School Climate & Safety

Flint, Mich., Superintendent Explores Underground Move

By Joetta L. Sack — September 18, 2002 3 min read
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The superintendent in Flint, Mich., is taking the proposition “If you build it, they will come” to new heights—or perhaps depths—with a radical idea for underground schools.

Felix H. Chow has suggested that the city’s 21,000-student district eventually replace its 54 aging school buildings with three large facilities built mostly underground. He believes such a plan might not only provide new and energy- efficient buildings, but also bring national recognition to the ailing district, which sees no end to recent enrollment declines.

He envisions the schools as a sort of underground city, built with classrooms around the perimeter of an octagonal, circular, or rectangular building. Each facility would have one story above ground and three stories underground, and could serve up to 5,000 students.

The classrooms would be open to a courtyard-style area that would be lighted by a massive skylight in the roof.

Mr. Chow said he was influenced by underground convention centers and European buildings with courtyards.

The proposal is in the very early stages and is part of a much broader, long-term agenda that includes curriculum and other matters. Mr. Chow, who admits he’s not even sure if the notion is feasible, has been floating it to bemused school board and community members in recent weeks.

“At this point, it is a very conceptual idea—it could not go anywhere at all,” Mr. Chow said in an interview. “My main point to the board and public is that we have to design a system that works for the next 100 years.”

The Flint district has closed several schools because of the declining enrollment, he added, and underground facilities could allow administrators to shut off bottom levels when the space was not needed. He also believes such schools could be much cheaper to operate.

Barbara C. Worth, an assistant director of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., said some schools use berms of earth on one or two sides to save on energy costs. But she said she knew of no existing schools that remotely resemble Mr. Chow’s vision.

‘Quite a Hole’

Ms. Worth and other outside experts who were queried for this story appeared intrigued by the concept but were skeptical about its practicality, considering Michigan’s wet climate and harsh winters, and such a plan’s affordability.

“I don’t know how they’d make it water-tight, and I think the mold problems and air quality would be terrible,” Ms. Worth said.

Ronald H. Fanning, the chairman of the board of Fanning/Howey Associates Inc., a school architecture firm based in Celina, Ohio, is an advocate of energy-saving schools and has built several schools in Indiana that are partially enclosed by earth. He said a design such as Mr. Chow’s was worth pursuing for its attention to conservation, and it could be much cheaper to heat and cool, as underground climates retain a steady 55- degree temperature.

But he cautioned that it still could be an expensive plan.

“It probably has some merit, but there are a lot of other issues you have to deal with though,” Mr. Fanning said. In addition to mold and moisture, getting enough natural light to classrooms and accessibility to outdoor areas could be daunting and expensive challenges to overcome, he said.

“All these problems are solvable,” he said, “but have a price tag attached.”

Flint’s Mr. Chow said that he would abandon the plan if it were to prove structurally too daunting.

The Clark County, Nev., school district, which includes Las Vegas, built two one-story schools in the 1990s that are partially underground, with playgrounds on the roofs. The schools require little maintenance and have cut energy costs in the area’s desert climate, said Dale Scheideman, the 220,000-student district’s director of new schools and facility planning.

But Michigan’s climate would be vastly different, he said, adding that four- story structures are also not appropriate for elementary schools and young children.

Furthermore, he added, “that’s quite a hole in the ground.”

Assistant Managing Editor Scott W. Wright contributed to this story.

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