Iconic Steelcase building to become collaborative learning campus


Jerry Zandstra, co-founder of Pyramid Campus, envisions a program that will follow Gov. Rick Snyder’s P20 education initiative with a STEAM focus.

With a new model for collaborative education, the team behind Pyramid Campus plans to renovate the Steelcase Pyramid upon closing of a $7.5 million sale anticipated early next year.

Pyramid Campus, an educational group and project that envisions a STEM and arts learning hub for pre-kindergarten through university-level students, is one step closer to development following the recent announcement of a finalized purchase agreement for the Steelcase Pyramid building, 6100 East Paris Ave. SE, Caledonia.

The group announced plans earlier this year to renovate the Steelcase building and turn it and the surrounding 181 acres into a collaborative and incubator-type educational environment for students ranging from preschool through graduate work.

Based in Gaines Township, the STEAM educational hub will include science, technology, engineering, arts and math programs based on curricula developed by participating area schools.

Jerry Zandstra, co-founder of Pyramid Campus, said initial discussions with Steelcase began in May 2013, and the group has communicated with the company and area school districts to determine the build-out of the project.

“We have been in hundreds of conversations with Steelcase, we have been in dozens of conversations with school districts, teachers and administrators,” said Zandstra. “(We are) trying to figure out the right way to put this together so it worked for Steelcase, so it could work for schools, so it could work for universities.”

The anticipated close date for the purchase agreement is February 2015 and includes a commitment by Steelcase to collaborate with the research and design plan for the learning environments at the 663,000-square-foot hub, which was built in 1989.

Dave Sylvester, chief financial officer at Steelcase, said the Pyramid building required a unique vision for how it might be repurposed since it was originally designed as an engineering and product development hub.

“It was originally designed as a place to inspire innovation, and we’re pleased that it now has the potential to inspire future generations of innovators,” said Sylvester.

The idea for the Pyramid Campus was prompted after a conversation between Zandstra and Gov. Rick Snyder when he visited the Zeeland-based Innocademy and iCademy, and asked about future ideas or plans.

Zandstra is one of the co-founders for the online charter iCademy.

“I said, ‘I know the Steelcase Pyramid is in play, but it is just so enormous I don’t know how it could possibly be a school,’” said Zandstra.

“He said, ‘No, you are thinking way too small. You need to think of this in terms of multiple schools and a true P20 — from preschool to graduate school — with a STEM focus.’ I thought, well, he might be out of his mind, but I will have some conversations with Steelcase, and that was 18 months ago.”

The Pyramid Campus team is currently working on finalizing business plans and partnerships with area K-12 schools, colleges and universities. Designed as a space for a range of schools to operate in a single facility, the campus is meant to create a new model of collaboration and creative incubator space for education, according to Zandstra.

“They are tenants in the building. We won’t run a school; we will make a campus available. We will make space available for the schools to operate in there,” said Zandstra.

“We believe proximity brings about collaboration, and if these schools are working together, if they are sharing faculty rooms, if they are sharing teaching classrooms, if they are sharing facilities, they will come up with some phenomenal ideas for making a huge difference in education.”

Schools that operate within the Pyramid Campus will participate with a leadership council established by the group to ensure collaboration and creativity among the academic institutions. Led by Bert Bleke, the former superintendent for Grand Rapid Public Schools, the council will focus on developing programs and curricula.

“We are putting some funding together to help them do that. We are committing $200,000 to help them build out their curriculum and learn how to collaborate and work together,” said Zandstra. “What we are not looking for is six individual silo schools that don’t have anything to do with each other.”

Added opportunities at the Pyramid Campus include the possibility for high school and college level students to earn funding for startup ideas and learn business law practices from representatives of a law firm.

“We want them to do incredible things so we put together an angel fund so high school and college students with good ideas will be able to come before a board of their peers, some of their teachers and some local business leaders and present their ideas,” said Zandstra.

“We are also bringing in a law firm that will be there a few days a week volunteering to help these kids with writing business plans, how to form an LLC, how to protect a copyright or trademark and how to file for a patent.”

Pyramid Campus is partnering with Rockford Construction for the renovations and new construction, and to provide strategic property management counsel on the existing building, according to a press release.

Kurt Hassberger, president and board chairman at Rockford Construction, said the project falls right into the company’s wheelhouse based on its prior experience with collaborative spaces such as GRid70 and Blue35.

“We look forward to working with Jerry and the Pyramid Campus team on this project,” said Hassberger in the statement. “Rockford has a deep commitment to education-related projects. We also have a long history of repurposing high-value properties and bring to bear strong expertise in managing innovative collaborative spaces.”

The existing building has approximately 202,000 square feet of space that consists of research and development space, test labs, IT resources, two commercial-grade film studios and industrial kitchens. Amenities for the remaining 450,000-square-foot area include classrooms, educational labs, student commons and a cafeteria.

“No school could put together the film programs, the 100,000 square feet of manufacturing space (and) 50,000 square feet of test labs,” said Zandstra. “Even if we all got together, we still couldn’t afford to build something like this, and yet here it is, and the opportunity was there for us to purchase it.”

Renovations at this point are anticipated to be largely cosmetic, and the design plan incorporates moveable walls for flexibility. Phase I renovations are scheduled to being immediately upon the close of the sale with an anticipated completion date of fall 2015.

“Steelcase has been phenomenal to work with and so has Rockford. Having Rockford Construction involved is just a magnificent thing,” said Zandstra.

“We are trying to create a place that can be a model for collaboration. We are hoping all sorts of entrepreneurial behavior bubbles up.”

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