One building, two schools: Architects from Lee’s Summit helped design new schools in tornado-ravaged town

tporter@lsjournal.comMay 21, 2014 

A new building that houses Soaring Heights Elementary and East Middle schools in Joplin was designed by Lee’s Summit-based Hollis + Miller Architects.

BLAINE FISHER — Courtesy photo

  • 250,000

    Square-feet measurements of the new building that houses Soaring Heights Elementary and East Middle schools in Joplin. The building was designed by Lee’s Summit-based Hollis + Miller Architects.

The third anniversary of one of the worst tornadoes in state history is May 22 and a trio of Lee’s Summit architects has had a hand in the rebuilding efforts of the town affected by the EF-5 twister that caused billions of dollars in damage and claimed hundreds of lives.

The new Soaring Heights Elementary School in Joplin houses more than 450 elementary students grades K-5. John Brown, Scott Barton and David Esely of Lee’s Summit-based Hollis + Miller Architects helped design the new building that houses the elementary school as well Joplin East Middle School, home to 750 students in grades 6-8.

Brown, vice president and owner of Hollis + Miller, served as the partner in charge of the project, Barton, a senior associate, led the overall design of the schools as director and Esely, an associate, ushered the entire project through to construction phase as senior architect and project manager. 

All three are Lee’s Summit residents and were heavily involved in the design of the massive 250,000 square-feet structure.

“It was extremely humbling and satisfying as we went along to be a part of a process like that,” Brown said May 20. “We actually took my whole office down there in groups of five or six people for a week-and-a-half right after the tornado. We hadn’t gotten the project yet, but I wanted everyone to experience what the people of Joplin were going through so if we did get the project then we could understand where they came from and what they’d been through. For me it was an extremely humbling and satisfying experience.”

Both schools, which opened in January, are equipped with 21st century learning concepts designed to help elementary and middle school students respectively learn with creativity conducive to their learning capabilities.

“Each individual is different and they learn differently,” said Barton. “How do we account for the different styles of learning for each student so that everybody learns from their optimal manner all the time? That’s sort of how education has changed and our spaces reflect those types of changes.”

Each school has a separate parent drop-off location and sight lines preventing the elementary playground from having a view of the middle school.

The schools were built on a 36-acre site to replace schools destroyed by the tornado that hit Joplin in May of 2011, including the former East Middle School and two nearby elementary schools. 

“It’s actually one building that is conjoined,” Esely said. “It’s all one building but it’s two buildings kind of joined together. The auditorium sits right in the middle of the entire building and they can share the function of that auditorium between the two schools. They also share a kitchen for the cooking.”

Each of the architects said helping rebuild Joplin was a life-altering ordeal for them. Brown offered he was changed for the better, as were Barton and Esely.

“It gave me a perspective on what I can do for a community,” Brown said. “As an architect we design buildings, but this was more than designing a building, this was about helping rebuild a community. They weren’t just getting a school; they were getting a part of their community back.

Barton added: “It was pretty amazing; it was inspiring is probably the best way I can say it. Here are these folks that have gone through massive trauma in their life and instead of putting back the same old so that they could get back with their life, they said ‘here’s a moment in time that can make our life better.’

“That hit me pretty hard, so everything we did was sort of in that mindset of if they’re asking for more than we have to give them more. This is their opportunity to do this and this is our opportunity to help them in a very special way. It was inspiring and honoring to be apart of what they were trying to do.”

For his work, Esely was just as convicted as the others.

“We got involved down there shortly after the tornado,” Esely said. “Just going down there to see the level of destruction right after it happened it was just unbelievable. To be able to be apart of the rebuilding in some small way with the schools was great.”

Hollis + Miller Architects’ collective work in Joplin has not gone unrecognized. The firm, which also has an office in Overland Park, Kan., received the 2014 Council of Educational Facility Planners International John Shaw Award for excellence and innovative design.

CEFPI is a worldwide professional non-profit association whose members, individuals, institutions and corporations are involved in planning, designing, building, equipping and maintaining schools and colleges.

“I think for the firm to be recognized by other educators and other planners is rewarding for all the hard work and everything we put into it,” Brown said. “The spaces that we designed were designed not for cool spaces but they were designed for educational purposes and the (Joplin School District) really appreciated the fact that every space has an educational value to it.

“It wasn’t just a cool space – it happens to be a nice space as well, but the main function of the space is to have an educational component everywhere in the building. It’s been awhile since we won that award so it was nice to get that award again.”

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