Puerto Rican school’s STEM project demonstrates “commitment to innovative learning”

A two-story 16,800 sq ft facility for middle school and high school students at the Baldwin School of Puerto Rico will be dedicated to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), designed to demonstrate the school’s “commitment to innovative learning,” according to written information provided to Civil Engineering by the project’s design team. Álvarez-Díaz & Villalón, a San Juan, Puerto Rico-based architecture firm, is leading the design of the Innovation Center for Science, Technology and Engineering, which will be located on the Baldwin School’s 23-acre campus in Bayamón. Zapata-Zapata & Associates, based in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, is the structural engineer. Benítez, Ramos & Associates PSC, of San Juan, is the civil engineer, and Guaynabo-based Geo Cim Inc. PSC is the geotechnical engineer.

Scheduled for completion in December 2022, the Innovation Center is designed as a unifying master-plan element for the Baldwin School that “aims to enhance its physical space and campus connectivity,” explained Monique Lugo-López, the president and chief operating officer of Álvarez-Díaz & Villalón. As a “physical representation of the school’s commitment to innovative learning,” wrote Lugo-López, the new facility will “provide spaces for inquiry, discovery, collaboration, and innovation in science, mathematics, technology, and engineering.” The building will also feature a state-of-the-art media center that Lugo-López described as “the library of the 21st century.”

The independent, English-language Baldwin School was Puerto Rico’s first school to offer an International Baccalaureate program.

Local Materials

The structural framing of the Innovation Center will feature a combination of reinforced-concrete moment frames and shear walls—concrete being the only construction material produced in Puerto Rico and thus “our first choice in order to make use of local materials,” noted Miguel A. Zapata Amador, P.E., M.ASCE, the president of Zapata-Zapata & Associates. Because the Innovation Center was designed to be certified at the silver level in the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, the project will use such locally produced products as a posttensioned concrete slab over insulated concrete forms for the floors and roof slab.

This system will provide “quicker construction, longer slab spans, and a high R [heat flow] value that translates [to] reduced energy costs. The system also soundproofs the slabs and reduces the amount of concrete material with the use of a concrete steel rib joist system,” Zapata explained. He described the framing as a “well-balanced solution that takes into account the inherent advantages of structural efficiency plus the thermal characteristics of the system. This solution also reduces overall costs and eliminates the need to rent metal forms [that] are typical in cast-in-place concrete options traditionally built on the island.”

With this integrated system, Zapata added, “you also eliminate the installation of a layer of insulation under a built-up roofing system, which provides overall construction efficiency.”

Resistant Roof

The system also gives the team flexibility in choosing a roofing system that complies with the wind/uplift resistance requirements in Puerto Rico, which is located in a high-wind-velocity hurricane zone, he said.

The reliance on concrete also addresses a current labor shortage in Puerto Rico, especially of carpenters, rebar forepersons, and steel erectors, Zapata noted. The use of concrete framing will help reduce the size of the required workforce by 40 percent.

Envisioned by the Baldwin School as a learning tool, the Innovation Center will feature exposed structural, mechanical, and electrical systems. “The idea is to use the classroom space as an example of innovation and as a tool to teach students how buildings are made and how they work,” noted Lugo-López. “Having the opportunity to teach students how air-conditioning works, where the electricity comes from, [and] how [a] building consumes energy will help them better understand how things work and how overall design decisions will impact everyday lives and the surrounding environment.”

A Suitable Site

The Innovation Center will be constructed adjacent to the school’s existing cafeteria, along the primary pedestrian circulation routes across the campus, said Lugo-López. The site features “favorable subsurface conditions,” noted Carlos Garcia, a Geo Cim principal. “The existing soils consist of mediumstiff to stiff clay and silt layers to a 25 ft depth.” This, he explained, enabled the use of shallow spread footing foundations to support the proposed structure.

Because the clay soils near the surface were classified as high plasticity clays—which suggests potential expansive characteristics—a partial cut and replacement of the upper clay soils will be required, Garcia explained. A minimum of about 3 ft of nonexpansive compacted fill material will be used beneath the proposed structure, and together with other design details this will prevent water infiltration below the structure, Garcia added. These details will include the collection of rainwater from the roof and its disposal in the existing site stormwater system and the regrad regrading of the soils around the perimeter of the building away from the structure.

The Innovation Center’s ground level is being developed around a so-called Maker Space—a central classroom “where students with mutual interests can work together on projects while sharing ideas, equipment, and knowledge,” noted Lugo-López. “The building design is flexible, diverse, and open to acknowledge a range of learners and to reinforce critical thinking as well as complex problem-solving.”

Cooperation Encouraged

Science laboratories and a fabrication shop will be located adjacent to the Maker Space to facilitate cooperative learning and investigation.

The second floor will house the media center, which is an electronic library that will provide classrooms, small study group areas, and an open space that students can reconfigure as needed.

Because the roof slab has been designed for multiple functions—as a green roof, an outdoor terrace, and an assembly area—live loads of 100 lb/sq ft were considered in the design, Zapata wrote. A concrete pergola was also designed above the roof area to support a series of photovoltaic panels.

The design had to consider both hurricane winds and high seismic activity. “A dynamic structural analysis and design was performed using the ETABS computer program [from Computers & Structures Inc., of Walnut Creek, California]. We also considered in-plane horizontal irregularities due to [the] discontinuity of the second floor,” Zapata explained.

A key design goal involved preserving the existing natural habitat while maintaining the integrity of the site location, noted Lugo-López. For example, special seating will be constructed “to embrace the context of the adjoining soccer field and provide an after-school and weekend partial use of the new structure,” she explained.

Because of site restrictions, the main facade of the building will be oriented toward the west, presenting a design challenge with respect to interior glare and solar heat gain. Long overhangs, insulated walls and slabs, and thermally broken translucent panels will be used to offset the exposure.

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