The New Condit Elementary: The Ribbon that Ties Education and Community Together

Bellaire, Texas ' VLK Architects announces the opening of Houston ISD's brand new Condit Replacement Elementary. Condit is embedded into the very fabric of Bellaire as it has served its community as a neighborhood school for over 100 years.

'Education is the Ribbon that Ties the Community Together': It is a symbolic phrase with extraordinary meaning for the community of Bellaire, a tight knit suburb of Houston, Texas. Bellaire, like many other communities, is steeply invested in the education of their children and their community as a whole. When the time arrived for the Houston Independent School District (HISD) to construct a replacement school for their beloved Condit Elementary, the community of Bellaire was going to play a huge part. Embracing this heightened sense of community; HISD brought together parents, teachers, and administrators along with members of the Bellaire community to form a Project Advisory Team (PAT).

PAT members, many of whom currently have children attending Condit, also went to Condit themselves. Moreover, some of them have parents that attended Condit. Generations of previous elementary school children comprised the committee beaming with passion and pride for their school and their community. Our task of designing their school was not going to be any small endeavor. The design had to not only honor the history of community, but also elevate the education space to the current 21st century, as mandated by HISD. The design had to upgrade, not only replace a building that had become a fixture in the community and helped to define its culture. Since the community of Bellaire has been attached to their experiences in the original building, the main question throughout the entirety of this project was 'how do we honor the original Condit Elementary, yet provide a modern and innovative learning environment for future generations'

'It was really important for us to maintain some historic aspects of our building. Often times, that means that there are items that we want to make sure come with us,' said Condit Principal, Dan Greenberg. 'Our original building was from 1928, and what we were able to bring were the keystone, recreate the archway, and have the original Al J. Condit Elementary School sign, along with some of the brick work that is actually inlayed right when you walk in. So the first thing you see when you walk into the new building is a tip-of-the-hat to the old building. We are really proud of that because there is a tradition we want to continue and that starts with acknowledging what a rich history we have.'

Several years ago, the city of Bellaire donated the land adjacent to the existing school to create a joint use park, shared by the children of the school and the community. With the new design, this park was relocated, enlarged, and enhanced to serve the children and parents of Bellaire for years to come. Treasured keepsakes from the original school building didn't have to travel far, making it easier to keep some additional pieces of Condit history in the park area where the old facility stood. Some of those pieces are the large Condit triangle, as well as the Condit archway which is placed in the park where a jogging trail will eventually weave through. What Condit is mostly known for though, are the ceramic tiles that former students hand painted. They were scattered throughout the old facility and are present in the new building as well. The tiles are still featured on the archway in the park and some were even made into a motif to identify a spot on a wall in the new building where their time capsule is now buried.

In addition to honoring the history and legacy of Condit, another theme the design team was inspired by was the shape of a ribbon. To show this, a ribbon of classrooms is threaded through the open concept library called the 'learning commons.' The open Learning Commons freely allows students to roam the stacks of books and technology tools, as they walk through the school. With longstanding traditions and familial ties, VLK and the PAT wanted to create an atmosphere that connected all of these great pieces of Condit together. The history, the students, the families, the Bellaire community, and Houston ISD are represented in the new building. Providing a space for not only the children, but the families of Bellaire, the new facility includes space for the community to gather as a whole. The multipurpose gym/cafeteria is large enough for over 900 people in an assembly setting, and will also be used to host community meetings. With bright, friendly colors, the new Condit gives off the feel of higher education meets five-star hotel.

'I believe architecture is graded by the emotion it strikes in its users,' said Richard Hunt, AIA, LEED AP, and VLK Project Designer. 'With Condit, one of my primary intents was to key in on how the children would feel as they used the space. My hope is that they feel it is playful, colorful and the building invokes a desire within them to go to school. The open space, vibrant paint colors and curving walls are all intended to create a playhouse, fun environment for the students, so they can feel at ease and be excited to learn.'

The two-story replacement school features open collaborative spaces, classrooms with state-of-the-art technology, and flexible furniture that can be configured in a variety of different ways.

'Flexibility is important to us. It's important in the classrooms and it's important in the Learning Commons, its important in all parts because flexibility means you can craft the learning environment to meet the needs of your learners. That's what we are about here, and that's what every school should be about,' said Greenberg.

Since construction was completed, the new Condit Elementary has been well received among teachers and staff who have been able to get acclimated to the building over the past few weeks while prepping for the 2016-2017 school year. It took three years for the design of this replacement school to come to life, a small chunk of time when you think about how this building will impact future generations for years to come.

'There is a special feel to Condit Elementary, and I think you feel it right when you walk in,' said Greenberg. 'This school is going to be unlike any other and that makes us very proud. Being a part of the team that worked with VLK to design our new campus was equal parts exciting and informational. In retrospect, I can see how important is was for me, as the principal, to be a part of the design process. It is important that I am able to explain 'WHY' we made specific design decisions; it wasn't enough to have something look great, we needed it to be functional and support the teaching and learning we want to happen at Condit.'