Building: The newly opened Discovery Building at Samohi includes an Olympic sized swimming pool, flexible classroom space and a new dining hall. Clara Harter

Students returning to Santa Monica High School this fall may hardly recognize it and not just because it’s been so long since all classes were in-person, but because a brand new three-story building has opened with a variety of unique learning spaces.

Dubbed the Discovery Building, the open-plan structure hosts 28 classrooms, 288 parking spaces, an Olympic-size pool, an indoor-outdoor cafeteria and rooftop classrooms.

The brand new Discovery Building and the relatively new Innovation Building will collectively host around three-fifths of Samohi’s classes and pave the way for the District’s vision of 21st century learning. By the fall of 2023, they will be joined by the Exploration Building and Gold Gym, which will complete the major facets of Samohi’s long-planned campus remodel.

SMMUSD intends for these new buildings to meet the learning needs of students for the next 100 years. The only hitch is that educational strategies and technology are evolving so rapidly, it is very difficult to predict what these needs will be. The District’s solution is an “open building plan.”

Both the newly opened Discovery Building and the upcoming Exploration Building utilize this plan, which Chief Operations Officer Carey Upton says is the first time it has been applied in an educational building anywhere in the world.

Under the open building model, all of the classroom educational spaces are built on a raised floor, while the electrics, plumbing, heating, and air conditioning is stored underneath. None of the classroom walls are structure supporting, meaning they can be knocked down and moved around to reconfigure learning spaces with great ease.

“Education is changing so dramatically that we needed the opportunity to be able to shift and change the building over time,” said Upton. “The building is built to be flexible and is built to adjust, and that’s part of what the genius of the building is.”

Case and point: what was initially planned as an engineering lab was converted into three classrooms spaces with “a few pencil moves” in the middle of construction.

The building also features plenty of adaptable learning spaces allowing teachers to expand their classes beyond the walls of their classroom and easily enable break-out groups and teamwork. There are raised platforms, groups of couches, projectors, circular tables and desk spaces in the building’s common areas.

“Part of our fun is that the teachers, who’ve been used to working just in our classrooms, we’ve thrown them into this building,” said Upton. “We know this is where we want education and we think education should go. It’s also where the teachers wanted it to go, because we met with the teachers to design this entire building,”

The building’s roof will also be a center for creative teaching. This is the final portion of the project under construction and is scheduled for completion by the end of September.

The rooftop will offer an excellent view of the ocean in addition to outdoor classrooms, a hydroponic garden, and solar panels that will provide 40 percent of the building’s power.

Other key features of the new building include an Olympic-size swimming pool, which will be home to Samohi’s first-rate swimming and water polo programs, as well as community and youth swimming opportunities.

Parking is another plus, with 288 sorely needed spaces distributed across an above and underground lot. Lastly, the new cafeteria will be able to accommodate all 2,800 students during the same lunch slot and has ample outdoor seating allowing students to safely space out and eat.

The $133 million Discovery Building opened in time for the Aug. 19 start of school this year. The $112 million Phase 3 buildings are scheduled to be ready for fall 2023. Both of these big ticket construction projects are funded through Measure SMS, which was approved by voters in 2018 and allowed the District to issue $485 million in bonds.

Clara@smdp.com