The sky was azure and dotted with puffy white clouds. The architects and project manager conducting the tour of the new Marco Island Academy campus looked like they were plucked from Central Casting for the occasion. The Fantastic 14, the top 14 academic students in their class who were treated to the tour, were ideal ambassadors for their school.
Architects Joelle Szerdi Gutierrez and Dany A. Gutierrez from Living Designs Group Florida Architects, Inc., the designers of Marco Island Academy, led the tour, along with Gates Construction’s Project Manager Ryan Eisenhauer. The trio provided the academy students with a thorough tour of the campus, highlighting many of the features that make the new school special.
The whole scene had to be something close to nirvana for Marco Island Academy founder Jane Watt, who started the school with an idea in 2009. The new campus is slated to open next fall.
“I’m just so excited for the kids to be able to see it before the walls go in,” remarked Jane Watt, Board Chair for Marco Island Academy. “Joelle had mentioned it. She said, ‘Jane, would you like to get the kids in there before the walls go in?’ We hadn’t thought about it. We thought it would be cool for the kids to not just see it, but learn a little something along the way.”
Joelle Szerdi Gutierrez, like her father John Szerdi the founder and president of LDG, has taught architecture in addition to working in the field. She and her husband Dany are principals and lead designers for LDG, a family business based in Lake Worth Beach, Florida. The two were intimately involved with the design of the school. All three are graduates of the University of Florida’s School of Architecture, where Joelle and her father also taught architecture.
Melissa Scott, MIA’s longtime Principal, saw her new office for the first time during the tour. It had to be an emotional experience for the popular principal as she gazed out one of the large office windows overlooking the current MIA campus.
“This journey is so hard to describe,” Scott said, “but I am incredibly grateful for every moment of it. Every student I’ve met has changed my life for the better and taught me to cherish every positive moment. Being on the new campus with my seniors that are graduating, reminded me of how lucky I am for all that have walked our tiny halls and open pavilion. They have truly helped build our future.”
The new Marco Island Academy is being described as similar to an urban campus by its designers, whose background is heavy in environmental design and wetland ecology. They feel the finished product will be a real wow factor for the island.
“I think the whole campus is a wow factor,” stated Dany Gutierrez. “Because you’re driving on a road that is very natural, it’s very small scale, you have trees on each side. Then you drive by and you see this amazing glass curving wall, and these huge amounts of spaces that are not typical for the area. So, I think as you’re driving by you get a very big wow factor. And also the advantage of being up high and taking advantage of the views.”
“Yeah, I think it’s about the juxtaposition between the built and the unbuilt environment,” added Joelle Szerdi Gutierrez. “With all of the natural surroundings, to come upon something that’s been built as almost an urban campus because of the amount of amenities, we’ve been able to configure into such a challenging site with the wetlands we have to respect and keep a distance from. I think that’s why it’s so impactful. You go from that unbuilt to built.”
The architects agree that one of the wow factors is found inside the entry lobby, which is a wow factor itself.
“The ceremonial stair in the entrance lobby is a wow factor,” Dany Gutierrez said.
“What’s unique about that is that it’s a compound curve,” explained Joelle Szerdi Gutierrez. “It not only curves, but it curves as it goes up to the second floor to the mezzanine; and that mezzanine will overlook the entire lobby. What’s interesting about the stair is it’s not just steps that go up, we have actual seats on the side. So, the students will be able to sit and either study or use it as a place for interaction. So, it’s not a typical stair—there’s interaction to it. A lot of things in building design has to do with fluidity. The different elements of water which is part of their mascot, the manta ray.
“Everything is aquatic here on the island. Organic shapes and fluidity is critical to a lot of the design and also to create a dynamic facade. You have these two large volumes of the gymnasium and the classroom buildings. They have to be pretty standard to provide ample room for the classrooms and the basketball court, but we wanted to connect those two spaces. Instead of doing something square, we created something that is a nucleus, providing a connection to each separate space. So the stair that is here is really important to further accentuate that curve of the glass of the lobby, and it also creates a contrast between the two squares as well.
“The amount of glass we have, and because it’s curving, I think it really is the connection and the joint between two large volumes that creates that wow factor as well. Because everything comes into that nucleus point. Everything is joined together with that one glass, curving piece. It’s the entrance, it’s where everything comes together, it’s joining all of the patrons and students and staff together. So, it’s sort of a connector piece between the rest of the campus. It’s the first thing you see as you drive onto the campus. It’s the first thing you’re going to notice—besides a really cool manta ray sculpture.”
“The design of the stair was challenging,” Dany Gutierrez pointed out. “Because as it’s curving up, all of the surfaces are usually straight or flat, so you have to figure out how do you do the railings, how do you do the steps, the cap, how to work that wood material into a curve. It’s a consistent curve, but like Joelle is saying, it’s a compound curve.”
Marco Island Academy holds a very special place in the hearts of the architects.
“This project is very special to us,” Joelle Szerdi Gutierrez said. “We created all of the renderings in-house. Dany worked for a very famous firm in Boston called Machado Silvetti, so he was part of some really important projects and was able to develop skills to enable him to graphically create ideas in realistic renderings and bring them to life so people can design. All the renderings were done in-house, with our hands.”
The designers relished the opportunity of fitting a large number of amenities onto a relatively small piece of land.
“It was very challenging,” said Joelle Szerdi Gutierrez. “Typically, you see acres and acres for the size of a high school campus. A lot of people would look at that as a problem, but we looked at it as an opportunity to find a solution. How to integrate these amenities into this site that is really beautiful. Taking advantage of those views, but also taking advantage of every single inch. The civil drawings and the retention calculations are very complicated. We had to go through a lot of coordination efforts to get every single inch that we could to be able to provide a soccer field for sanctioned games. So, there were a lot of challenges to provide space on the road, for instance, to get firetrucks in. There’s a lot more that goes into figuring out how to build the space on the property, not just the wetland areas.”
