Technology and Ecology Meet at Flashpoint Academy

A Different Approach
Flashpoint Academy of Media Arts and Sciences is not your typical college; for proof, you need only walk the halls. The common areas, classrooms and hallways are all lined with pop art. The president’s office sports a Segway and a pair of skateboards are mounted on one wall. Even the classrooms are atypical. There are computer labs, such as any other school, but how many universities can boast several recording studios? How many have green screens and broadcast quality cameras?

The wall art is all from the personal collection of president and CEO, Howard Tullman, but he also lends the two-year, high-end vocational college his passion for technology and education. Founded in 2007, Flashpoint focuses on five disciplines, all digital: film, recording arts, broadcast, game development and animation. According to Tullman, Flashpoint caters to “the next generation workforce in Chicago.” Its students, he says, “don’t want to go to a four year college, end up in debt and not be sure about employment afterwards.” Flashpoint is working towards accreditation—one of the requirements of which is to graduate a class, something the young academy hasn’t yet had time to do. Eventually they hope to offer associates degrees.

But degrees are almost afterthoughts to students and faculty when employers come to them asking for talent. Chicago-based video game developer Midway Games recently approached Flashpoint looking to fill several positions. But they didn’t want just game developers, says Tullman. “They wanted students from all disciplines. They wanted film students, recording artists.” This is the future of the digital arts, as Tullman sees it. Games will start to look like films; CGI-heavy blockbusters will start to resemble award-winning dramas. Everything is changing and Flashpoint has poised itself to make the most of that change.

LEED by Example
It was this forward-thinking approach that led the mayor’s office to approach Flashpoint about producing a green building promotional film. LEED by Example, copies of which can be obtained from the city or the local chapter of the US Green Building Council (USGBC), features interviews with Mayor Richard M. Daley, former Chicago Building Commissioner Richard Rodriguez and others, as well as footage from last year’s Greenbuild of USGBC chairman Rick Fedrizzi and President Bill Clinton. The film is intended as a guide to the doubtful as to why building green makes sense ecologically as well as economically.

Flashpoint’s involvement came about as they were renovating their 87,000 ft2 space in the 95 year-old Burnham Center. One way to earn points toward a building or space’s LEED rating is to market the goals and merits of LEED itself in a USGBC-approved manner. Flashpoint had the equipment and expertise to put together the film, which attracted the city’s attention. Featuring footage of Flashpoint Academy’s renovation, the film also serves as a visual case study for building green.

Change in the Air
The Burnham Center space was designed by Flashpoint’s Vice President of Marketing and Development, Barbara Pollack. Valerio Dewalt Train Associates, headquartered in Chicago, served as architects and Northfield based Valenti Builders were the general contractors. It achieved a gold LEED standing.

The decision to build green fit with the open-minded approach the academy’s founders have towards teaching, technology and seemingly everything else. Also, says Tullman, “We actually believe in the economy of it.” He estimates that the cost of using sustainable materials and processes added 10-15% to the redevelopment. Tullman is confident that in the less than two years Flashpoint has been operational, they’ve already recaptured a good portion of that.

Green considerations took effect before anyone even snapped a chalk line. The academy went through the city’s Green Permit Program which fast-tracks green developments. After creating a construction air quality management plan, they cleaned and sealed all ductwork, ensuring that the demolition and reconstruction didn’t impair the air quality of the space. Air handling devices also kept moisture down, reducing mold growth.

Designers used materials gleaned from post-consumer recycled content wherever possible. Low energy heating systems reduce the wattage pulled down to keep the academy warm in the winter and LED lighting is not only more efficient, the faculty feels it is easier on the students’ eyes. The classrooms have motion-activated light switches to diminish consumption when the rooms are not in use. Also present are photosensors that turn off lights when there is adequate daylight. The bathrooms boast dual flush toilets and “Jet Towels” by Mitsubishi, air-drying devices that look as if they’ve fallen off a spaceship and claim to dry hands in seconds.

The decision to build green created almost no hurdles in the construction phase. The only hitch for Pollack and her design team was finding organic or recycled fabric for upholstery and shades that fit in their chosen design pallet. Every other green material they sought was easily attainable.

The academy features operable windows, which earns the space LEED points. The building’s age gave crews few problems, but they did discover that the windows had long ago been painted shut. For Flashpoint, this isn’t a problem, as the amount of technology packed into the space rivals most uses for HVAC demand. Natural air circulation may be ideal for a home or small commercial building, but it throws off the carefully calibrated air management of a larger, high-demand space. Tullman suggests that receiving points for the operable windows is disingenuous for spaces such as Flashpoint. “It’ll be interesting to see how LEED deals with that going forward.”

Given the chance, there are some things Tullman would do differently. The chosen low-VOC paints, for instance, were too thin. They didn’t give a satisfactory finish and he feels he shouldn’t have to trade the aesthetics of a traditional paint for better air quality. Also, the polycarbonate ceiling panels used in much of the common areas weren’t properly load tested, which required a doubling up of the hanging system.

But the most time was spent properly managing the air temperature. The heat load of a classroom full of computers confounded early efforts to install an efficient cooling system. “I’ve never been in a computer server room that didn’t have at least three fans that some tech brought in,” said Tullman, expressing his frustration with temperature management in a high-tech space.

Looking Forward
Flashpoint Academy currently occupies the sixth and fifth floors of the Burnham Center, as well a portion of the fourth and first. They have an option on the third and second floors, owing to their expected expansion. But the academy is not limiting itself to the Clark Street building. Now under construction is a second facility a few blocks away in the Merchandise Mart, with Chicago-based A. Epstein & Sons serving as architect. Flashpoint took over the 75,000 ft2 studio space vacated by WMAQ after their move to the NBC Tower on Columbus Drive.

The location has its own HVAC, thirty foot ceilings and will also be built to sustainable standards. “We wanted to fulfill the same kind of commitment there,” says Tullman, “as here,” indicating the Burnham Center. So far they have installed a multi-function studio with multiple stages, green screens and broadcast equipment. A centralized production booth will hone student’s skills as they produce videos, commercials and promotional material for the Mayor’s Office for Special Events. The studios will also offer a live performance area for WKQX, WLUP and Comcast, who all have limited space elsewhere in the Mart.

Flashpoint is also partnering with several local businesses, educators and the Chicago Public Schools to launch a charter high school, also in the Mart. The Career Academy for Advanced Technology (CAAT) will focus on technology and open with 150 freshman in September of 2009. Total capacity of the school would be around 600 students.

Tullman says that his students now enrolled in the academy are very cognizant of sustainability, and express their unhappiness that the rest of the Burnham Center isn’t green and that other tenants don’t recycle. It is hoped that forward-thinking curriculum of CAAT will model that of Flashpoint, so that the students don’t just open their minds to technology, but ecologic living as well.


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