Stevenson High addition creates 'tranquil' atmosphere for students, teachers

If you ask a teenager to describe high school, "tranquil" probably isn't a response you'd expect to receive.

But that's exactly the word sophomore Samuel Cohan used for the newly completed, three-story addition to Stevenson High School's East Building in Lincolnshire.

And he's not wrong.

Comfortable chairs, benches and couches are located in every hallway, giving students and teachers places to prepare for class or just hang out. An abundance of windows allow sunlight to stream into the structure.

And perhaps most tranquil of all are the two-story wall panels that are covered with plants and have hidden hydration systems that sound like babbling brooks.

"It's relaxing," Cohan said. "Very calm."

A response to growth

Begun in 2017, the roughly $27 million addition was essentially completed in time for the start of the 2019-20 term last week.

Overseen by the Gilbane Building Co., the expansion added 56,800 square feet to the previously 870,000-square-foot school. The project was funded with loans, district savings and a state grant.

Stevenson officials commissioned the addition to accommodate rising enrollment at the 54-year-old school.

About 4,400 teens are expected at Stevenson this year, up from about 4,300 last year. Officials predict the student population will exceed 4,600 by the 2025-26 term.

Most of the rooms in the addition are classrooms - but they're far from traditional educational spaces. The tables and chairs inside each are on wheels to encourage small-group work, and each room has multiple digital screens.

They even have individual temperature controls and lights that can be dimmed or brightened, depending on the activity.

"These are really great spaces," said Spanish-language teacher Zara Dittman, whose classroom is on the second floor. "I'm pinching myself."

Panes of shatterproof glass that run from floor to ceiling separate the classrooms from the hallways. They let more natural light into the classrooms but also serve a security role in this era of mass shootings, Stevenson spokesman Jim Conrey said.

"The primary purpose of the glass is to protect students from bullets or other objects," Conrey explained. "Shatterproof glass includes layers of polycarbonate that, when struck by a projectile such as a bullet, would prevent it from exiting the other side. The glass basically absorbs the energy of the projectile upon impact, significantly slows its momentum and keeps the object within the glass layers."

  Plenty of open space and windows are scattered through the new Stevenson High School addition. Work began on the project in October 2017 on the eastern edge of the sprawling Lincolnshire campus. Brian Hill/

A mix of uses

The first and second floors of the addition contain classrooms that can be used for a variety of subjects. The third floor primarily houses specially designed science labs.

The roof features gardens and a greenhouse that will be used by science, art, foods and special education classes. The greenhouse remains under construction but should be ready for use this school year.

"We're going to get a lot of use out of it," Conrey said.

Back on the first floor, a courtyard with brick walkways, plants and curving concrete benches was built to draw students outdoors.

"It's just meant to be a nice space where kids can catch a breath of fresh air if they want," Conrey said.

The plants in the courtyard all are native to Lake County.

"We're trying to keep it local," Conrey said.

'What's not to like?'

Botanicals are the focal point of the most interesting design elements of the addition: the two living walls stretching between the second and third floors.

They're not just appealing to the senses. They collect carbon dioxide emissions and create fresh oxygen for the building's human occupants. The addition was designed to be a net zero energy structure, meaning all the electricity it uses is generated by rooftop solar arrays.

The living walls are part of that mission. By reducing human emissions and pollutants, they take some of the burden off the mechanical ventilation system. Then again, simply from an aesthetic standpoint, they're just really pretty. Instead of secluding herself in an office, Dittman likes to prepare lesson plans in a communal seating area near the plant-covered walls.

"I'm sitting next to a botanical garden and listening to the water," Dittman said. "What's not to like?"

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