Located on Chicago’s West Side in the high-need community of Belmont Cragin, the new 29,000 sq. ft. family resource center and school use building is the latest development undertaken by Christopher House, a private, community-based agency that develops and operates a continuum of innovative family-centered schools and support networks that prepare low-income children and their parents for success in life, school, and the workplace. Understanding that stand-alone education interventions are not enough, the school design builds on Christopher House’s established history of impacting educational outcomes by utilizing a family-centered approach. The building program includes early childhood education classrooms for infants (from 6-weeks of age), pre-school (toddlers, 2-year olds, 3 to 5-year olds), elementary education (Kindergarten through 5th grade), youth development (elementary after school classrooms, 6 to12 years old), family support services (food pantry, social work service, parent workshops, and financial assistance), and prenatal and parent education. This new institutional model creates an educational continuum and support network that maximizes the impact of early childhood education to improve student outcomes and level the playing field for the children and families served. The architecture is inspired by Christopher House’s family-centered approach to education, largely based on Reggio Emilia’s philosophy, which focuses on the enormous potential of each individual, and the inter-connectedness of the natural and built surroundings and the larger-community, in the individual’s learning process. This ideology is expressed in the building’s “active design” which affirms that it is not just a school, but a flexible, versatile environment that encourages individual and social engagement at multiple levels. Local residents have aptly referred to the building as a crayon box, perhaps not only in observance of its playfully simple form and colorful materials, but also in understanding the building’s articulation of the school’s learning approach, which leverages the exploration and discovery process experienced in early childhood.
The modern, newly constructed two-story steel-framed, metal clad structure serves as a powerful beacon signaling progressive development and growth opportunity in this high-need community. The unique architectural vocabulary incorporates a sustainable exterior corrugated steel wall system with brightly colored accents that add playful vitality to the design and enliven the street view. The building is carefully nestled into the neighborhood’s architectural context and natural landscape through its respectful proportions and an expansive green screen extending along the east facade. A five-foot vintage brick masonry wall with traditional ironwork situated along the perimeter of the site was retained and carefully restored to preserve the community’s architectural heritage and anchor the project into its surroundings. Floor-to-ceiling windows at the ground level along the north facade allow a visual interplay between the exterior and interior spaces. A colorful outdoor playground accessed directly from the interior classrooms gestures to the community through an inviting showcase of the building’s highly interactive design. The building footprint and floor plans have been efficiently designed to maximize space, functionality, and accessibility. Each of the student spaces and common areas are multi-purposed throughout the day - transforming from a day care to an after-school classroom, or from an art/music studio to a venue where teachers, parents, and other members of the community may interact or conduct special activities. The building’s pragmatic arrangement of space and amenities also supports the rigorous college prep curriculum proven to develop critical thinkers with the ability to succeed throughout each phase of their formal education. Early childhood and elementary school classrooms are organized on separate floors with each program administered to by its own dedicated staff.
Sustainable features include; galvanized steel exterior cladding (boosts cost efficiency, and protects against vandalism); expansive thermally broken aluminum and glass windows and exterior doors (enhance heating/cooling efficiency); moisture protection and thermal insulation systems including liquid membrane vapor permeable air barrier over exterior sheathing, continuous 4” rigid insulation above the deck on the rooftop with mechanically fastened TPO roofing membrane, and spray cellulose in the exterior wall cavity. Other sustainable materials and/or systems include VOC-restricted products (adhesives, sealants, sealer coatings, carpet, paints and coatings, insulation, gypsum board, acoustic ceilings, panels and millwork), radiant heated and eco- friendly flooring, lighting control panel with occupancy sensors, high-efficiency fluorescent interior bulbs, dimming fixtures in Early Educational Classrooms to take advantage of natural daylighting, LED exterior building lighting. Permeable pavers and perforated pipe are utilized for site storm water detention/ retention.