Ideas Born at GSE

A gleaming pavilion for teaching and learning

In the booming and buoyant 1960s, Stanford’s School Construction Systems Design aimed to improve education through architecture
The SCSD prototype's ventilation and electrical systems were housed in the roof and accessed via flexible ducts, an innovation that transformed industrial building.
Courtesy of the Ford Foundation

On Pampas Lane in the southeastern corner of campus, a glass-sheathed building that’s served for decades as a branch of Stanford’s credit union attests to a bold bygone era in educational history.

It’s the 1964 prototype of School Construction Systems Design (SCSD), a historic experiment housed at the Stanford School of Education that aimed to create more flexible, affordable and efficient schools by building them with standardized modular components.

The brainchild of famed architect Ezra Ehrenkrantz and educational researchers, Stanford’s building heralded new ways of planning, bidding out and erecting nonresidential structures. All of its systems – heating, air-conditioning, electricity – were housed in the roof. It had no fixed interior walls, only movable partitions to form varied sizes and types of classrooms in line with teacher needs.

Its glass walls and elegant lines evoke Mies van der Rohe, the great modernist architect who championed architectural systems and the rationality they embodied, said Paul Turner, professor emeritus of art and art history at Stanford.

“It’s probably the only building on campus in the Mies van der Rohe tradition, and it deserves to be better known,” Turner said.

The SCSD building reflects a time and a school of thought in which educators at Stanford and elsewhere aimed to change learning by changing its physical environment – buildings, furnishings, scheduling. They sought new facilities suited to team teaching and individualized instruction.

Meanwhile, the population boom of the 1950s and 1960s, especially on the West Coast, called for new ways to plan, build and manage schools – and fast.

The School of Education’s School Planning Laboratory, which hosted SCSD, opened in 1951 to tackle these challenges. Many classroom features we take for granted – movable classroom partitions and seating, pegboard walls, carpeted floors and flexible scheduling –were developed or popularized by Prof. James MacConnell and his lab in the cavernous basement of the School of Education building.

Architect Ezra Ehrenkrantz, right, and an unidentified colleague ponder a model of the SCSD building in 1963.
Stanford News Service

The lab was funded in large part by the Ford Foundation’s Educational Facilities Laboratory, whose director, Alvin C. Eurich, was a former Stanford acting president and School of Education dean.

Eurich’s office valued “flexibility,” as his Ford colleague James Armsey wrote in 1976, “of time, space, people, money ... and since it was easier to change buildings and what went into them than to change people, let’s work on that, they said.”

SCSD was influenced by Ehrenkrantz’s work in the United Kingdom, where post-World War II reconstruction was sped by hundreds of schools built on a modular system.

Though education in the United States is much more decentralized, Ehrenkrantz, MacConnell and the Ford funders persuaded 13 impacted California districts to form a collaborative venture.

Each district agreed to build one school using whatever SCSD designed, guaranteeing fabricators the $30 million or so in business that made developing the standardized components feasible.

“The individual architects were given the kit of parts, like a Meccano set, and they did what they wanted with it,” said project architect Christopher Arnold of Palo Alto, one of the team’s last surviving members.

“The Stanford prototype was done so they could get a feel for the system,” Arnold said.

In a historic first, the SCSD replaced traditional architectural specifications with performance specifications.

The HVAC supplier, for example, had to provide a system that would hold the interior temperature within four degrees Fahrenheit, said Joshua Lee, a school architect who wrote his 2016 University of Texas dissertation on the SCSD project. It was up to bidders how to meet that standard. Some bidders sued, but the process was upheld in court, establishing the legal precedent for performance-based bidding in the United States.

In a great photo op that got nationwide press, a helicopter delivered the HVAC system – innovatively housed in a single metal box – and plopped it on the roof.

On its dedication in December 1964, the building was hailed as “the school of the future.” Open four hours daily for demos and inspection, it drew visitors from all over the world. One team member told Lee that the Russian visitors stole all the magnets from the movable magnet-board walls.

Soon after, the SCSD’s 13 member districts built their own schools with the system. All 13 schools are in use today. Locally, they include the East Side Union School District’s Oak Grove High School in San Jose, and DeLaveaga Elementary School in Santa Cruz.

Crews place the roof modules in summer 1964 as a cinematographer captures the scene. The Escondido Village housing complex is visible just beyond.
Stanford News Service

Lee believes SCSD was far more influential in concept than in specifics. The building industry embraced modular components such as tilt-up walls, helping to shape today’s industrial landscape. The self-contained HVAC unit with flexible distribution ducts became a standard of big-box retail. Performance bidding, as established by the SCSD’s legal precedent, became common.

But the system failed to spread among its intended audience – school districts. Its cost savings fell well short of the SCSD’s projected 20 percent. Nor did staffers at the 13 SCSD schools fully exploit their buildings’ functionality. Lee, the school architect, attributes this to a failure to establish school-site training or a support network among the districts in parallel to the material network that the SCSD embodied.

Then, too, the direction of U.S. educational research funding and policy changed in the 1970s. Emphasis shifted away from buildings and toward people. The American economy changed as well. Stanford’s School Planning Lab lost its Ford funding in 1977, to be superseded in the School of Education basement by a program in counseling psychology.

Recently, though, researchers have taken fresh looks at SCSD and comparable systems while pursuing current societal goals of environmental sustainability.

Architect Chris Arnold has kept images of the building in his Palo Alto bedroom for 53 years. "I like looking at its ceiling when I wake up," he says.
Barbara Wilcox

The prototype on Pampas Lane served as the SCSD offices until the project’s expiration in 1969. The Stanford Federal Credit Union moved there in 1970. Several renovations have replaced its modular interior systems with conventional parts, while the entrance was moved from the center of the façade to a corner. In other ways, the exterior remains intact.

Arnold visits the building often as a Stanford Federal Credit Union customer. He said most people he meets there don’t know its history unless his wife tells them about it. He’s happy that it’s a credit union, even if that use might seem humble to some.

“That was actually the whole point of the building, that it could be changed to suit a totally different purpose than what was originally intended,” Arnold said. “I’m quite pleased.”

Watch Chris Arnold's video of the historic project. 

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