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One Giant Leap

Metal panels make the Neil Armstrong Academy far from ordinary, just like its namesake.

By Henry Burke

Neil Armostrong

When looking for a role model to encourage young children to aim high, it is hard to top former astronaut Neil Armstrong. Both literally and figuratively, few have gone as far as the man who first stepped on the moon. He showed that knowledge is power and proved that humanity is not bound to its earthly home. His lifelong dedication to science and discovery has been an inspiration to children and adults alike.

Armstrong’s lifetime of accomplishment and place in the pantheon of American heroes led the Granite School District in West Valley City, Utah, to name its new science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) elementary school after him. Like its namesake, the Neil Armstrong Academy is dedicated to the sciences and the pursuit of knowledge.

With the demand for STEM workers expected to rise in the years ahead, it is vital to improve students’ academic mastery in those fields. Neil Armstrong Academy prides itself on a rigorous math and science curriculum practically applied to the design and construction of machines and other devices. The curriculum focuses on developing the ability to think critically and solve complex problems.

“The Granite School District wanted to build an elementary school that supported the STEM curriculum they were developing,” says Eric L. Madsen, AIA, principal at Salt Lake City–based Naylor Wentworth Lund Architects. The firm was awarded the Neil Armstrong Academy project based on its reputation and expertise in educational facility design.

The school that Naylor Wentworth Lund Architects designed is approximately 95,000 square feet and includes classrooms of various sizes, as well as laboratories, group meeting facilities, a gymnasium, a media center, and a dining room. “The glass-enclosed labs are the central focus of the school and the first thing students and visitors see when they enter the building,” Madsen says. “Raised flooring throughout all the classrooms provides virtually unlimited flexibility for the instructors.”

Mission Critical

From the Academy’s inception, the goal was to be more than just an ordinary schoolhouse. “The school district wanted a very flexible, engaging, and energy- efficient building,” Madsen says. “It also wanted a place that would encourage students, parents, local businesses, and institutions to partner with the school.”

The importance of this school to the community is apparent from the level of engagement and involvement the district had in all stages of the project. “One of the best decisions the Granite School District made was to create a design committee with some of the district’s best minds,” Madsen says. “It was a great experience, playing off each other’s ideas. The building really is a reflection of that committee and the hopes for a building that could work with the community.”

Neil Armostrong

Prime among project goals were flexibility, schedule, and budget. Flexibility was important to the building’s function as well as its construction. The project team needed to look for solutions that could provide the performance the district wanted in the timeframe available. The speed of construction that can be achieved with metal was ideal for the project.

“The district had a tight schedule and wanted a flexible building,” Madsen recalls. “We chose a steel structure because it is quick to erect and because walls could be modified more easily in the future.” The metal skin and infrastructure system selections reinforce the STEM curriculum and promote interest in the scientific and engineering principles employed in the design of the structure. “The steel structure even allowed us to use transparent walls that provide glimpses into otherwise hidden mechanical and structural systems,” Madsen says.

Ground Control

Budget was another major factor on this project, and metal wall panels delivered advantages on that front, as well. “We were challenged to keep the project within budget, and we engaged a local architectural cladding subcontractor, Steel Encounters, early in the process and discussed ways to keep the skin’s cost down,” Madsen explains. “CENTRIA’s Profile Series BR5-36 exposed fastener panels were used high on the façade where the fasteners were less visible. This was one of the most cost-effective panels we could find.”

Other types of metal wall components were used in other parts of the building. “We used CENTRIA’s Formawall® on the classrooms because the architectural detail was clearly visible, and also because we wanted a high level of insulation in those areas,” Madsen says. “Aluminum composite panels were used in small amounts at the nose of the media center to provide a crisp termination to the other panels. These were the only customized areas of the project.”

The Neil Armstrong Academy opened in 2013 and has been a great asset to the community that brought it to life. The design is serving the district—and its budget—well. According to Madsen, the building has the lowest energy use intensity in the district.

Lifting Off

“The owner really wanted a billboard for its STEM school that would encourage and celebrate learning,” Madsen says. “When the school opened, the allotted 900 student slots quickly filled, as well as a waiting list of more than 600 students wanting to attend.”

Most important, the programs housed in the school and facilitated by the classroom and learning space design are paying dividends for the students who attend the Academy.

“To the credit of the administration and the educators, the test scores at Neil Armstrong Academy have been through the roof,” Madsen says. “The district is very pleased.”

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