Every one of the sixteen classrooms contains a big wow factor, too.
“All of the classrooms are generally the same size,” Joelle Szerdi Gutierrez said. “Here you see huge expanse windows. Architects are obsessed with light—we want natural light. That’s why we flood these classrooms with natural light. It creates a dynamic learning environment.”
The campus also possesses hurricane glass throughout.
“Any opening you see is going to have hurricane impact windows,” she said.
An integral piece of the overall design is the multi-function gymnasium building. A full-size basketball court and performing stage is housed within the Arts & Athletics Facility that will serve both school and community events. The flooring will be striking and state of the art, with a cavity under the floor surface that will have air pumped through it.
“They use it at major professional courts,” Dany Gutierrez said. “The substrate is concrete. You have a moisture barrier to keep moisture out. Then you have two layers that go at 45-degree angles. Then you have the actual wooden gym floor on top. From the sides you have blowers that pump air under the floor and keep it very stable in terms of humidity.”
“It’s a great floor system,” noted Joelle Szerdi Gutierrez. “We were excited for them to get that.”
Mark Melvin, who serves on the academy’s board, has been very involved with the IT aspects of the project.
“I was involved in all the IT work here,” Mark Melvin said, “all the design of the low voltage, the networking, the door opening controls. All of the IT-type things. Luckily, that happens to be in my wheelhouse. I’ve built buildings, data centers, schools and hospitals for the past 30 years. I ran a $2 billion integration firm before I retired and moved here to Marco.
Melvin stops short of saying the MIA building is on the cutting edge in terms of IT.
“We’ll be putting in as much of the latest technology as we can afford,” he explained. “Obviously the school has a budget. My last project was the Apple campus. It might not be quite as cutting edge as that, but we don’t need that. But will it be cutting edge for a school campus? Yes, it will definitely press the envelope there.”
Melvin was also involved with the sound system for the Arts & Athletics Facility building.
“We have a limited amount of budget,” he said. “It will be very nice.”
With a lot of planning and tweaking, the designers were able to work in a beautiful outdoor athletic complex. When they first evaluated the property in 2016, the designers thought it would be impossible to fit a soccer field into the plans. While they were able to make the soccer fieldwork, it turned out to be impossible to fit a football field into the design.
“A football field and soccer field are the same size—the football field just has the end zones,” Joelle Szerdi Gutierrez said. “So that’s the caveat—a football field you could technically fit onto the property. But with a wetland, you have to keep a distance from the wetland. We’re required by code, by the city, and by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, to keep that distance and to pay respect to that wetland and not impact it negatively. We wanted to fit all that we could; and we did our best to fit everything. That is why we are inches from the perimeter of where we can be.”
“It’s actually a bit miraculous how we were able to fit the soccer field onto the property,” said Dany Gutierrez. “When we first started with the master plan, the idea was to just have a play area. Our first instinct was, ‘no, there’s no way that is going to fit.’ But we were able to work with an engineer to work out the drainage performance, landscape and everything.”
“We can’t have any negative impact on the wetlands,” Joelle Szerdi Gutierrez explained. “When we were figuring out the location and orientation of the building, we had to keep in mind that there is a wetlands setback. You can be only so close to the wetlands area. The reason for that is when you have buildings, you have to get the water off of the roof of the buildings. You have to have drainage. That drainage has to go somewhere. That is what we call retention areas. They collect the water from the building. We have to be very careful not to put any of the water back into the wetlands area. We have to keep a certain distance from the wetlands.
“Gates is a really good team to collaborate with as well. They’ve been really good in working with us. To help us not only achieve the vision that Marco Island has but also to stay within budget. That’s something that’s really challenging. How to create something that’s so beautiful when you have to keep in mind the challenges of budget.”
All of their hard work has paid off with a beautiful facility that includes a concession stand and fitness center. A large canopy area is built into the school building and leads to the soccer field.
“There is going to be a fitness center, like a workout area,” Danys Gutierrez said. “Then you have the bleachers and the locker rooms and bathrooms and the concession area for hot dogs or whatever.
“That’s also something that’s unprecedented on the island, there’s no soccer field or high school here.”
The architects praised the City of Marco Island for their cooperation.
“The city’s been great in collaborating with us,” Dany Gutierrez said. “For example, there was a height requirement. They share the vision of the school and they want this project to happen so they’re being very good in working with us.”
“They granted that height variance when they didn’t have to,” Joelle Szerdi Gutierrez said.
Besides being beautiful and ultra-modern, the MIA buildings are built to handle whatever mother nature dishes out.
“It can’t be used as a hurricane shelter because Marco is a barrier island,” Dany Gutierrez said. “But it’s designed to be as strong as a shelter—and even stronger. The walls in the gymnasium are 12 inches thick. Normal ones are 8 inches. The elevation of the floor is 10 feet above the waterline.”
Gates construction is about to seal the building, which will allow them to begin hanging drywall and many of the other aspects of construction inside the buildings.
Ryan Eisenhaur, the Project Manager, is a mechanical engineer. He talked to the students about the HVAC system, insulation and the metal stud work and piping throughout the building, and green technology.
“Now it’s time to close this up,” Ryan Eisenhauer said. “We should have the building sealed within the next couple of weeks.”
“It’s amazing,” Melvin summarizes. “It’s so neat for not only the school, but for the community, to have a permanent home for our kids. It not only helps the kids; it helps the parents. As people are looking at places to buy—not just as a vacation spot but as a home—they’re looking at what kind of school system is here, the infrastructure. That’s why this is so critical.”