Creative Problem-Solving for New Magnet School

Date: Monday March 5, 2018

C. Robin Brandon – Cincinnati Public Schools, Interim Director of Facilities
Mark Thurnauer, glaserworks Associate


Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) Spencer Center for Gifted and Exceptional Students opened fall 2017 as a citywide magnet school in Walnut Hills. For the Center to open on-time, the renovation of an outdated school building was to be completed – from design through construction – in just six months. [8/9/2017 WCPO: Cincinnati Prepares for Opening of its Newest Magnet School]

glaserworks architect Mark Thurnauer developed creative design solutions for a new & improved school facility.

Mark Thurnauer

Mark Thurnauer



The Spencer Center building was originally constructed in the 1970’s as Douglass Elementary. After the school was relocated to a new facility, the building was used for alternative CPS programming.

CPS superintendent wanted to create a school for gifted students (starting with grades 3-8 and growing into 12th grade) to capture those whose test scores demonstrate exceptionally high intelligence. The vision for Spencer Center was to create a safe, comfortable environment where gifted students can thrive.

According to Robin, “These are children who may not feel comfortable going to a large school (e.g. Walnut Hills). Walnut Hills has nearly 3,000 students; it is like a small college campus. We know that it is not for everyone.”

The Design Challenge

How do you take a 1970’s concrete building with minimal daylighting, and make it into a welcoming learning environment? This was the main challenge facing the new Spencer Center. Robin needed an architect who is a creative problem-solver, and responsive enough to turn the project around quickly.

“When you drive up to the building it’s a Brutalist-looking big mass of concrete, it is not very inviting,” says Robin.

former school building

Before: School building entrance

Robin wanted to make a dazzling first impression with students and faculty arriving at Spencer Center for the 2017-2018 school-year.

CPS had developed a new program, intended to serve gifted, exceptional students with state-of-the-art technology and innovative approach to education. The facility needed to reflect a future-forward, modern image to establish a strong sense of place and a brand for the new school.

Time Crunch

Another major challenge was schedule. Design and construction would begin and conclude in a matter of months. CPS board approved the Spencer Center project in March 2017. The school had to be 100% complete and occupied by the second week in August. Robin explains:

“We have had such a great working relationship with glaserworks – I had a feeling they would be able to solve the design challenge.”

Creative Problem-Solving

materials sheet

Materials – Mark incorporated a sweeping wood ceiling and wood wall panels to lend warmth and contrast to the existing brick and concrete walls. He also addressed acoustics through strategic, and aesthetically-pleasing, design of spaces with brick walls and tile floors. 

Mark designed a small addition which became the secure front entrance for the new school office, lobby, and an atrium area. The addition is small in area (about 1600 square feet) but, according to Robin,
“It gives the entrance a ‘Wow Factor’, people are impressed when they walk-in the front door.”

new lobby design

Mark’s design creates visibility and transparency of the school’s office. The new entrance features a vestibule for an added step in the security sequence. The new addition provides a vestibule equipped with special electronic door hardware to meet the security requirements of today’s schools.

Robin also reports enhanced project coordination when working with glaserworks:

“The documents are always really good, and there are very few change orders related to documents. That is important to the school district as a public entity; we must be fiscally responsible.”

  • Design A
  • Scheme D
  • Scheme F
  • scheme G
  • design development
  • design H


Renderings show the iterative design process as Mark worked with Robin to refine the Spencer Center design and create a safe, welcoming learning environment where gifted children can reach their full potential.