Project Spotlight: Detroit Achievement Academy
All images courtesy of Detroit Achievement Academy
Students at Detroit Achievement Academy already receive a world-class education, and with help from Fireclay, they’ll now have a new building to match. Using nearly 3,000 SqFt of Ceramic Tile and Brick donated through our Fireclay Gives initiative (plus leftover tile from their sister school Detroit Prep!), Detroit Achievement Academy outfitted their school with the perfect pops of color and texture to stimulate young minds. Because in founder Kyle Smitley’s own words, “By creating a beautifully designed space, you are inherently saying something about the worth of those that inhabit it.”
We sat down with Kyle and designer Cali Green of A Green Haus to get a behind-the-scenes look at the process of remodeling and expanding their old school building into a beautifully designed space for students and staff to celebrate learning. Keep reading for the full interview!
Meet Cali + Kyle:
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and Detroit Achievement Academy?
KS: I grew up in a small town in Ohio, went to a small college (DePauw University) in Indiana, and knew I wanted to take a gap year before starting law school. But during my gap year, I started an organic children's clothing line after doing some consulting with a few kids' shops. Fast forward a few years, and I was completing law school while simultaneously running a multi-million dollar business in California. But, I wasn't satisfied, and my work wasn't leaving me fulfilled. One of my best friends was working as a Kindergarten teacher, and after visiting her school, I was blown away by their positive school culture and incredible data, despite the countless stories I’d heard about public education. I was inspired and knew that if I could surround myself with the right people, and dive into the work headfirst, I could start a world-class school that served students and families in a holistic way in Detroit.
After a year of visiting schools all over the country and hearing from educators, students, and families about what their dream school would look like if they could build one from the ground up, we opened the doors of Detroit Achievement Academy in the fall of 2013 to 40 kindergarteners and first graders on the west side of Detroit. It has slowly grown year after year and is truly one of the most special places on earth.
Did you work with a designer on DAA? What was the process like?
KS: We did! It was a dream, actually. When we first began dreaming about this expansion project, our architects came to our school and led design workshops with our staff, students, and families to get an idea of what needs and dreams our community had for our school space.
After multiple iterations of our expanded space, and receiving feedback from our crew every step of the way, our building plans were confirmed! For our interiors, we worked alongside A Green Haus to make our vision come to life.
Cali at A Green Haus is actually one of my most dear friends, now, too. We started planning and working on this project forever ago and have grown so close as we worked together to bring it to life for our students. We have kids the same age, we were in constant communication during the entire pandemic with this project, and others at Detroit Prep, and it’s been something I’ve loved and cherished!
On that note, Meet Cali! Cali, can you tell me a bit about yourself and AGH?
CG: Hi! I’m Cali Green, co-founder of A Green Haus but first and foremost a wife and a mom of three sweet kids. I started doing design work a few years ago just for personal work (renovating our home, designing some short-term rental income properties, etc.) until 2019 when I was hired to design my first NON-personal project. It has since blossomed into what it is today!
What sort of work do you do at A Green Haus?
CG: Everything I do is interior design based. I choose aesthetic finishes in all forms and, functions, and fixtures in a residential or commercial project leading up to or during a renovation. Then as we dig into the vision of what that project will be in its final use case, I dive into furniture, layout, and in some cases help with floor-plan changes/ideas. We have a few residential projects in the works as well as a few commercial ones here in the Detroit area.
How is DAA related to Detroit Prep? How are they different?
KS: DAA is the flagship and sister school of Detroit Prep! They have the same mission, use the same curriculum, and have the same family-like atmosphere, but just serve different communities on opposite sides of the city. Building-wise, the most significant difference is that Detroit Prep’s school home is over 100 years old, and is a historic school building that we fully renovated and brought back to life after ten years of it sitting empty.
This is the exterior of Detroit Prep:
DAA’s building is part renovated school from the 1950s, part new build to accommodate our growing school community. Both schools are bright, and joyful, and want to ensure that every student, family, and community member feels at home as soon as they walk through the doors.
Here is the exterior of the new build of DAA:
Can you tell me about this phase of the project? Was it a remodel or renovation?
KS: After operating in a rented wing of a church for our first two years, we purchased a tiny school building just one mile away. But after a few years, we knew we were running out of room and would need to make plans to expand. We looked for other larger potential school homes in the area, but nothing felt right. Since our school stands on a large piece of land, we decided to begin planning for a big building addition to accommodate our growing school community!
Construction began in the late fall of 2020. Our original school building was completely updated during the summer break of 2021. And the 30,000 SF addition to our facility is set to be completed later this year! We are beyond excited to be in our new and improved space!
