Thinking Inside the Box: Turning Vacant Box Stores Into Early Learning Facilities

In Kansas City, there is a bit of an architecture resurgence occurring. It’s all about repurposing buildings as schools, and it’s spearheaded by DLR Group, a prominent leader in the education architecture space. 

The work was first fully realized as a response to the Joplin, Missouri tornadoes of 2011. The city needed to set-up an interim district that would be able to repurpose the buildings that survived the storm. DLR Group worked fast to convert a Wal-Mart into a school, and that was just the beginning. 

Years later, DLR Group was at it again, this time in Kearney, Missouri. Here, the team had converted a grocery store into a school. Enter the North Kansas City (NKC) School District. The NKC Schools team visited Kearney and left inspired to create a centralized early childhood building. Their old building was in need of repairs and by bringing the bulk of their programming together, they were able to add additional early education programs. This district is the third-largest in Missouri and the impetus for taking care of their early learners was that they “knew that’s where it all starts. They found a way to do it economically and innovate,” says Ian Kilpatrick, one of the head project managers on the school. They turned a pre-existing structure (a Hobby Lobby and grocery store) into a magical place for young learners. 

What sets the NKC experience apart?

To begin, the design team got in the heads of a young learner to really understand what a day in the life looks like. The majority of the day is spent in growth mode—creating and learning through inquiry. The design team was extremely future-focused. They continued to ask themselves: “What will a learner in this building need 20 years from now? How do we craft spaces to replicate that?” The design team rapidly saw that they didn’t need adaptability, instead, they needed a diversity of spaces, and spaces that sparked curiosity and learning. To do this, the design team implemented biophilic themes throughout the space. Upon completion, there will be tons of localized graphics that depict native flora/fauna from the heartland. The design team was primarily the local campus leadership, coupled with a few of the architects. The project has become a poster child for this round of bond work. 

Throughout the process, the design team left themselves open to feedback through the website. The site received tons of questions about enrollment and, over time, some useful feedback about the design process. 

The facility is located in the center of the NKC district, an area of urban decay. Projects like this can reinvigorate communities in a way that a new neighborhood school just doesn’t. For high-density locations, this type of work also boasts efficiency, and proximity to many of the local residents. 

What are the obstacles?

Ian shared that the two primary obstacles to this kind of project are the creativity needed in “turning a windowless big box store into something creative and inspiring.” And noted that oftentimes, getting community buy-in is tricky. DLR Group was able to innovate through large skylights and classrooms lined with windows on the hall side to ensure that the hallways received natural light. With exemplar schools like some of the ones that DLR Group has been working on, there may be just enough role model projects to help flip the script and inspire other communities to follow suit. 

Right now, 55,000 square feet of the space have been completed. The school opened for Phase 1 in January and will be opening Phase 2 in August. 

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Mason Pashia - Getting Smart

Mason Pashia

Mason is the Creative Manager at Getting Smart. He is an advocate for arts education, strategy, design thinking and poetry.

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