ROBERT BEHRE: School's architecture is lesson in patience
SULLIVAN'S ISLAND -- As this town's politics roils over whether a new elementary school should be built, one question that's gone largely unanswered is: What would it look like?
The answer, at least so far, seems to be: Not as bad as some might fear. In fact, pretty darn good, given the significant challenges of the site.
As opponents call for a referendum on scrapping the planned Sullivan's Island Elementary School project, the Charleston County School District, Town Council, its Design Review Board, architect Jerry English of Cummings & McCrady Inc. and others have been working steadily to improve its design.
They are working to balance the district's need for a 500-student school with the town's wishes for what could be the most important new building built there in many years.
Of course, much conceptual design already had been done as part of the district's lease agreement for the 5.6-acre property.
That deal set the maximum height, square footage, general location between a rock berm and two early 20th century concrete batteries, and bus and car access from Atlantic and Ion streets, respectively.
It also set the school's massing as four staggered rectangles joined by hallways, a plan that bends to the site's irregular shape both inland and along the ocean and one that helps people perceive the 73,000 square foot building as smaller than it is.
The two wings closest to nearby residents are the smallest and shortest, only about 35 feet tall -- or the approximate height of many homes here.
The school must be elevated at least 7 feet off the ground to allow hurricane floodwaters to pass underneath.
English's design raises it almost 9 feet so the students can better use the underneath as a shaded playground, tricycle track and marine lab space.
The focal point of the design so far is a tall, square entrance gazebo that can be approached from three sides and one that prominently features the school's logo. English says the inspiration came from this island's widely admired bandstand.
The new building will be seen from the beach but won't be much more noticeable than the current one, thanks largely to a significant maritime forest that has grown up between the shore and the site.
"We want to establish a front of the building and keep the ocean side as open as possible because there's part of the playground," he says. "I don't have a backside to this building."
English is walking a fine line between blending the building into a residential context but not trying to mask what it is.
"Virtually all of the Charleston County schools use brick. We don't," English says, adding it will feature fiber- cement siding (which resembles wood) and a metal roof. "A brick building elevated doesn't look right."
Like some nearby homes, the building has ample covered porches and decks, about 13,000 square feet worth.
"Architecturally, it serves as a wonderful transition space," he adds. "You don't have that abrupt transition between here's our ground plane and here's our building walls."
It also has a pitched roof that is very gradual but enough to hide all its heating and air units. The peak height is 48 feet, but only on one of the four wings. The next-tallest reaches only 41 feet.
The design -- which ultimately must be approved by Town Council -- remains a work in progress.
The details of the entry, windows and screens, among other things, are still being worked out, and that work is expected to stretch over a few more months.
But it's already clear that the passion here toward the project is cutting both ways. As some seek to scrap the project, others are busy improving it.
"I think it has come a long, long way because a lot of people really care," English says.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or rbehre@post andcourier.com.