If there’s anything that the recent recession taught Americans, it’s that both personal and business financial literacy is the key to maintaining economic health. And why not get an early start to sound economic planning? Junior Achievement (JA) is a national nonprofit organization that instructs middle school students how to maintain a daily budget through role play at day-long sessions hosted at its Junior Achievement Financial Park locations.
JA always wanted to have a facility in Fairfax, Va., according to Amy Marcenaro Heckman, COO of Junior Achievement in the national capital area. “We had a mobile version [of JA] but wanted a permanent home,” she recalls. “With real estate pricing being so high, it is was a hard nut to crack.” To fulfill this goal, JA collaborated with the leaders of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), who wanted to make the program a mandatory course for its 13,000 eighth graders, and devised a budget for a new, 20,000-sqare-foot structure in the center of an existing educational site that housed a middle school and high school. With so many parties involved, including the mobile program’s sponsor, Capital One, developing the space was a complicated process. Heckman says, “We needed a team that truly understood the idea of partnership and would be willing to play ball.” And Gensler stepped up to the plate.
Led by architect Vaki Mawema, Assoc. AIA, LEED® AP, who was born in Zimbabwe and has been in practice for just 10 years, the design team toured multiple JA facilities and even completed the JA program to determine a solution that would give the Fairfax facility its own identity, yet still adequately address all of the curriculum’s facets and, most importantly, remain on budget. (Click the "more photos" link above left to view images.)
The result is Junior Achievement Fairfax Finance Park, which features three distinct sections within a custom, prefabricated post-and-beam corrugated metal frame that spans the length of the building. “We had to give them something to set the scene, a functional prototype within a beautiful space to set the tone for other JAs to come,” says Mawema. “We needed to maximize its impact, and we really tried to highlight the space as much as possible with natural light and transparency, which we thought went along the lines of today’s economic times. And by keeping it airy and clean we were also able to streamline our expenditure.”
When students arrive at the facility, they are ushered from the double-height lobby and entryway with full-height windows into a 156-seat auditorium. Here, they are told the JA brand story and receive insight into the program they are about to complete. The room features large windows for daylighting, soft, natural hues, and graphic accents on the wall that reinforce the story of workplace and financial literacy. “We wanted to provoke the kids to think throughout their stay, and the graphics always offer something interesting visually,” says Mawema.
Once the orientation is complete, large 12-foot-high auditorium doors open on either side of the room to showcase the main simulation space, which glimmers with natural light and reflective floors. “The natural light bounces off the floors to create a wow effect even before the kids start to sequentially circulate through the mock town and shops,” Mawema says. Here, pops of chartreuse, magenta, and red walls grounded with the gray-toned base of the cement floor keep the interior alive and further engage. “The palette strikes a balance,” he notes, “so it isn’t childish; it’s exciting.”
What distinguishes Fairfax Finance Park from other JA facilities is the inclusion of a lounge at the end of the space that offers an area for the students to reflect on their day. “When we went through the JA process, it was extremely challenging,” says Mawema. “After the day, the kids are exhausted, mentally and physically, so we thought we’d give them a space to decompress before they head out.”
According to Marcenaro Heckman, this space is a helpful finishing touch that references the program. “The reflections room is a great place for students to think about what they’ve learned before they get on the bus. There’s a ton of value in that the course is not just a one-and-done,” she says. Much like the lobby and auditorium, the lounge is outfitted in pale hues and inspiring wall graphics. Large, glass windows connect to views to the surrounding area and add to the reflective atmosphere.
For Mawema, who describes the value of the JA program as nothing less than “awesome,” the best part of the design is the reaction that it receives. “We witnessed the kids and saw them run giddy into the auditorium,” he says. And with more than 13,000 students per year, that excitement is sure to redound positively on our nation’s future workforce.
Owner: Junior Achievement of the National Capital Area. Architecture firm name/location: Gensler, Washington D.C.; Jordan Goldstein, principal; Deanna Francl, project manager; Vaki Mawema, project architect; Norma Morales, Maria Rucks, Emily McCarthy, Matt Rowan, Steven Joswick, design team. Contractor: Henley Construction Company. Structural: Rathgaber / Goss Engineers. MEP: GHT Consulting Engineers. Civil: Rinker Design Associates. Lighting: Gensler. Other: Fairfax County Schools. Photographer: Prakash Patel.
Wallcoverings: Wolf-Gordon. Paint: Benjamin Moore. Laminate: Formica. Solid Surfacing: Corian. Dry wall: USG. Flooring: Scofield. Carpet/carpet tile: Shaw, Interface. Ceiling: USG. Glass: Kawneer. Window treatments: Lutron. Fabric Panels: Maharam. Architectural woodworking: Smoot Lumber Company. Signage: Designed by Gensler/Fabricated by Coyle & Company.
Location: Fairfax, VA. Total floor area: 20,000 sq. ft. No. of floors: 1. Average floor size: 20,000 sq. ft. Total staff size: 4. Cost/sq. ft. $162.