Helping students become independent learners and thinkers is an essential component of most educational models, but for students with disabilities, maximizing independence runs parallel to maximizing potential. Empowering individuals with physical, emotional, and/or developmental challenges means providing them with the right tools and facilities to not only imagine the possibilities, but to achieve them. For Wight & Company, designing and building educational spaces that support students of all abilities is more than a job, more than a responsibility—it’s a privilege.

Recently, Wight’s team of innovators joined forces with two counterparts, FGM Architects and Legat Architects, to provide pro-bono facility assessment services to Philip J. Rock Center & School (PRC) in Glen Ellyn, IL. At PRC, where the mission is to enable people who are deaf-blind to achieve maximum independence based on individual potential, students not only learn at the school, they live there. So, when state funding was sought to address repairs and upgrades to the 40-year-old facility, PRC sent each of the architectural firms a Request for Qualifications.

Although the intention was for PRC to choose one of the companies to complete a required 10-year health/life safety study and five-year capital improvement plan, the trio decided to collaborate rather than compete.

“All three firms knew immediately that this was about more than a facility assessment review,” said Ron Richardson, FGM Director of PK-12 Education. The assessment was a mandatory prerequisite to seek state funding; however, the architects all agreed that the building’s much-needed repairs, renovations, and improvements were the top priority. After all, this wasn’t just a school, it was the students’ home. So instead of trying to win the work, they pooled their resources together and donated it.

Wight & Company lent our expertise to provide an in-depth analysis of all engineering systems, including structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire protection, and civil, as well as site components such as landscaping, fencing, and playgrounds. Simultaneously, FGM assessed the building’s envelope for moisture intrusion, and Legat examined all areas to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Together, the team complied a comprehensive, 66-page Facility Planning Report including a written analysis, photos of conditions, and prioritized recommendations for upgrades. Brad Paulsen, Wight’s PK-12 Education Practice Leader, explained the importance of the findings: “In developing this plan, we were able to determine what was in immediate need of replacement and what needed to be completed to provide the proper environment for learning, living, and working.”

As a result of the triad’s efforts, the Illinois State Board of Education awarded PRC $6.5M in capital improvements. Bonnie Jordan, Philip J. Rock Center Executive Director, said “FGM, Legat, and Wight & Company are vested in doing what’s best for students.” The trifecta was further praised by Jordan for being instrumental in helping to provide a better learning and living space for the students and staff of PRC.

“It’s gratifying to be a part of three competing firms recognizing a school in need, then bring together our talents for the greater good,” said Legat’s preK-12 Leader Robin Randall. Wight’s Brad Paulsen wholeheartedly agreed, noting that he felt a special sense of pride when he heard that the theme of this year’s Helen Keller Deaf-Blind Awareness Week, celebrated June 21-27 was: Deaf-Blind. And Thriving. “This collaboration was established for that very reason: to do our part to help this special community thrive.”

Supporting the needs of students with disabilities is at the heart of another Wight endeavor. Little Friends, an expansive agency that provides programs and services to people with Autism and other developmental disabilities, is moving from its Naperville, IL location to a new site in Warrenville, IL. At the new location, Wight is designing the build-out of an existing building to house three of the organization’s core school programs: Krejic Academy, focused on children with Autism; Bridge High School, dedicated to teaching vocational and life skills to teens and young adults; and Mansion High School, devoted to supporting students with social and emotional challenges.

Plans for the new facility center around inclusivity, where every detail—from the parking lot to the playground to the program spaces themselves—is thoughtfully designed to enhance learning in a therapeutic environment. Although Little Friends had implemented ways to adapt within the footprint of their current facility, being able to design new spaces with specific intentionality further enhances their ability to serve and support students.

Leanne Meyer-Smith, Wight’s Vice President of Architecture, said that in addition to the firm’s extensive experience in the educational arena, its greatest strength is listening to clients’ needs and then creating and customizing solutions. “There is nothing more rewarding than designing educational spaces that galvanize, rather than hinder students with disabilities.”

For Little Friends, for the Philip J. Rock Center & School, for the Deaf-Blind community, and for Wight & Company, the common thread is empowering all students so that regardless of ability, they have the services, tools, and support to not just live and learn, but to thrive.