Ballard High School

“One thing [the students] absolutely love is all the glass and natural light that comes into every classroom.  They say it keeps them more alert.  Their attitudes are more cheery, and they love the views.  From almost every room or hallway they have an outdoor view.  Teachers and kids are coming earlier and staying later.  They want to be a part of this.  We used to have to go down the halls and beg kids to be class officers, especially juniors and seniors.  This year we had 35 seniors, 20 juniors, and 15 sophomores sign up to be class officers!  It is unprecedented.”

-John Ronca, Principal of Ballard High School

“We, the facilities committee and board, asked HAILA to produce a school that was forward-thinking, not a box on a 50-acre site.  We wanted it as maintenance free as possible.  They are the ones who brought us the idea of wide hallways, a version of ‘learning streets’ where students can meet in open spaces.  They delivered.”

-John Speer, Superintendent of the Ballard Community School District

Over the last several decades there has been significant flight from small rural Iowa communities to larger urban centers.  These towns, no longer economically sustainable, have been losing business and jobs at a steady or increasing rate, threatening to dissolve the foundations of Iowa’s rural identity.  One such community has found a way to combat the urban flight.  The visionary school board of this small rural school district realized that by investing in their small town schools, they could effectively attract young families in search of small class sizes and excellent facilities to the district.  Over the past two decades the district’s efforts to create excellent places for learning has paid dividends, making it one of the fastest growing rural school districts in the state, ultimately breathing new life into the communities that the district serves.

In light of the Ballard school district’s increased growth, the need for a new high school presented an opportunity to completely reinvent the educational and civic environment of the community.  Presuppositions about how a high school should work and what it should look like were discarded early in the programming phase, allowing the design to evolve and change to meet the needs and vision of the district. Being sited on the edge of town and clearly visible for miles around, it was imperative that the new high school create an iconic image indicative of the progressive mentality of the district.  In striking contrast to the agricultural backdrop, the curtain walled façade of the media center coupled with the red brick and precast concrete walls creates an iconic and distinctly modern architecture in the rural landscape.  Flooded by daylight, the commons serves as a community gathering space for community events as it serves the adjacent auditorium, band/vocal rooms, media center, and gymnasium.

The arrangement of the two wings of classrooms allows for future classroom and athletic additions by maintaining simple circulation patterns and natural way-finding without sacrificing natural daylight.  In addition to providing a means for future growth, several sustainable initiatives were incorporated into the design such as wind turbines which generate up to 50% of the school’s energy, water retentive prairie grass landscaping, high efficiency glazing to provide natural day lighting in 98% of all learning spaces, using local durable materials such as polished concrete floors & concrete block walls, and utilizing efficient HVAC systems.  The sustainable initiatives of the project have instilled a mentality within the school district to make future buildings in Ballard district models for highly sustainable design.

Visionary in approach, the gesture of this high school is a model for sustainable design in rural communities.  Providing magnitude and direction to the market viability of high design outside Iowa’s urban centers, this high school pronounces that progressive architecture has the ability to be a catalyst for renewal in rural communities, providing a means to preserve Iowa’s rural identity for generations to come.


Lawrence, Lance, and Tom Hendrick. “High-Performance Design.” American School & University. American School & University, 1 Oct. 2012. Web. 30 Oct. 2013

“Project Detail:Ballard High School.” Architect Magazine. Architect Magazine, n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2013.