goals in mind, AMDG architects turned to the old middle school to see if they could work the components of the plan into the existing school. The building was nearly a century old and had historical relevance to the community. It would be a shame to do away with the fixture, but fitting it into the modern-day school building the visioning team wanted would be challenging.

“It was almost three times bigger than we needed it to be. The scale was enormous,” Baldwin recalls. “It was very challenging to reuse the building, particularly under the vision expressed by the team of smaller communities and 21st Century learning. We did quite a few studies where we tried to incorporate parts of the old building into the new one, but, in the end, we decided we needed to start over.”

The old building would have to be torn down, but AMDG architects worked to preserve and incorporate valuable architectural elements into the new design, such as terra cotta pillars, tiles, and even a fireplace from the 1928 Iroquois Building.

AMDG and its construction partner Rockford Construction worked together to incorporate numerous strategies intended to improve performance like energy savings, water efficiency, and stewardship of resources; thus, environmentally healthy choices making the new school qualify for LEED certification.

AMDG Architects is an architect and design firm located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, www.AMDGArchitects.com. Photos courtesy of Bill Lindhout.

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