By Luke Carothers

Students at Santa Monica High School (SAMOHI)  are reaping the benefits of the new Discovery Building that was recently completed on the Southern California campus.  The Discovery Building houses 43 classrooms–including science and computer labs–as well as indoor and outdoor dining facilities, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a suite for medically fragile students, a rooftop garden classroom, and a parking garage for nearly 300 cars.  With as many features, the total building space is 280,000 feet with two levels below grade that house parking for the structure as well as a loading dock and distribution center.  This below grade section also houses the Olympic-sized swimming pool, which, in addition to hosting the school’s athletic teams, also serves a community function.  The SAMOHI Discovery Building also houses three floors of classrooms with half of one of the floors being used as a kitchen and dining facility that doubles as the food preparation site for the district.  The building’s rooftop space is also being fully utilized, featuring not only a rooftop classroom, but also an PV solar system and a solar heating system for the pool.  

The SAMOHI Discovery Building was built through a collaboration between McCarthy Building Companies, HED and Moore Ruble Yudell.  Funding for this innovative project was secured through bond money from the school district.  Nathan Huntley, who served as the Senior Project Manager for McCarthy on the project, believes the building’s uniqueness is a product of both its open construction and the classrooms being built on access flooring.  The combination of the structure’s flexible, open-column grid design, and access flooring means that the building’s interior is open and can change based on need.  Huntley notes that the building’s columns and lack of shear walls means that they were free to use different types of walls that can be moved and changed to alter the space such as partitions and NanaWalls.

Many of the biggest challenges on this project came from providing access flooring.  To overcome these challenges, Huntley and his team had to rely on a high level of coordination.  The decision to include access flooring meant that the typical construction process was inverted.  During a standard construction project, MEP work is done after the flooring and walls are constructed.  However, because most of the MEP is located below the flooring, it had to be moved up in the schedule.  This “reverse construction process”, as Huntley puts it, had a significant impact on the rest of the project.    

This flexible design is helpful in both the short and long term.  This level of flexibility is unique in an educational setting, and, although the building was designed before Covid-19 became a concern, its ability to expand spaces and utilize outdoor learning is well suited for the current paradigm.  In this sense, the SAMOHI Discovery Building is designed to fully utilize the local climate.  Not only does the school feature several outdoor classroom spaces that take advantage of the warm Southern California environment, but the cafeteria is also outfitted with a special set of glass doors that can be fully opened.  According to Huntley, this serves two purposes in both letting fresh air circulate throughout the communal eating area and extending it outdoors, providing more usable space.  

In the long term, the building’s flexible design will reduce the inevitable cost of retrofitting the building when the time comes.  As Huntley points out, the school’s needs are bound to change as the size of classes grow or shrink and new technologies are introduced.  The number of students served by the district may fluctuate, and the building’s modular design is well suited to expand the size of classrooms based on need.  However, Huntley notes that the building’s modular design is also designed to accommodate things like program changes where the use of a space changes over time, saying “[a room’s] power, data, and floor vents are all modular, so they can shift and move if a wall has to move.”  The viability of this design was first tested during construction when there was a program change in one part of the building, says Huntley.  Despite the program change, there was minimal impact on the cost and schedule for the rest of the project, lending credibility to the design’s flexibility.  

With its completion, the SAMOHI Discovery Building is set to put these unique features to good use.  The building’s open design as well as its utilization of the Southern California climate creates an environment that is not only comfortable, but also fertile ground for collaboration and improved access.  The field of education is often a rapidly changing field, and new innovations in the field are changing the way students and teachers interact with one another.  By providing a flexible space, the SAMOHI Discovery Building elevates the student’s social and educational interactions as well as their sense of community.


Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.  

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