Alexandria, Minnesota, steps to the head of the class nationally with a light-filled new high school designed for 21st-century learning

By John Reinan

Alexandria might soon be facing an over-enrollment problem at its new high school. As one local resident remarked after a tour of the dynamic, daylit structure: Why would anyone ever want to graduate? “It’s still the best compliment we’ve gotten,” laughs John Pfluger, AIA, design principal at Cuningham Group Architecture, Inc., in Minneapolis. “He also said it was like going into the future—like time travel.”

The $70 million Alexandria Area High School is being held up nationally as a model for school design in the 21st century. Delegations from more than 60 cities have toured the facility since it opened in fall 2014. What they’re seeing is a building that’s open and transparent, with every element smartly designed to facilitate collaborative learning. The building also serves as a social hub for the vibrant city of 12,000. There’s hardly a night when a community group isn’t using the building, says principal Chad Duwenhoegger.

It’s quite a turnabout from a decade ago, when Alexandria residents rejected a bond issue for a new high school. After an exacting post-mortem, school officials realized they hadn’t involved the community in the project. There was no buy-in, no sense of ownership—and hence no understanding of the benefits a new school could bring.

This time around, Cuningham Group led community design charrettes, including an intensive three-day workshop with more than 100 participants. The process culminated in a design presentation to the community. “I credit Cuningham with making it an inclusive process,” says Duwenhoegger. “We pretty much got what we wanted. We don’t have people coming in saying, ‘I wish we had this or that.’”

What the community wanted—and got—is a building that functions as a true learning village. A soaring community commons at the heart of the school encourages informal collaboration, while teaching areas are flexible and easily shifted from one activity to another. “The school has a sophisticated blend of spaces—big, medium, and small—to help support a dynamic learning program,” says Pfluger.

Alexandria is the hub of a major resort area, and residents wanted the school to be friendly, comfortable, and beautiful. They also wanted it to be sustainable—the project earned LEED Silver certification.

From the community commons, whose drama derives from repeating glulam (glue-laminated timber) structural forms, students access two three-story academic wings housing the school’s four learning academies. After an introductory freshman year, students focus their studies in areas such as engineering and technology, business and entrepreneurship, and health sciences.

The design and placement of these focused lab spaces was highly intentional, says Duwenhoegger. For example, the school’s design-build workshop and culinary lab lie directly off the commons. “Most schools have the industrial arts off in a back area,” he says. “We put it front and center. That tells the kids, ‘We want you to think about this.’”

But the signature feature of the building is, without question, light. The commons culminates in a three-story wall of glass at each end. The academic areas have punched windows, and the learning studios have operable windows. Clerestories and large corner windows can be found throughout the structure. “What people always remark on is the quality of natural light—the interiors come alive even on a cloudy day,” says Pfluger. “It’s amazing in the late afternoon, when the sun gets low. It fills the space and bounces everywhere.”

In the learning areas, Cuningham Group and associate architect JLG Architects broke with the painted concrete block that defines so many high school hallways in favor of large, economical ceramic tile. Floors in the learning areas are carpeted, and transparent modular wall systems—much sleeker than the accordion-style versions of yesteryear—can be easily reconfigured.

Siting was critical in optimizing the 138-acre campus. The architects placed the building on a knoll that opens to wetlands on lower ground, and they preserved a stand of windbreak trees. The property’s woods and wetlands naturally collect and manage stormwater while offering students a wide array of environmental learning opportunities.

“The space, the colors, the flow—it’s just a very welcoming building,” says Duwenhoegger. “It’s really changed how we educate kids.”

Location: Alexandria, Minnesota
Client: Alexandria Public Schools
Architect: Cuningham Group Architecture, Inc.
Design principal: John Pfluger, AIA
Managing principal: Meg Parsons, AIA
Associate architect: JLG Architects
Energy modeling: Cuningham Group; Karges-Faulconbridge
Landscape architects: Cuningham Group; Anderson-Johnson Associates
Construction manager: Kraus-Anderson
Size: 285,000 square feet
Cost: $70,260,000
Completion: August 2014