CG: This project has been so, so fun. This was a remodel AND expansion. When I got the aesthetic goals/direction we focused mainly on how to make that shine throughout the whole school and the biggest way we’ve been able to do that is through the tile. We started by selecting the specific color schemes and paint colors we wanted to follow and then chose the tile from there before we moved on to patterns and placement. When that was beautifully installed, we focused on art storytelling and styling to make the tile shine amongst other pops of color such as lockers, walls, and door frames!
This was phase 1 for DAA, what's next in terms of the new building?
KS: Well, we’ve been in a lot of phases over the last few years to make our facilities work for our community, but after the renovation is complete later this year, we will be done!! Just slowly growing into all of our classrooms as we continue to slowly grow.
The new building is oh-so-beautiful and currently in the tiling/paint/construction finishing stages. It’s amazing to see it all come together after being in the planning stages for so long. Once this stage wraps up and installation and painting are finished.
What was your design vision for DAA? How was it different from Detroit Prep?
KS: Our design vision for DAA was to keep the same joyful rainbow inspiration we have had throughout every school home in our history but to make it a little more understated. We wanted to keep the joy factor, but make our building feel calming and homey to every person who walks through our doors. Our color story inspiration is a Michigan sunset, with interior design elements pulled from northern Michigan's landscape.
We want our space to feel like a retreat; muted tones, pops of color, and lots of textures, with a cohesive modern element to our new and improved space.
Detroit Prep has the same joy factor that we wanted here at DAA, but at DP we were able to play off of the historical elements of the building a bit more to create a Wes Anderson-inspired design.
CG: Detroit Prep is amazingly bright, colorful, out-of-the-box, and super fun in its design. When that school was designed, the inspiration was more geared towards a wonderful Wes Anderson vibe, and I really think the designer did an excellent job of showcasing the fun and quirky side of that. With DAA I think the inspiration was a little bit more calming, homey, bright, and spacious. They are truly SO different but each so incredibly amazing on their own. For DAA, I really wanted to bring in pops of color while still keeping it as light and airy as possible with an emphasis on feeling “at home.”
Tile Shown: Large Diamond in Morning Thaw
What was your point of inspiration for DAA?
KS: Our main point of inspiration was a Michigan sunset! We are lucky to have some of the most beautiful landscapes here in Michigan (at least in our opinion!), so we wanted to be sure to tie in the natural beauty into our space. Plus, our students take part in deep studies on things like pollinators, trees, birds, and water (with a community focus!) so tying in these natural elements fits perfectly with the learning our students are doing.
Brick Shown: Norman in Appalachian
CG: When Kyle and I first talked about the design goals for DAA she really wanted to follow the beauty and inspiration that comes from a Michigan summer sunset. She sent me a photo that she loved, and from there we pulled paint swatches, and tile swatches and kind of came up with a flow of the school that would make sense based off of that!
How do you factor sustainability into your designs?
KS: We factor sustainability into lots of our design work! One fun way is that the DAA project actually used every piece of leftover tile from the Detroit Prep project! We also have a focus on reusing existing conditions (the wood floors at Detroit Prep, polishing the concrete, and incorporating the existing facade at DAA) rather than using new/manufactured materials. We also are reclaiming our rainwater into our courtyard, focusing on planting native species that support our pollinators (a big focus for our learners!), and working with brands like Fireclay that focus on sustainability on the corporate side but also make high-quality, long-lasting, durable materials that will have a long lifespan for our community!!
Fun fact: The staff room features leftover tile from Fireclay’s donation to their sister school, Detroit Prep
Tile Shown: Large Diamond in Morning Thaw
CG: I think one of the things I love most about this particular project is that we were able to supplement our selections with ALMOST all of the leftover tile that we had from Detroit Prep, but were still able to keep with the design goals so easily. With these projects, there is a chance and probability to be wasteful and get rid of things you won’t use but I love that we took the opportunity to be as zero-waste as possible here. With my other projects, I try to shop vintage and second-hand as much as possible (which fits in really well with the historic Detroit niche I’m usually in).
Fun fact #2: Some of this floor tile is also leftover from Detroit Prep
KS: Not only are tiles natural materials (which fall in line with our design and what we prefer for our students), but they add pops of color and texture to our space - two design goals we have for our building! Additionally, they are extremely durable and clean easily, which are two absolute necessities for school spaces. :)
Tile Shown: Norman Brick in Great Smoky with 6x12 in Morning Tha
CG: Tile is an incredible way for practicality and design to meet and work together. I love that something that is so necessary (tile in a shower, tile on a mudroom floor, etc.) has the chance to be so beautiful and make a huge statement in whatever room you’re using it in. And to be fair, Fireclay makes it SO easy to blow minds in the process ;)
Do you have a favorite tile moment in DAA? (It's okay if you have more than one)!
