Systems Designed to Soothe: Engineering a Campus for the Friendship Foundation

When you think of a soothing environment, you might picture a spa or a dimly lit restaurant. You probably don’t picture a school. But a new facility under development in Redondo Beach, California, might alter your assumptions. Entitled the Friendship Campus, the school will attain exceptionally high levels of sensory comfort, thanks to Syska’s MEP and lighting systems expressly designed for students with special needs.

EXTERNAL TEAM Friendship Foundation: Owner Gensler: Architect Contractor: Bernards Saiful Bouquet: Structural Engineer of Record KPFF Consulting Engineers: Civil Engineer Hongjoo Kim Landscape Architects, Inc.: Landscape Architect Waveguide LLC: Acoustics Kitchen Professionals: Food Service

SYSKA TEAM Dan Martin: PM and Lead Electrical Engineer Tarkan Altay: Lead Mechanical and Plumbing Engineer Jared Malabed: Mechanical Designer Kelly Scott: Plumbing Designer Zoya Dehghani: Electrical Designer AnhTuan Le & Scott Voorhis: Technology Designers Robert Fagnant: Lead Architectural Lighting Designer Daniela Sanchez: Architectural Lighting Designer RENDERINGS Gensler

The Friendship Foundation, which is dedicated to elevating the lives of those with special needs, is developing the Friendship Campus in cooperation with Redondo Beach Unified School District. Situated on 3.24 acres, the Gensler-designed school of 55,000 square feet will offer programs in creative, technical and culinary arts, job training, life skills, social-emotional wellness, mentoring and more.

“This is not your typical school project,” says Tarkan Altay, who serves as the mechanical and plumbing lead. He explains that the team had to select systems that would not disturb students, some of whom are autistic: According to the nonprofit Autism Speaks, many people on the autism spectrum are hyper-sensitive to bright lights, certain light wavelengths, certain sounds, smells, and tastes; and certain types of touch.

“The Friendship Foundation project is an opportunity to change perceptions and attitudes towards people with special needs. Syska has time and time again demonstrated their commitment to the project and its mission of transforming lives.”

Shira Zur, AIA Associate, Gensler

Mechanical and Electrical Features

On the mechanical front, the team chose ultra-quiet HVAC. “We slow down the air so that students can’t hear any noise from the systems,” explains Tarkan. Double walls mask humming sounds and vibrations from rooms that house electrical equipment. Furthermore, nearly every piece of mechanical equipment, including duct work, is hidden.

Natural ventilation is maximized through a set of folding doors that can be opened to inner courtyards when the outside temperature is appropriate, reducing the need for HVAC. An added bonus is energy efficiency through exposure to fresh air and natural light.

Plumbing Features

The team also took sensory experience into consideration for the plumbing design. Unusual for schools, Friendship Campus is equipped with soft water systems. These systems enable quick and efficient washing, requiring less soap. In the labs, a small acid neutralizer tank, with basic chemicals and filtration system, allows the acid discharge to become more neutralized, so the discharge is more environmentally friendly, and it doesn’t corrode the piping.

“It’s going to blow your mind.”

Robert Fagnant, Syska Associate Partner


Robert Fagnant, Syska associate partner, led the lighting design. He notes that lighting characteristic of many schools has glare and high brightness. Fluorescent LED lighting pulses at a frequency faster than our eyes can see because of a technology called pulse width modulation (PWM). But there is a sensor in our eyes that picks up the pulsing, and it “drives people bananas,” says Robert. It causes eye fatigue and stress, and it is especially bothersome to people with special needs. For this reason, the lighting at Friendship Campus will use constant voltage drivers instead of PWM.

Another challenge revolved around blue light, which has a significant effect on circadian functions. To maximize beneficial aspects of blue light and minimize the “bad blue,” as Robert describes it, the team made sure that the selected LED chips suppressed the latter. Consequently, the lighting will support healthy biorhythms throughout the day.

Robert adds that the lighting will provide some “wow moments.” Upon arrival, students will see a swooping roof structure that he likens to a flying saucer: “We’re illuminating that from the ground so you will not see a light source, and as you drive up the whole thing is going to float. It’s going to blow your mind.”

Tarkan is equally enthusiastic. “It’s one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve worked on,” he says. “It’s a unique building and we’re all working toward an exciting goal to provide a safe, accepting, and inclusive environment for students. I’m proud to be part of the team that is making this happen.”

To learn more about the Friendship Foundation and the Friendship Campus, please visit