Elgin Math and Science Academy

  • area / size 21,000 sqft
  • Completed 2021
  • Wheeler Kearns Architects completed the exploratory and innovative space for the Elgin Math and Science Academy in Elgin, Illinois.

    The Elgin Math and Science Academy (EMSA) is a public Charter School whose education model focuses on learning rather than teaching. Founded on the ethos of Outward Bound, students’ curiosity, agency, and motivation don’t get diminished through years of being lectured in isolated rooms.

    EMSA’s campus is in the Fox River Forested Fen, a 53-acre site designated as an Illinois Nature Preserve. Aside from being the location of an incredibly rare wetland complex, educators have used 27-acres of this site for nearly 100 years. Formerly the home of the Fox River Country Day School, the property contains a network of Prairie Style School Buildings, including an athletic building, dorm, dining hall, art barn, and an administration building. The three latter buildings are considered historical significance since architect John S Van Bergen, a Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice, designed them.

    While the current infrastructure conditions were disheartening, EMSA knew it was the perfect place for children to learn firsthand principles immersed in a natural heritage landscape. So, in 2018, EMSA opened its doors and engaged Wheeler Kearns Architects to materialize the best response to their vision and needs. The master plan project addressed options for growth into existing campus structures needing substantial repair and creating spaces that align with their mission and values.

    Art Barn
    Found in a state of advanced decay, EMSA restored this 2000sf Log Cabin to serve the school as the hub for Art related activities, as it once was. The plan was to keep an open plan to facilitate flexibility while at the same time bringing this facility to today’s safety, accessibility, and sustainable standards. The space was kept open with a single volume inside that hosts a washroom and supply storage. EMSA replaced all the windows, insulated the walls, and upgraded the roof structure by adding continuous insulation above the roof deck. With the roof insulation hidden from view, we could expose the original roof structure inside. EMSA designated the east wall as the Art Display Wall, which works as a backdrop to visitors entering the building.

    Athletic & Middle School Building
    Initially built in three consecutive phases between 1958 and 1961, the athletic building, once in a state of disrepair, was rehabilitated into an accessible place to share experiences. EMSA filled in the former pool converted the space into classrooms, lockers, and a multipurpose room. Students will eat daily meals in the multipurpose room, adjacent to a kitchen occupying the space once used as pool locker rooms. The multipurpose space will also host assemblies, where staff and the entire student body will celebrate the culture of expeditionary learning. In addition, EMSA restored the sports court and stage to be the new home for the EMSA Hawks. With new mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems, the infrastructure complies with current codes governing energy, safety, and accessibility. The design team chose materials to be playful while incorporating the school colors and staying within the modest budget.

    As soon as you arrive on campus, it’s apparent that you are not at a typical school. Rather than being greeted by a large school building, a winding road weaving through multiple Heritage Oak trees brings you to the heart of the campus. Since its early days, educators developed the school as a campus, which EMSA is committed to preserving. It is common to see a row of students in their rain boots hiking down the hill in between these buildings to explore the site. EMSA’s decision to convert all these existing structures into new spaces for the school is the most sustainable and least disturbing to its unique site. Since 2018 EMSA has proven to be the perfect successor to the former Fox River Country Day School by celebrating and maintaining its history, architecture, and multiple natural assets.

    Design: Wheeler Kearns Architects
    Design Team: Larry Kearns, Fabiola Yep, Brandon Hall
    Contractor: Bulley & Andrews
    Photography: Tom Harris