Bassetti Architects

Bassetti Architects

Seattle, WA


Natrona County High School

Originally designed to house both Casper College and Natrona County High School (known on the campus as NC), this Collegiate Gothic building was the first center of education in Wyoming. Constructed between 1924 and 1927, the historic building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The restoration of NC was conceived as part of a District-wide transformation effort to develop an environment of life-long learning, provide real-world relevance, and address persistent dropout and disengagement among students. The project included a complete renovation on a fully occupied campus site. The design necessitated six phases of construction spanning almost five years, including expanding the campus by purchasing adjacent properties. 

The design takes its inspiration from the district’s guiding principles: a culture of empowerment, inventive learning settings, collaborative learning environments, a memorable campus, and meaningful community partnerships. The revitalized school, both historic and new, is organized around four career academies focusing on a wide variety of teaching and learning pathways including direct institutional, project-based learning, collaboration, and presentation. 

“The restoration of NCHS was shaped by three overarching ideas: a shift in the educational approach focused on career-based learning opportunities; upgrades to the historic campus targeting preservation, resilience, and vitality; safe continuous occupancy for students and staff.” - Lorne McConachie, Principal at Bassetti Architects

The revitalized 22.5-acre school, both historic (145,000-square-feet) and new (137,000-square-feet), is organized around the four career academies with shared facilities (historic theatre, student commons, library, and physical education) aligned through the center of the building. The restoration preserved the historic facades of the landmark structure to the south and created a major, contextually responsive addition to the north. The entire building was organized around a protected inner courtyard with new secure entries located at the gaskets between historic and new construction. The renovation and additions to NC transformed the landmark school into a vibrant 21st century learning environment serving the academic, physical, and social well-being of students and staff, while simultaneously enhancing the building’s presence within the community.

Aside from finely crafted and preserved plasterwork, much of the iconic theatre needed upgrading. Acoustics and sightlines were poor and universal access was non-existent. Grand windows were covered and lighting was inadequate. The stage rigging was dangerous, sound mixing was dreadful, and stage lighting access was insufficient. The stage was too shallow, making it difficult to move sets. Support spaces were substandard. The restoration addressed these needs within the historic shell. A new forestage was designed with hydraulic lifts supporting multiple performance configurations. The house was reorganized for accessibility and improved sightlines. The historic windows were rebuilt. Because the old house was too small for proper acoustics, the design solution literally demanded outside-the-box thinking. By opening up the bays of the old ceiling, the design expanded the room into the interstitial roof truss area above the auditorium. Acoustically transparent fabric was stretched across the open ceiling bays to replicate the original plaster ceiling finish. By expanding the volume of the room, proper acoustical balance and reverberation times were achieved. Catwalks added between the original roof trusses provide safe access to critical lighting positions. The transformed theatre appears untouched but its functionality is maximized.

Safety was also a primary design theme. Secure entry vestibules were centrally located adjacent to administration suites at the east and west facades. All other exterior doors have the ability to be deemed as "exit only." Academies are zoned separately from the central commons. Dispersed administration offices and teacher planning areas allow adults to be located throughout the school. Transparency shows off student work and further enhances security. Whole-school lockdown is supported by a single enclosed building and blackout shades at windows and relites. Clear sightlines throughout the facility also enhance awareness.

The former NC campus had become disjointed, with additions over the randomly placed without a cohesive master plan. As school programs grew, classes were added and located where room was available, with little regard to departmental adjacencies. This sprawl negated wayfinding, supervision, and interdepartmental collaboration. Physical attributes of the remodeled school grew out of the adaptable organization of learning spaces surrounding community spaces. Academies are organized in multi-level clusters around shared spaces that support whole-school activities and enhance a variety of personalized and collaborative learning. Labs are located within each academy. Support services are distributed along the linear commons to maximize student access.

The organization of the school into academies encourages and supports lifelong learning by offering a wide variety of pathways within the various disciplines. Hands-on learners now have readily available shops and studios to pursue their preferred learning approach. Traditional learning modalities are supported with numerous flexible classrooms, able to support direct instruction or Socratic dialog. Project-based learning is accessible in highly transparent flex labs and science labs spread throughout the school. Collaboration is enhanced by the integrated academy layout and dispersed teacher planning areas. Formal and informal presentation spaces include the large theatre, black box, and tiered commons.

Inspiration and motivation at NC comes from its openness and transparency. Visible learning throughout the building sparks student engagement. Displays, both analog and digital, trigger student interest. Open presentations prompt involvement. Visible collaboration models critical skills for future success. Staff presence propels good behavior. Student interests pique involvement and student excitement ignites school pride.

NC’s most sustainable feature is the reuse and modernization of the existing buildings. In addition, numerous active and passive strategies reduced energy and increased occupant comfort, including the installation of active chilled beams, condensing boilers, and heat recovery units. The design provides access to natural daylight and views to 98% of classroom and staff spaces. The remodel upgraded the envelope of the existing walls by adding continuous insulation behind the masonry, improving both thermal performance and air infiltration rates. Walls and roofs in the new addition were insulated beyond code minimums to provide a robust energy-saving envelope. Windows throughout the new and remodeled portions were upgraded with a high-performance, double low-e coating that achieves a u-value comparable to triple-pane units. The building uses a highly efficient Active Chilled Beam system for heating and cooling in classroom spaces. This system approach greatly improved the building's EUI, while also reducing the size of ductwork required. The smaller ducts allowed taller ceilings in the existing classrooms and corridors, improving the daylight penetration and preventing dropped ceilings from obstructing the historic window openings. Larger spaces like the gymnasium and commons use natural cooling instead of air conditioning, helping to reduce energy consumption. Radiant floor slabs in the commons further reduce energy use by avoiding the need to fully heat the large volume of air in the space. Glazing in the commons was designed to allow solar heating from the abundant wintertime sun, but shade the interior from the sun in the summer and shoulder seasons. The building prioritizes daylight in classroom and learning spaces. To overcome the lack of exterior shading at the historic building façade, the design team selected daylight-optimizing blinds at clerestory windows. Their curved, highly reflective top surfaces are designed to reflect daylight deep into the classroom, while screening out the glare from direct sun. Roller shades at the vision glazing reduce glare while still allowing views to the exterior. For the landscape, low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plants and rock beds were used to reduce water consumption, pesticides, and maintenance costs. 

The renewed high school has met the educational, District, and community goals in spades. Inspiration and motivation at NC comes from its openness and transparency. Visible learning throughout the building sparks student engagement. Displays, both analog and digital, trigger student interest. Visible collaboration models critical skills for future success. Student interests pique involvement and student excitement ignites school pride. Finally, the beloved landmark is seamlessly transformed and remains a valuable community asset.

Read more

Status: Built
Location: Cassa, WY, US
Firm Role: Architecture and Interior Design
Additional Credits: Project consultant team
Bassetti Architects (Architecture and Interior Design)
WLC (Civil Engineer)
A-P Wyoming (Construction Manager)
JLR Design Group (Food Service Consultant)
C & N Consultants Inc. (Cost Consultant)
WSP Group (Electrical Engineer)
Swift Company LLC (Landscape Architect)
EDA - Engineering Design Associates (Mechanical Engineer sub-consultant to WSP)
PLA Designs Inc. (Theatre Planning)
Amundsen Associates, LLC (associate architect)
Lower & Co. (Structural Engineer sub-consultant to PCS)
PCS Structural Solutions (Structural Engineering Consultant)
Adams Consulting & Estimating (Hardware Consultant)
Stantec (Acoustics Consultant)‚Äč