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Schmidt Associates Designs $100M High School for the City of Hammond

by: Jack Quigley
Hammond Central High School currently operates in a building that was constructed over 100 years ago. Hammond’s school corporation needed a new facility on the same site that better accommodated the district’s recently restructured school system, so they worked with Schmidt Associates to create a $100 million, 338,000-square-foot high school building.

Steve Schaecher, AIA, LEED AP, CDT, Principal and Senior Project Architect at Schmidt Associates, said Hammond Central’s existing building survived a fire and suffered some damage from the incident.

“It made more sense to build a new school than try to fix their existing school,” Schaecher said.

Due to Hammond’s diminishing student population in recent years, the city’s school corporation decided to close two of the district’s four high schools, making the new Hammond Central High School one of only two high schools in the city.

Schaecher said Schmidt originally designed a building for Hammond that would combine a high school and middle school into one facility per the request of the school corporation. Even though the corporation ultimately decided not to include a middle school at this location, the flexibility of the original design allowed them to still successfully create an effective high school learning environment for Hammond Central.

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Architects initially created two separate academic wings – one for the middle school and one for the high school – to ensure that student traffic from the middle school and high school would not interact. Academic wings for the high school will instead be divided by grade levels, with a media center placed directly in the center of the building’s third floor to bring together the two wings in a dynamic shared space.

Black Box Theater, Media Center, and Other Improvements
Added elements like the black box theater, media center, and new athletic facilities will give Hammond Central High School more flexibility to host a range of activities inside their building. Schaecher said he is particularly excited to see the school’s new media center come to life.

“The media center will really become the center and the focus of the school as kind of the crown jewel,” Schaecher said. “Having the information hub at the center of the school is a symbol of the importance of knowledge and progress in the community.”

Clerestory windows along the new school’s spacious public corridors will bring more natural light into the building than was present in the old facility.

“Compared to the school they’re in now, there’s a lot more breathing space in the corridor and there’s more access to restrooms,” Schaecher said. “The layout is very efficient.”

Another area Schaecher said students and staff will appreciate in their new school is the black box theater.

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“I think the black box is going to be a gamechanger for that school corporation,” Schaecher said. “It’s really the equivalent of an auditorium, but it’s flexible and can be used for different events; they could have basketball practice in there, they could have a concert in there, they could have chess club there.”

Hammond’s only other high school – Morton High School – is a magnet school for fine arts and boasts an impressive performing arts program. Schmidt designers did not want to create an auditorium for Hammond’s new high school that might challenge the performance space in the neighboring Morton High School, so the design team brainstormed creative ways to differentiate Hammond Central’s auditorium from its neighboring counterpart.

“We looked at what kind of performance space could we offer here that might be different from what they had at Morton, and that’s how the black box kind of evolved,” Schaecher said. “It’s a different type of performance space that gives them a venue to do performances without detracting from Morton High School and also gives them the possibility to run other events out of the space.”

Three banks of retractable seating inside the blackbox theater allow the auditorium’s bleacher-type seats to recoil into the walls, freeing up additional space for school activities. With multiple seating banks, Schaecher said Hammond Central will be able to configure the space to host multiple events simultaneously.

“The possibilities are really endless,” Schaecher said. “This is going to be a pivotal space for the corporation.”

Collaborating with Stakeholders
Hammond’s students, teachers, community members, and other project stakeholders gave input throughout the design process to ensure the firm’s design met the school’s academic needs
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An area included in the new high school just outside the cafeteria called the “Chill Room” was inspired by lunchtime discussions between Schmidt’s design team and Hammond Central students.

“The Chill Room actually came about as a result of Schmidt’s process getting input from students on things they’d like to have incorporated in their new building,” Schaecher said.

Schmidt set up a table during Hammond Central’s lunch period and asked students to offer their opinions on potential elements Schmidt could include in the new school. Through these discussions with students, Schmidt learned certain kids would rather escape to a quieter area during lunch periods than experience a loud and sometimes hectic lunchroom, so the added Chill Room gives those students an area to relax.

In addition to these student feedback sessions during Hammond Central’s lunch periods, Schmidt also conducted biweekly meetings with community members and developed a blog to publicly share the team’s design progress throughout the project.

“I think what you see in the final design is really a result of the feedback we received throughout the process,” Schaecher said.

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Schaecher said Schmidt conducted a “puzzle piece” exercise in which the design team established building blocks for the future facility then asked stakeholders to assemble the blocks before discussing the advantages and disadvantages associated with each proposed arrangement. Schaecher said the puzzle piece exercise is a helpful tool Schmidt uses in most of their projects to explore the opinions of several dissimilar groups and mesh together their ideas to find creative design solutions.

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