Focusing on its goal of creating an inclusive 21st Century neighborhood school with an innovative “DREAMS” curriculum (Design, Research, Engineering, Arts, Math, and Science), the Santa Ana Unified School District set out to acquire a vacant lot on which to build a new facility to support the significant growth they had projected. Their search was burdened by the rising costs and availability of land. Finding a rare opportunity, the District acquired a site within the Irvine Business Complex, on which sat an abandoned, 2-story, 25,000 square foot office building. The team understood that the building and site presented numerous challenges as a school conversion.

What we saw beyond these challenges was the incredible potential of restoration and renewal; hope in the eyes of the client team that this undertaking could realize a one-of-a-kind facility which embodies the focus of the DREAMS curriculum concept as its own story. The new school would illustrate the successful result of an adaptive reuse strategy fueled by program inspiration. This would be the future home of INDA Academy.

The deteriorating building did not meet current seismic codes and concealed a bevy of outdated systems; it was not sprinklered, did not have an elevator, and was enclosed by poor-performing single-glazed vision and spandrel glass, with crumbling seals. Surrounding the weak structure was a property encumbered by a required access easement for the neighboring property, and a site with every inch of the remainder of open space devoted to surface parking.

We were compelled to explore and ideate design studies to deliver a unique experience that would facilitate progressive hands-on learning for 225 students a year, from PreK to 6th grade, in 9 classrooms, plus flexible space, and to understand how our solution would impact the community, leveraging the gifts of the local climate to support indoor/outdoor educational opportunities.

We arrived at the solution to retain and strengthen the existing structure, replacing the existing window wall system with a combination of perimeter wood shear walls, paired with new, low-e, insulated operable windows and a lightweight metal skin. This cost-effective combination allowed for the reuse of existing foundations while creating a new envelope that contributed to the project exceeding Title-24 performance requirements by 30%. Additional sustainability improvements included a new SEER 15 HVAC system that doubled efficiency and offered the ability to provide 100% outside air for healthier indoor air quality, while the use of digital vacancy and daylight sensing controls for multilevel LED lighting throughout the project reduced lighting power density to 0.49 w/sf.

Focusing on the community impact, transitioning from office to school use allowed for a significant reduction in surface parking providing for the creation of dedicated bus and student drop-off areas, separate secured play yards and the addition of a new terrace, enhancing the indoor/outdoor activity connection.

Maximizing the function of the interior space, we enclosed an underutilized outdoor corner to create a double-height multipurpose space featuring stepped-stadium seating to support a variety of group instruction, assembly activities and promote social interaction. A glazed retractable wall connects this double-height space with the Multipurpose ground floor room, flexible furnishings, a variety of tactile display and work surfaces, storage and sinks for both group project-based learning. Flexible, activity-based space carries throughout the open circulation of the 2nd floor overlooking the lobby and into the Flex “Maker Space” Lab and Wellness Space.

Our responsibility as architects is to both dream and to build responsibly. We followed this path, and the result is a metamorphosis of a mute, unremarkable office building into a vibrant, new school that will engage the surrounding community and reflect a forward-thinking curriculum, as a transformational environment for many decades of emerging technology and learning experiences.


Santa Ana Unified School District


Irvine, CA


Multi-story 25,000 sf classroom building


Master Planning, Architecture, Interior Design