KS: This feels impossible to choose!!!!! I love the whole arc of the building because it is literally a rainbow. We use every color! It’s truly a love letter to the Fireclay glazing team.
Brick Shown: Norman Brick in Great Smoky
The other two spaces I am most excited about (that aren’t fully installed yet) are a pair of bathrooms inspired by another project Fireclay is featured in, in fact, that are positioned next to each other and have floor and wall tile in flipped tones to the other bathroom.
Note: For reference, these bathrooms inspired Kyle!
Then there is a water fountain in our gym area (which will be most utilized by our broader community) inspired by Oh Joy’s Fireclay bathroom, that incorporates pieces in the entire rainbow palette used throughout the rest of the building!!!
Here's a sneak peek:
CG: Oh my goodness this is really hard. I love it all so much. I think the purple bathrooms in phase one are one of my favorite pairings, the navy blue drinking fountain is to DIE for especially with the art, and I love the Kinder bathrooms because most of the tile used in there is from Detroit Prep but in such a different way. But honestly, I love it all and I could go on and on here :)
Brick Shown: Appalachian
What was your favorite part about designing for this project?
CG: Working with Kyle is always one of my very favorite parts of any project we do together. But I think my favorite part about this particular project, is who I’m designing it for. My own kids are Detroit Prep students and I never fully realized how important and inspiring it is to be in a beautiful environment that inspires you every day and makes you happy until I started to design my own spaces. They LOVE going to school every day and being surrounded by such amazing people AND in an incredible environment and I think that having a place that these kids can call home that is beautiful and joyful (even more than the amazing staff and people they’re surrounded with), is what brings ME so much joy to design it for them.
What was the most challenging part?
CG: Luckily this project wasn’t SO challenging on my end because we had such a clear direction for inspiration and an amazing product to choose from but I think I would probably say the last-minute time-sensitive changes and roadblocks probably are the hardest. Sometimes we realize that we don’t have product/finishes for an area that we thought we did and we have to pivot, but it feels so great to figure it out in the end!
How do your students respond to your playful color palette?
KS: They LOVE the bright tile and joyful colors! It’s clear that it’s *their* space, designed for *them*! We’ve always made it a priority to have a bright, joyful, and colorful space for our students. Even when we were in the tiny wing of a church for our first two years, we painted classroom walls and painted the staircase rainbow to infuse joy into a seemingly drab space. We believe that beautifully designed spaces have a huge impact on the people who use them. A beautiful space can make you feel happy, more focused, more alert, and more calm, just to name a few. So infusing a playful color palette has in turn made our students more playful and joyful and engaged!
How do you feel a beautifully designed space can impact students?
KS: We believe a joyful, student-centered space in which to learn and play should not be a privilege associated with socioeconomic status or zip code.
Prioritizing beautiful spaces is actually one of our core values at DAA. We believe that the physical space of the school reflects and supports the learning environment and that when people enter DAA, we want them to be immediately aware that they are in a place that celebrates learning. By creating a beautifully designed space, you are inherently saying something about the worth of those that inhabit it. We believe all students are worthy of beautiful spaces and want them to know that they deserve to be spaces filled with thoughtful design and lovely materials! <3
CG: I kind of touched on this before but coming from someone who went to school in what was basically a run-of-the-mill cinder block box, I can absolutely say that especially for a creative-minded child and someone who thrives in a beautiful environment (like myself) it can have SUCH a huge impact. It keeps you motivated to care for it as if it were your own, it keeps you creatively inspired, and it gives you a relaxing place to find respite from whatever is going on in your home life outside of those four walls.
What's next for DAA + Detroit Prep? Do you want to share any goals for the end of the school year or next year?
KS: We are just so excited to be in our new space as a whole crew again. Having our students split across two campuses this year, though necessary and occasionally beneficial, was just not the same! Our community truly is like a family, and we are thrilled to have our family back together again, and to continue growing! My big job will be to continue to raise the money needed to pay for this space for our students! We are a small school in a low-funding environment and work hard to make sure every dollar goes to the classroom, so funding our facility work is a challenge I gladly took on for the next few years!! (:
Cali, what’s next for you?
We have a few projects in the works right now in the city that I’m really excited about (both big and small). While I still have a baby at home that I’m with nearly full-time, I’m looking forward to finishing some big projects and showcasing those on our oft-neglected Instagram feed when they’re ready. I think I’ll be able to take on a few new projects this year, but definitely excited to keep working on the ones I’ve started!
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