UNO Soccer Academy

Charter schools, while part of the public education system, offer alternatives to traditional public schools. Many are started by non-profits and provide curriculum specialized in a certain area. The United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) works towards improving the Hispanic neighborhoods in Chicago, and its Soccer Academy on the city's South Side is an important part of this. Focused on the sport as an activity and way to boost school participation, the dynamic school design by Juan Moreno of JGMA with Ghafari Associates is receiving praise from critics and the public alike. Both JGMA and Ghafari Associates answered some questions about the project.
View of southwest side of building at sunset ( Photo ©: Tom Rossiter )
What were the circumstances of receiving the commission for this project?

JGMA: There were several circumstances that led to the commission of the project. The initial Design Build RFP was issued in early summer 2010 and invited all interested design build teams to submit their qualifications along with a fee proposal. However, an addendum was released a few weeks later that dramatically changed the landscape of the RFP. The addendum required the submitting firms to also include their vision for a new charter elementary school. This immediately changed the submittal strategy from a RFP, to a design competition. The competition design concept was led by Juan Gabriel Moreno, AIA. At the time of the competition, Mr. Moreno was the Global Design Director for Ghafari Associates. Juan Moreno had been hired by Ghafari in 2006 to bring an architectural design identity to the firm and by 2010 the firm was gaining notoriety for their architecture to go along with their already renowned engineering experience. Mr. Moreno has always been an advocate of community involvement and dedicates much of his time in working with non-profit Latino Organizations in Chicago, which includes UNO. He has spent the last several years mentoring UNO’s students and working closely with UNO’s teachers and executives. This has helped him gain an intimate knowledge of the organization’s views on architecture along with their commitment to education and community. This insight proved invaluable as the design was ultimately selected as the winning entry from over 25 submittals.

By the time the commission had been received, Juan Moreno had left Ghafari Associates to start a new architectural firm, JGMA (Juan Gabriel Moreno Architects). UNO announced the award of the commission for their new elementary school in September 2010, to the team of JGMA and Ghafari Associates. JGMA was the Design Architect and Ghafari Associates the Design Builder. UNO challenged JGMA to create a provocative design and UNO challenged Ghafari to build it in less than a year.

Ghafari: Ghafari was awarded the contract to provide comprehensive design-build services for the new UNO elementary school project as the result of a competitive Request for Proposal (RFP) process. In the summer of 2010, UNO issued an RFP for design-build services that was open to all interested, qualified teams. Proposal requirements included a detailed design / construction fee and schedule, project team and experience narratives, as well as conceptual drawings for the proposed project. The intent of this final requirement was to provide the submitting teams with the opportunity to describe their envisioned concept for the project, given its aggressive timeline and limited budget. UNO challenged the teams to create a project that would inspire the community while respecting schedule and budgetary constraints. The teams were provided with the program requirements for the new school; however, no specific site was given during the RFP process.

Ghafari submitted its proposal to provide fully integrated design-build services, which included a conceptual design that was enthusiastically received by UNO. After a shortlist interview with the client, JGMA/Ghafari was selected out of 28 teams for the project.
View from future soccer master plan and soccer fields ( Photo ©: JGMA )
Can you describe your design process for the building?

JGMA: The design process for the UNO Soccer Academy Elementary School was unique to say the least. When the RFP/Design Competition was issued, neither specific site location nor design criteria were given. UNO had solely provided teams with programmatic requirements and their desire to for a new charter elementary school. The inspiration for the competition entry stemmed from a conversation Juan Moreno once had with UNO’s CEO, Juan Rangel. Both Mr. Moreno and Mr. Rangel were part of Chicago 2016’s Delegation (Chicago’s Olympic Bid for the 2016 games) that traveled to Copenhagen in October 2009 for the selection of the 2016 Olympic Games. During that trip, Moreno and Rangel were touring downtown Copenhagen and walked into a building designed by Arne Jacobsen. Upon entering the building, Mr. Rangel commented on how the natural light and spatial qualities of the building “inspired him” and it was exactly what he wanted his students to experience when they walked into an UNO building. For the competition entry, Mr. Moreno knew his design had to illicit the same reaction from Juan Rangel.

