When Harvey G. Woodward—an eccentric heir to a sizable iron fortune—envisioned a new boys school for Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1930s, he sought to create an educational institution that was on a par with its Yankee counterparts, with a progressive agenda that embraced nature and shunned two of the South’s most sacred pursuits: church and football. “The basic idea of the school is to make [a] boy of sound mind and body,” Woodward noted in his will. “It is self-evident that the best superstructure on a weak foundation must eventually show the poor foundation.”
As hoped, Woodward’s school, called Indian Springs, has provided its students with sturdy academic underpinnings: since opening in 1952 (Woodward’s estate was mired in court for decades), it has produced a long roster of accomplished alumni and gained a reputation for its rigorous programming. But in recent years, the campus’s aging cinderblock classrooms and deteriorating infrastructure were hindering it from staying on course. “Nothing about the physical campus suggested that something exceptional or worth the private school price was happening here,” says Claire Cassady, the school’s director of admissions.
Four years ago, the school turned to San Antonio firm Lake|Flato to design a master plan that would realign the school with its motto, “learning through living.” Phase One, completed in August 2015, has recaptured the school’s spirit with four new single-story, cypress-clad buildings and a refurbished library that respect the original structures’ simple forms and materials while opening the buildings to nature.
“Our notion was that 21st-century schools should actually be more like 19th-century schools,” says Greg Papay, Lake|Flato’s partner in charge, referring to the firm’s back-to-basics approach.
Today, Indian Springs School is a coeducational independent day and boarding school for grades eight through 12. The idyllic 365-acre campus is nestled at the base of Oak Mountain State Park, 20 minutes south of downtown Birmingham. “Because it’s such a large campus, creating definition for the master plan was important,” says project manager Brandi Rickels.
It became clear to the architects—whose research included a community charrette and an overnight stay in the dorms—that the adjacent lake would become the new focal point. On a recent visit, the rolling Alabama countryside was a blaze of autumn foliage. Along a curved drive, glimpses of the buildings’ low-pitched roofs come into view through gaps in the trees. The architects clustered the new buildings— three for classes and one for administration—around the existing library, facing the water.
At the administration building, a generous overhang frames a glazed passageway that cuts through the building and leads to the main campus green beyond. As a twist on the original cinderblock buildings, the steel-framed building has textured board-formed concrete exteriors, with some walls warmed up by cypress cladding.
From the administration building, paths lead to the classroom facilities to the north and south. Overhangs protect exterior circulation, which runs the length of the buildings, from sun and rain. Because the campus was built on wetlands, Baton Rouge–based firm CARBO Landscape Architecture devised a system of rain gardens to filter water and then channel it into the lake. A network of gangways bridges these recessed gardens and connects the classroom buildings, which each include four large lecture rooms, six faculty offices, and a tiny (150 square feet) breakout space for pre-exam cramming or office hours. “My favorite part is the open layout, because you get to see everyone when walking between classes,” says senior Emma Turner. “You feel like a community.” The architects also situated a single midsize seminar room at the end of each of these bars, oriented toward the lake, like the prow of a ship.
Inside, daylight pours in from monitors, clerestories, and floor-to-ceiling windows, which also frame views of the lake and the surrounding forest. To make the classrooms as flexible as possible, there is no fixed furniture. Gone are chalkboards or whiteboards: instructors lecture using movable interactive panels. “Learning is a network now,” says Papay, recalling how his own high school children do their homework on apps. “So the buildings need to be set up to catalyze that.”
Lake|Flato also employed simple solutions to elevate the existing ’80s-era library, adding a new standing-seam roof—the same as those on the ground-up buildings—as well as a large front porch. This outdoor room faces a sloped lawn that, when not used for classes, hosts outdoor film screenings and performances.
There is still work to be done at Indian Springs—once funds are raised, Lake|Flato will begin work on an arts building and a replacement dining hall—but the school is already reaping the benefits of its new facilities. The admissions office has seen a 25 percent increase in applications. And, say the architects, the new buildings—on track to achieve LEED Silver certification—are 60 percent more efficient per square foot than the old ones.
Perhaps the most meaningful feedback has come from Indian Springs’ former students, who have fond memories of trekking the school’s rugged trails or paddling the lake. “We were concerned about messing this place up, because it has a soul,” says Libby Pantazis, a school board member. “But alums come back and say, ‘This is what the school has always meant to me. You got it.’ ”