Totem Design Chronicles, Part 3: Second is the New First

When Sammamish High School educators shifted to a Problem Based Learning (PBL) curriculum, who could have imagined that their first case study would be to design their new school.  As previously described in TDC 2: Learning With/From Tech, PBL emphasizes real-world scenarios and makes heavy use of collaborative small group work and connected technologies to drive home lessons. While it is not uncommon to use theoretical design challenges as the basis for a PBL project, the staff of Sammamish High School recognized the truly unique opportunity being presented: a chance to participate in a real-world architectural project on a real-life site. A PBL project of designing their future school…which must be designed to support more PBL projects.


First, the team was assembled.  Named the “Totem Design Team,” it was composed of four students, four teachers, the Principal and two representatives from the district.  Next step: get familiar with the program and site constraints.  The new school was set to be built on the same site as the existing school, which is relatively large and flat.  Seemed simple enough… until the team found out that the new school would need to serve significantly more students – up to 2,000, almost twice their current enrollment during the design process.  In short order, the team recognized that there simply was not enough space on the site for a traditional single story school, or a two-story school for that matter.

What about a three-story school?


At the first suggestion of a three-story high school the team seemed hesitant; concerns of time impacts between classes as students navigate between floors and cultural impacts of separate floors creating separate identities within the school crept up.   In a school intended to foster collaboration, would students on the third floor feel disconnected from the action on the main level?  After several meetings of puzzling over various site scenarios, one of the students asked the question that changed everything: What if the main level was in the middle?  That way no student was ever more than one level away from the heart of the school.


This whole time, the team had worked on the assumption that the main floor would be at the ground level, its a pretty easy assumption to make.  But in reality, there was no reason to let gravity constrain the program.

CEFPI_SHS Great Lawn 1

Now the ideas began to take off.  The creative energy in the room was palpable, as everyone from district staff to teachers to students to architects gathered around the site model, stacking program pieces around with excitement about this new conceptual shift. First order was how to create the sense of a main level on the second floor without artificially forcing people up a flight of stairs the minute they arrive on site?   Another student saw the solution immediately: build a hill, of course!  Not a steep summit, but a gentle, sloping ramp landscaped with grass and trees; a “great lawn” as one architect chimed in, “a gentle procession upward to support the new datum.”  (For more on the power of hills, see our previous post, “The Hills Are Alive!”)

Great Lawn

Like many great ideas, there were numerous details to still consider, but before the question of “how” was asked, one member of the district had an answer.  “Well, this solves the question of where to put all the fill from the grading at our other project site.”  Within ten minutes, the great sloping lawn went from the wild idea of a student to a fully workable concept, vetted by the district itself.  What an amazing testament to the power of collaboration.  No doubt this first PBL lesson will remain with the students and teachers for years to come.


Fast forward three years to summer 2016, and the hill is starting to take shape.  As truckloads of fill dirt arrive, the reality is even more impressive than the idea: a dynamic public greenspace that has become a key identity feature of the new school.  In the next post, we will explore how two key public spaces – the Commons and the Library –  were configured to further reinforce the second floor as the new main level.  We will also hear reports back from the first class of students and teachers who have used the new school.

Stay tuned!

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