When the project was awarded to JGMA and Ghafari, UNO announced that the Elementary School would be located in Gage Park, a predominantly Latino community located in Chicago’s Southwest side. In addition, UNO also announced that the school would be the first piece in a much larger master plan that would focus on soccer as the impetus for strengthening community, parents and students in Gage Park. The master plan program includes the elementary school, a high school, indoor training facilities, commercial buildings, restaurants, parks, full-size indoor and outdoor soccer fields, and a soccer stadium. JGMA worked closely with UNO, business leaders, and soccer organizations including the Chicago Fire and University of Illinois at Chicago, to better understand the relationship soccer would have with education. Case studies in Pachuca, Mexico and Madrid, Spain were investigated to take a closer look at how educational programs had been incorporated into soccer master plans. The soccer club teams for Pachuca and Real Madrid created educational facilities within their campuses to link soccer families with students. The results were astonishing as student learning and parental participation greatly increased in both cases.

As the design process progressed, JGMA conducted several design charettes with UNO’s project team and faculty to gain a better understanding of the programmatic requirements and relationship the building would have within the greater master plan. It was clear that the Elementary School would become the impetus for future master plan and also spur growth within the business community. The outcome is an innovative design and school program that takes on a new and progressive approach to education.
View of third floor multipurpose room/community room ( Photo ©: JGMA )
JGMA (cont'd): The design of the building itself is inspired in part by the educational development of the children it serves. Just as a child grows, the building appears to grow out of the ground, where programs such as learning theaters, administrative components, and classrooms frame a soccer field courtyard. Developmentally essential programs including a fitness center and resource library progress the movement of the building gradually upward. Finally, the building culminates in a community center that frames views of the Chicago skyline, inspiring students and neighboring residents to achieve their potential.

This highly innovative design turns a conventional elementary school inside out. By locating the corridors along the largely glass perimeter of the building while simultaneously locating a full-height glass wall along the interior classrooms, the school is able to dramatically increase daylight and views inside the classrooms. Natural light is therefore allowed to fully penetrate the spaces, creating an effective and efficient teaching and learning environment. This arrangement allows for the additional benefits of increased teaching surfaces in the classrooms, as well as a heightened sense of community connectivity whereby student activity within the corridors is showcased along the building’s exterior.

This community connectivity is not only echoed on the inside corridors; it also permeates throughout the exterior where the building form creates different plazas and open spaces to engage with the school users as well as with the community. This engagement aligns directly with one of the main project goals: to create a school as a tool for social change. A changed that initiated with the selection of the site: a residual abandoned industrial site.

The project then builds up pedestrian-friendly areas and encourages diversity in an urban area with dense population and takes advantage of existing infrastructure including public transportation.
This school embodies what educational facilities should represent; the hopes and dreams of their local communities; where neighborhood identity is created, parents and community are part of the education, enriching cultural traditions, and most of all telling to the young generations that where they come from matters as much as where they're going.
Northwest Elevation ( Photo ©: Tom Rossiter )
How does the completed building compare to the project as designed? Were there any dramatic changes between the two and/or lessons learned during construction?

JGMA: The completed building differs dramatically from the original competition entry and is essentially a different project altogether. The only constant between the competition entry and the completed project is that it remained an elementary school. The eventual site selection and decision to create a soccer academy challenged us to re-think our views towards educational facilities and to embark upon a new design that would represent the antithesis of most public school designs in Chicago.

