In A Tornado-Ravaged Town, A High School Inside A Big-Box Store

Adaptive reuse FTW!

On May 22nd, one of the worst tornadoes in U.S. history decimated the small town of Joplin, Missouri. 161 people died, and thousands more lost everything they owned, including their homes. Even the local 1,200-student high school was destroyed (along with nine other smaller schools). After the dust had settled and the TV crews packed it in, Joplin began to rebuild. With only three months until the next school year, most disaster experts suggested sending students to schools in neighboring counties.


Yet Joplin’s superintendent insisted the school year would begin on time. And somehow, at 7:45 a.m. on August 17th, students sat down at desks in a new 80,000-square-foot school. From the day of the tornado to the construction deadline, the school took only 55 days to complete. The story of how they did it is a fascinating case study in adaptive reuse.

A few weeks after the tornado, Joplin’s school district hired two firms to figure out how to make good on their superintendent’s pledge. Building a new structure was out of the question, so DLR Group and Corner Greer set their sights on a long-abandoned mall that had somehow evaded the path of the twister. They quickly installed a few temporary offices on site, and chose a 96,000-square-foot department store as their site. The store had once housed a Venture department store, a chain run by Target founder John Geisse before it went bankrupt in the ’90s.

Within days, the architects were meeting with the contractors, and quickly came up with a working digital model of their plan. The next 40 days were a flurry of activity, installing partitions and wiring the old structure for digital learning environments. Despite the incredibly tight schedule, CGA and DLR found time to work in a few emerging concepts in educational design. Unlike most older schools, which are organized along linear corridors, these classrooms are around shared social spaces–a move that the architects hope will encourage collaborative teaching. The student body was divided into six 200-person “learning communities,” each headquartered at one of the classroom hubs.

Because the school is “100% efficient,” meaning every classroom is in use during every period, a number of measures were taken to make the classrooms adaptable. For example, some walls are hinged, with a heavy-duty wheel on one corner. “The pivot doors allow classrooms to spill into commons areas to encourage project-based learning,” explain the architects. A coffee shop is run by business and marketing students, and a small health club stands in for the gym. There are also some nice traditional details–pencil sharpeners installed in every room, for example, a request that came from the students and teachers.

We tend to ballyhoo the “next generation” classroom a lot around here, but in Joplin’s case, digital teaching solutions became absolutely essential. There would be no lockers, so students were issued personal laptops instead of books. Rather than a library, the architects designed a series of media rooms, where students use the Internet to access course materials. There’s even a “genius bar” help desk for IT questions.

Architects and planners have bandied about ideas for the adaptive reuse of shopping malls for years. But relatively few plans have actually been carried out. Joplin provided an excellent testing ground, and proof positive for the concept in a more general sense. And hopefully, the next adaptive reuse success story we write about won’t be necessitated by a disaster.


The project has since cinched one of the American Institute of Architects’ 2012 CAE Educational Facility Design Awards–check out the rest of the winners at the AIA website.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.