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A challenging site leads to a unique learning environment: Bernal Middle School.

Bernal Middle School main entry on Bella Vista Street.
Natural light in the main stairwell enhances a mosaic “teaching mural.”
Banners display NISD Six Pillars of Character in the main entry.
Outdoor spaces spark curiosity and appreciation for our local environment.
The light-filled library offers both new technology and book resources.

Inspiring student awareness of ecology and sustainability through architectural intention.

On the edge of the Texas Hill Country, Dr. Joe J. Bernal Middle School exploits the unique characteristics of its site – semi arid, surrounded by mature live oak trees and native landscape, on rolling topography. Designed for a harmonious connection of interior spaces with the surrounding exterior landscape, the building offers abundant natural light and views out. Within the airy circulation corridors, mosaic “teaching mural” insets feature iconic local species of trees, reinforcing the students’ sense of place and belonging.

Northside ISD
San Antonio, Texas
192,000 SF
Completed 2014

Bernal Middle School main entry on Bella Vista Street.
Bernal Middle School main entry on Bella Vista Street.

Bernal serves the rapidly expanding northwest San Antonio area. Supported by a 2010 bond, the 192,000 SF facility was completed in 2014. Designed for 1200 students, the school’s capacity can be expanded to serve up to 1500 students in the future. Heavily wooded and steeply sloped, the site presented design and construction challenges, but also pointed to a uniqueness worth preserving. As a standard best practice, we prioritized legacy trees, conserving shade and character with careful siting of the building and ancillary spaces. The building is nestled into the steep natural topography, stepping down in two-foot increments to playing fields at the lowest point of the site.

The beauty of the wooded site heavily influenced our wayfinding color palette and floor plan organization. Inspired by the four seasons, each wing of the school is color coded to the foliage and blooms of a local native tree: Winter is represented by the Blue Wood Condolia, Texas Mountain Laurel stands for Spring, Texas Persimmon represents Summer, and the Southern Red Oak denotes Fall. The colors appear in the mosaic tree icons in each open stairwell, and in floor and wall finishes and colors. The result is a wayfinding system that lends clear identity to the wings, with relatable teaching moments linking students to their ecological neighborhood.

As part of the library interior, we added a detailed mural diagram of local and Texas-wide geological regions, locating the school site in the Texas Blackland Prairie. This teaching tool introduces the idea that our local geology was developed over many archeological eras and explores the life-sustaining interaction of natural ecosystems both above and below ground.

Bernal Middle School was designed to Texas Collaborative for High Performance Schools (TxCHPS) Standards and was awarded 2015 TASA/TASB ‘Star of Distinction’ for Sustainability. Acting as a kind of LEED framework within school building standards, TxCHPS spotlights sustainable practices in architecture, and recognizes high standards for conservation of energy and water resources.

The site had such great character, it needed to be part of the school’s fabric for teaching.

Christopher Ahumada

Project Team


Structural Engineer | Persyn Engineering
MEP | Wallis Engineering Group
Civil | MTR Engineers
Landscape | Cooper Lochte
Acoustics/AV/Technology | Wrightson, Haddon, Johnson & Williams
Code/Life Safety | PDI, Inc.

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