The completed building has remained remarkably consistent throughout JGMA’s design intent and Ghafari’s construction completion. The success of the project from design conception thru construction cannot be understated. As with most projects with compressed schedules, the fast track nature did lead to some changes in the design. Elements such as a cantilevered structure, outdoor learning theatres, and double height entry had to be revised during the construction documents phase in order to avoid compromising the school’s opening date. The original design called for a bridge structure supporting the dramatic cantilever of the multipurpose / community room, however this had to be abandoned in favor of a more conventional structural design. The original design also called for outdoor learning spaces and a double height entry, both of these components would have required further dialogue with the City officials and were ultimately redesigned as well.

Ghafari: The UNO elementary school was a fast-track design-build project with a tight budget and an aggressive timeline of less than one year in which to design, permit and construct the 63,000 sq. ft. building. While the completed building is consistent with the design intent, a few slight modifications to the design were necessitated by owner-requested programmatic adjustments during construction. In order to complete the project on schedule, there was considerable overlap between the design and construction phases. This overlap was facilitated by the highly integrated nature of the project team. The project was divided into multiple bid packages, enabling construction to begin on the earlier packages while design was completed on the later packages.

The sculptured building envelope presented certain challenges during construction. The team used 3D Building Information Modeling (BIM), which helped in the visualization of the more complex building shapes while enabling close coordination between the design and field teams.
Courtyard with practice soccer field ( Photo ©: Tom Rossiter )
How does the building compare to other projects in your office, be it the same or other building types?

JGMA: JGMA is a progressive architecture and design practice committed to inter-disciplinary collaboration, active community involvement and the enrichment of peoples' lives through attentive and dynamic organization of space and materiality. We understand that architecture and design has a unique ability to influence civic life and transform communities.

The UNO Soccer Academy’s design is consistent with JGMA’s entire design portfolio and embodies our firm’s mission and design approach for all of our projects, regardless of project type, size and location.

The UNO project also closely compares to other projects in our office in that our involvement goes well beyond the buildings we design for our clients. As with UNO, we dedicate significant time as volunteers to the organizations we work for, mentoring students and actively participating in our client’s community endeavors.
Site Plan ( Drawing ©: JGMA )
Ghafari: Ghafari practices expertise-based design in diverse, technically intensive sectors such as aerospace, institutional and manufacturing. Our building solutions are largely operations-generated, whereby the day-to-day use of the facility dictates a design response.

The UNO elementary school concept was established on an understanding of the UNO mission, a recognition of the unique needs of the neighborhood in which the school resides, and an appreciation of the community it serves. The resultant building is a physical expression of the owner’s operational model and guiding principles. In this regard, the project is similar to many other buildings that Ghafari has completed, regardless of size, location or use.
Ground Floor Plan ( Drawing ©: JGMA )
How does the building relate to contemporary architectural trends, be it sustainability, technology, etc.?

JGMA: The UNO building relates to several contemporary trends in architecture, but more importantly, it is also inspiring others to rethink the way educational facilities have been designed and in particular, how they are being designed in the Latino community. Most schools in predominately Latino areas of Chicago have been designed as “fortresses” to fortify the students from their surroundings. The UNO building does the opposite. It invites the neighbors and community to become a part of the facility and encourages interaction with them. It represents a definitive connection between community and education.

How the UNO building relates to the following architectural trends:

PLANNING – The building is stratified into 3 distinct learning levels. The first floor is for K-2 students, the second floor for grades 3-5, and the third floor is for grades 6-8. This provides a distinct “rite of passage” for each of the learning groups and provides the students with a distinct experience on each level. The plan is also organized with a single loaded corridor on the exterior, moving away from traditional double loaded corridor plans. This layout provides educators with three learning surfaces within each of the classrooms.

PROGRAM – The facility includes programmatic components typically associated with elementary schools, but also includes program spaces for improved student health and nutrition. The building includes training and exercise areas for the students. The building also contains program components that are specifically for community purposes. The multipurpose room includes space for community classes such as cosmetology for parents. The outdoor areas include community plazas, a community café, and community tables that encourage neighbors to play dominoes.

