The Second Commons
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On June 12, 2017, sledgehammers and hydraulic excavators will raze the Upper School physics building and tower, marking the beginning of an ambitious and costly two-year renovation project at Durham Academy.
Meg McNall, a current physics teacher at DA, shared similar concerns. “Science is a big selling point to DA … but when you look at our buildings, you would never see that,” she said. “We have a chemistry building that can’t have more than five hot plates on at a time where suddenly the electricity fails. And we’ve got ceilings in the physics building that look like they’re made of asbestos—which they are not! I promise.”
“But certainly when people look at our buildings, I don’t think they see the strength of our program. So I think it’s really nice to see DA putting money into facilities that are really gonna support that excellence of our program in the decades to come,” Ms. McNall said.
The decision to renovate also came from practical concerns. The heating and cooling in the Double Decker is intermittent at best, and “replacing the HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] alone is more than $100,000,” Mr. Ulku-Steiner said. The major alteration would require the building, which “doesn’t have good accessibility for handicapped students or students even on crutches,” to be updated in compliance with 28 CFR 36.402 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Rather than to install an elevator or a colossal ramp for the legacy structure, the school determined it was time to modernize.
And, as Durham Academy looks forward, the administration hopes the project will help accommodate larger class sizes. “Admission pressure has grown so great,” Mr. Ulku-Steiner said. “Right now, for our ninth grade, we’ll probably have about 15 spots—we have more than 110 applicants for those spots, so we’re having to say no to students we’d love to enroll. These new facilities will allow us to have slightly larger [graduating] classes.
In the project, three of five main educational spaces at DA—physics, Glaxo Science, and the Double Decker—will be demolished in succession, making way for the two-story, yet-unnamed Science and Humanities Center. Though some worry this will erase the signature outdoorsy, no-hallways aspect of the campus, Lee Hark, Assistant Head of School, is convinced of the new building’s potential.
“[We want to] weigh against the idea of a decentralized campus … what you gain from all the collaborative space. We’re going to have almost a dozen more study rooms and faculty group offices, and I think the impact on the learning experience for the students and the working experience for the faculty is going to be profound,” Mr. Hark said. “That to me is a huge advantage, and I’m willing to sacrifice a little bit of the decentralized, southern California-sort of architecture if we can facilitate that.”
Mr. Ulku-Steiner also assured the school would still preserve some of its current open atmosphere. “Instead of a loud, dark, crowded hallway, [the architects] are doing a lot of small design tweaks that make it [lighter and] more livable—windows at the ends of hallways, wide places and alcoves in the hallways where there’ll be benches and seating areas, skylights from the top,” he said.
And the centerpiece of the new building would be a two-story “second Commons,” where a lecture could be held or a film could be shown, or where an entire grade level could gather for class meeting. “It’s kind of like a glass atrium,” Mr. Hark said.
“Right now, the kids do a lot of waiting around—to get onto a tool, or the tool’s broken, … or they’re not allowed to go in there, because you’re allowed to have only eight people in at a time,” said Lou Parry, a physics teacher at DA. “You got a finite number of hours in a school year, and if the kids become 20% more efficient, you’ve actually increased the amount of learning time. Kids might not notice that, but I think the teachers will notice it.”
Once the Double Decker is demolished in the summer of 2019, the DA campus will be left with a vast, open area where the building once stood. It is still undecided what will fill the historic void, but the science department was no short of suggestions.
“Personally, I would prefer an outdoor foursquare court, just so that people are not throwing the balls right at my door,” said Mrs. Newman, the chemistry teacher. “That’s what I’m looking forward to the most: Not having soccer balls hit my door while I’m trying to teach a class.” Mrs. Whiting, the biology teacher, requested an outdoor amphitheater, while Ms. McNall asked for an open field “whose point is just fun play, and nobody’s ever chasing you off of it or telling you, ‘We have a track meet today! You can’t be here!’”
But Mr. Parry proposed keeping the space empty. “It must be a great view of the athletic fields,” he said. “From the current Commons, you’ll have this awesome distant view. That alone will the biggest thing that’s gonna come out of that.”
Just as undecided is the future of Rosie, the enormous 25-year-old python in Mrs. Whiting’s classroom. “The idea of trying to move her into the new building is daunting, because she’s not easy to handle, and I can’t really see us putting money into building a new cage for her,” Mrs. Whiting said. “So I am in the process of trying to find a welcoming museum or home that might be willing to take her.”