A Small Scale Project with a Large Community Impact
Recently at Soto, our design team has been working on a project that looks a bit different than our typical portfolio: a civic renovation project that has been driven by students who are determined to showcase their school spirit.
Elizabeth Seton High School is a private, all-girls, Catholic high school in Bladensburg, Maryland, which serves grades 9-12. At Seton, the students are passionate, dedicated to their education and proud of their school. For this reason, it has been important to include them in the design process as much as possible. Their voice has been essential to creating a design that caters to their needs - serving not only as a utility, but as a space that fosters unity.
Our student-integrated design team is working to implement a design for the dining hall that incorporates hospitality design principles, and Seton’s school colors: red and yellow. As one of Soto’s first civic projects, we are striving to let the student’s voices inform our design decisions, by considering Seton's unique identity throughout the design process.
One opportunity to highlight during this collaboration is Seton’s LEAD program, which guides and educates young girls about opportunities in different STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields. Every year, girls in the LEAD program get to do a project that pushes their technological, mathematical and science literacy and prepares them for potential careers in these fields. Many of these girls have been interested in the STEM field since as early as elementary and middle school. Therefore, offering them the opportunity to join a program with other like-minded students is a very valuable experience.
Collaborating with Seton's faculty and students has provided them with a fundamental understanding of what it takes to successfully organize a project. In doing so, they have shared that the amount of responsibility it takes is worth it, considering how rewarding successfully completing the project will be in the end. Having a voice in this project has given students some perspective on what it takes to bring an idea, such as renovating their school cafeteria, to life.
From our team, Fernando and Joe Iwaskiw conducted workshops at Seton to introduce students to architecture and the design process. The dialogue created between our team and Seton students speaks to the collective nature of our work, which has incentivized them to confidently communicate their ideas to us. By providing them with the proper knowledge and guidance, they were able to excel in showing us their vision - not only in a creative aspect, but also by providing data they collected from students, parents, faculty and staff at Seton. They took charge when it came to cultivating school-wide engagement.
For 2-3 months, Fernando met with three of Seton’s students on a weekly basis to do research on precedents, study lighting and mechanical systems, and survey and measure the existing cafeteria space. Joe and Schola (our summer intern), were also able to attend meetings and provide feedback during the process.
My favorite part of this project so far has been researching and creating pitch decks. The first task we were given was to research our category, mine are the walls and seating, and make a PowerPoint on that topic. At first, it was very intimidating, and at times it still is, but it is still one of my favorite parts of the process because I get to talk about something I know quite well while also making important connections.
Seton Student, Candace Young
Technology and comfort are important factors to consider, such as the integration of LED lighting and automatic window shades - all of which contribute to the warmth and comfort of the cafeteria. During our survey of the space, it was evident that some main issues are the darkness, noise and insufficient space in the cafeteria. It is clear that everyone at Seton is in agreement with the things that need improvement, considering the fact that the entrance of the cafeteria also serves as the front door of the school.
It is important to consider the first impression students have on the cafeteria - and that starts from the moment they enter the cafeteria, to the procession through the kitchen, until they are finally eating at their tables. This dual entryway has been a focal point for us, considering prospective students and parents would be welcomed by the cafeteria, essentially setting the tone for the rest of their visit. Thus, cultivating a warm and welcoming atmosphere is necessary for Seton’s current and growing community.
After creating a very helpful dialogue between our team and Seton's students, they had the opportunity to submit three design options at the end of last school year. The final option was a culmination of the three options, to embrace some of the ideas and solutions presented by each student. Their presentations included their furniture, wall and seating arrangements, and even HVAC system studies. “I have learned that within projects, there are several different areas that need to be covered. The logistics must be thought out thoroughly so that the project can come together successfully,” says student, Patricia Visoso. Being a part of the LEAD program was something that Patricia Visoso has looked forward to since middle school and she has been excited to work on a capstone project in her senior year. She shared that working on this project has allowed her to connect with other females in the STEM field which has inspired her to set high goals for herself.
This project has called for several of Soto’s other team members to chime in and collaborate with students as well. Amber Robbs, a project coordinator at Soto, was introduced to the Seton dining hall renovation after the initial design workshops, to help move the project from concept to reality. Amber has acted as a catalyst throughout the design process, mediating the ideas proposed by the Soto team and Seton’s students. During the design process, coming up with design options that represent Seton’s identity has been the focal point for Amber. She sees the dining hall project as an opportunity to apply her passion for civic design.
During her time on this project, Amber has been able to use Seton students’ feedback to deliver two unique design solutions, while creating construction documents. For Amber, “the best part about this project has been incorporating what the students want into the actual designs that they have proposed.” The cafeteria has started it’s construction phase at Seton, with finishes and furniture to be selected in the Spring.
For our team, civic projects serve as anchors that stand the test of time for a whole community. Along with the students, we are doing everything from selecting the finishes to space-planning. For many of the girls at Seton, this project may be the first time they have been able to interact with professionals in the architecture field. At Soto, we hope that this can be a stepping-stone for them to learn more about paths of education in the design field and that they are empowered to voice their opinion, collaborate with others and affect change in their environments.