SUSTAINABILITY – The building has been designed to achieve LEED Gold Certification (still pending). Key design elements include a sophisticated building envelope with a stainless steel rainscreen exterior skin, high performance glazing, and green roof for education purposes.

TECHNOLOGY – The design and construction utilized 3D Building Information Modeling (BIM) throughout the project. In addition, the design team utilized Rhinoceros, Grasshopper and Ecotect to better inform the design process.

STUDENT ATTENDANCE – The most important measure in the success of JGMA’s contemporary and provocative design for UNO can be found in the student attendance rates. Since opening in September 2011, student attendance is 99%. This is by far the most important trend that should be observed and used to inspire others.
Second Floor Plan ( Drawing ©: JGMA )
Ghafari: The new UNO school was designed to achieve LEED Gold Certification. Throughout the design and construction processes, the project team met regularly to discuss LEED Certification and sustainable features, such as energy efficiency in the installed systems, construction waste management and indoor air quality management. Sustainable features of the project include the following:

▪ Green Roof – A green roof with native vegetation is provided over the classroom area, which also serves as a teaching tool as part of the school’s green education program.
▪ Use of Materials – The selected materials (building envelope, walls, floors, millwork and furniture) are locally manufactured and harvested, have a low carbon footprint and positive environmental impact, and address air quality concerns.
▪ Energy-Efficient Systems – The building envelope components (metal panel and store-front glass systems) meet the insulation, maximum U-factor and solar heat gain coefficient requirements and provide an energy-efficient enclosure.

The design team used 3D Building Information Modeling (BIM) for the project, which enabled improved coordination between the disciplines, as well as visualization of the more complex building shapes.
Third Floor Plan ( Drawing ©: JGMA )
Are there any new/upcoming projects in your office that this building’s design and construction has influenced?

JGMA: The notoriety we have received for the design of the UNO Soccer Academy has not influenced our approach to design, it has merely reinforced it. As we develop our new and upcoming projects, the UNO project gives us the opportunity to show a tangible outcome for how design, schedule and budget do not have to be mutually exclusive. It is a compelling story that resonates with all of our clients.
I would say the UNO Soccer Academy has influenced potential clients to reach out to us in ways we hadn’t quite anticipated. Since designing the soccer academy we have clients contact us to design a runway for a fashion show, a concept for a bicycle sharing installation, and a bus transfer center. Admittedly, these are project types we hadn’t previously considered, but represent a testament to the importance of quality architecture and design.
The new projects in our office that continue to reinforce our belief in architecture and community in Chicagoinclude: El Valor’s International Inclusion Center, Northeastern Illinois University’s new El Cento Campus, and Latin Rhythms’ Studio LR.
The upcoming international projects in our office that have been directly related to our UNO success include: a Hotel and Resort in Chennai, India, an Alternative School in Guadalajara, Mexico, and Exploration Institute for Children and Youth with Disabilities in Panama.

Email interviews conducted by John Hill.
UNO Soccer Academy

Chicago, IL

United Neighborhood Organization (UNO)

Design Architect
JGMA (Juan Gabriel Moreno Architects)
Chicago, IL
Juan Gabriel Moreno, AIA
Design Architect
Cosmin Vrajtoru
Project Designers
John Rausch
David Ruffing
Interior Designer
Linda Chavez

Architect of Record
Ghafari Associates
Chicago, IL
E. Angelo Kokkino, AIA
Project Architect
Steve Santucci, AIA
Project Manager
August Mitchell
Job Captain
Ayse Bautz, LEED AP

Structural Engineer
Ghafari Associates

MEP/FP Engineer
Primera Engineers

Landscape Architect
Terry Guen Design Associates

Lighting Designer
Windy City Electric Co.

Interior Designer

Contractor/Construction Manager
Ghafari Associates


Interior Floors
Armstrong, Johnsonite, Amtico, InterfaceFLOR

La Force

Gym Wood Floors
Robbins Sports Surfaces

Zalk Josephs

Site Area
3 acres

Building Area
63,000 sf