Long before the gentrification of downtown Los Angeles, before the bars had mixologists and the boutique hotels and upscale restaurants raised rents exponentially and pushed out longtime residents and local artists, downtown was an affordable option for working-class families who made their livings sewing garments in the fashion district or selling verbena blossoms in the flower district.
Javier Molina belonged to one such family. His mother worked 12 hours a day downtown, and after school Molina would walk to where his mother worked in the fashion district and wait until they could take the bus to the bungalow home they shared with four other families. Molina’s mother made it clear to him that he would be attending college, urging him to consider the usual professions parents associate with success: medicine, engineering, and law. Molina, however, had a knack for drawing and began to consider architecture early on. “I’d watch telenovelas after school, and there was one where the main character was an architect,” he says. “I remember thinking that if I were an architect I could have my own home.”
Once it was time for college, Molina settled on the University of Southern California, and in his very first design class, he knew he had made the right decision. “It felt like home,” he says of architecture school. In 1996, not long after graduating from college, Molina cofounded a Los Angeles design firm with longtime friend and colleague Ricardo Rodriguez. They named it Quatro Design Group.
A major point of focus for Quatro Design is educational projects, in part because of Molina’s past experiences. One of Molina’s first jobs out of college was working for a firm that specialized in schools and public facilities, and he says he found the work incredibly meaningful. In 2010, things came full circle. Quatro Design was chosen to handle the design of the Ninth Street Elementary School campus, located on the south edge of LA’s infamous Skid Row. The campus, composed exclusively of portable classrooms, had seen little improvement since it opened its doors nearly 30 years ago. Most of the temporary structures had been built to be used for no more than two years, but many were now decades old. The Los Angeles Unified School District gave the Ninth Street campus a score of 74 percent on its Facilities Condition Index. Anything greater than 30 percent is considered critical.
When Molina and his mother would ride the bus, they would pass the intersection of Ninth Street and Towne Avenue where Ninth Street Elementary would eventually be built in 1984. Now Molina was being given the opportunity to design a school that would serve as a safe haven for some very vulnerable children, a majority of which were homeless and living on or near Skid Row. Based on US Census figures, one in eight Los Angeles children live in extreme poverty, belonging to families whose household income is less than half the national poverty threshold (roughly $22,000 for a family of four). It is estimated that about 1,000 homeless children live on Skid Row, an area where drug addicts and those suffering from extreme mental health issues and chronic homelessness fall through the cracks. “I was raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet,” Molina says. “The kids at Ninth Street Elementary could easily have been me.”
Despite the fact that it is in areas like Skid Row where sustainable design can be the most beneficial, especially as far as classrooms are concerned, green schools are often found in affluent areas, reinforcing the common belief that green design is for the well-to-do. Molina and his firm actively push against that misconception, knowing that students living below the poverty line desperately need healthy educational environments outfitted with services that will make their lives easier.
During the planning phase, Quatro Design spent a great deal of time consulting with school officials, trying to develop a better understanding of what Ninth Street students needed. It was this effort and understanding that led to a school that goes beyond environmental sustainability. The school’s 33 new classrooms, computer lab, and library feature low-VOC, low-maintenance, rapidly renewable or 100 percent recyclable materials, low-flow fixtures, tankless water heaters, and a storm-water retention system, but it also offers a health clinic and laundry facilities, two things that have proven to be life-changing for homeless children. The original school was dark and dank, and so it was important to Molina to introduce sunlight and fresh air. All classrooms feature views of both the interior courtyard and the street. The school officially opened its doors in August 2013, and thus far Molina has received nothing but positive feedback.
It’s been a good couple of years for Quatro Design as far as educational projects are concerned. In addition to the Ninth Street Elementary project, the firm completed a project for the Los Angeles Community College District in August 2012. The recipient of numerous awards, the Center for Math and Science at Mission College in Sylmar, California, provides 95,000 square feet of LEED Platinum-certified lecture classrooms, instructional labs, and computer labs, as well as new administrative, student services, and support spaces; lounge areas; and an outdoor amphitheater.
The building has many of the same green features as Ninth Street Elementary, including low-VOC and rapidly renewable materials, low-flow fixtures, and multiple storm-water retention, detention, and mitigation measures. The math and science building also has a high-performance rainscreen building envelope that minimizes heat transfer, a new central utility plan that increases the building’s energy and utility efficiency, and a photovoltaic canopy that shades a central courtyard and produces 260,000 kilowatt-hours of energy annually.
“In our own way, we’re trying to change how people see sustainability,” Molina says. “Green building and environmentalism shouldn’t be seen as a luxury or something that’s only for the wealthy. Low-income families like mine were green by default. We walked and took public transportation because we had to. We recycled because we needed the extra money. Schools that serve low-income and homeless children need to be sustainable out of necessity to provide their students with the healthy environment they need to learn.”