Neighborhood Inspiration, a Unique Response
Asking an architect what his or her most successful project built to date is, is a question that causes reflection, and an immediate response of “the next one!” At Integrus, we are students of learning environments and with every project we reflect on how we can improve, innovate, and push ourselves to always design a better educational facility.
Reflecting on our portfolio, we consider Benjamin Rush Elementary School, in the Lake Washington School District (LWSD) to be our most successful built elementary school to date. The project uniquely responds to its site, its neighborhood, and its school learning community. The project grew to be expressive of its specific context due to the design team’s early and engaged involvement with the school and community, through visioning workshops with the design advisory team. This project had a reputation as a difficult one, before we became part of the team – a small site, neighbors that accessed the site from multiple sides, a steep slope, beloved trees, wetlands, and student occupation during construction. Yet, we fell in love the moment we walked onsite, impressed with the beauty of the large mature trees that graced the hillside bisecting the site, and excited to tackle the challenge. As the learning environments were imagined, we heard time and time again, “Protect the trees!”
The trees, not only physically and cognitively, define Rush Elementary and its community, but also served to inspire the design expression, adding richness to the project. The trees are a playground for the students, a connection to nature from within, and a landmark on the educational journey for those who experience the site. We took this idea and used it as a metaphor within the building, developing the library to have “treehouse”-like features, and integrating the lumber from the trees that were felled on the site into wood wall slats that protect the walls, define the Library, and pay tribute to the heritage of the site. Understanding the scale and tactile tendencies of pre-school to fifth-grade students, the wood slats create texture and delight, tying the inside of the building to the exterior site, rooting it to a specific place (image 1.1).
Resolving elements of this project began with developing a clear site organization that elegantly resolved a number of complicated site conditions:
- Proximity to the neighbors
- Department of Ecology detention requirements
- Student flow to play areas
- Separation of bus and parent drop-off
- Single street access for vehicles, with multiple pedestrian access points
- Existing playfields
- Steep Slopes, wetlands, and “the trees”
- Occupied campus
The site plan integrated all of these elements with an L-shaped building organization (image 1.2) that focused the play activities toward the southern, wooded hillside. The commons, kindergarten classrooms, pre-school classroom, and second floor corridor all flow directly to the play areas and the woods, which the school has long embraced as a part of the children’s daily play experience. The neighbors to the north are buffered with a classroom wing from the service vehicles that they had heard “beep, beep, beeping” daily for decades. Students arriving by foot, bike, car, or bus enter into the same central common space, while actual vehicular and bus traffic is separated for flow and safety.
The exterior of the building – with its brick and warm neutral-colored residential-scale siding, sloped roofs with deep overhangs, and a low and intimate new front entry – respond to the woodsy, residential character of the neighborhood (Image 1.3).
Internally, Rush Elementary supports a diverse group of learners including preschool students, elementary students, and staff members. The building’s organization provides flexible learning environments adaptable to the diversity of learners within, while providing professional environments to support educators in their craft. A key component of the LWSD elementary school program is the learning clusters; each with four classrooms, toilet rooms, teacher planning room, and a small group room organized around a shared learning area. The Rush learning clusters (Image 1.4) are successful for a number of reasons:
- Quality daylight in each shared area from two directions
- Connected to the main corridor by a very short “throat,” thus minimizing the distance, perceived and actual, of the cluster from the rest of the school functions.
- Learning environments are oriented to have an equal amount of frontage and operable glass partition walls to the shared instructional area – allowing flexibility for multi-class presentations and team teaching.
- Small-group meeting rooms, arranged to allow a great deal of transparency, increase the connection of the clusters to the corridor and allow students to remain visible while receiving specialized instruction.
- In the upper grades, the operable partitions are left open much of the time, fostering student independence without losing visual or auditory connection while students work on their own in the shared area; in the lower grades, the operable walls are left closed more frequently, fostering small group opportunities with instructional aids, again while maintaining visual connection.
- Toilet room entrances for girls and boys are separated and visible from all the learning settings.
- Vibrant primary colors are used to playfully identify the learning clusters, and assist in wayfinding.
The Library Resource Center is centrally located at the heart of the school with intimate views of the site’s natural features. A large operable glass partition allows the library to completely open to the second floor stair landing. Large round exterior windows and a glass wall visually connecting the library to the entry stair lobby screened by wood slats have given reflect the students desire for a “tree house” within their school. A mix of moveable and built-in shelving provide nooks and crannies to fall in love with reading, while allowing the space to be flexible as needs shift throughout the day. Tables and chairs are available in an elevated area that supports group and independent work with uniquely shaped furniture that rearranges easily.
The lost and found, a typically overlooked school function, is given a home under the main stairs. It is both tucked away and yet visible to students and parents along their daily path (image 1.5).
What did we learn?
- The amount of daylight, transparency, equal frontage, and good sight lines for each classroom to the shared instructional area makes or breaks the success of a learning cluster.
- There’s never enough time in the school day, thus seizing opportunities to minimize transitions, like connecting the “wide side” of the commons to the play area, maximizes the flow of kids between lunch and play, supporting both activity and nutrition, while allowing kids to flow back to their learning clusters.
- Kids love round windows – especially when they can sit by them.
- In a school that is highly used by the community, not only is zoning is important, but so is identifying those spaces that can be shared. At Rush, positioning the art/science classroom near the front door created a successful multi-use space for students, staff, and community members alike.
- Facilities must be enduring and adaptable, thoughtfully integrating materials and systems that require low/no maintenance, allowing more resources to be directed toward learning.
What would we do differently?
- We would increase the size of the commons and the gym, as this facility is so highly utilized by the community, yet is often overflowing, thus more square footage in this area would support their needs more fully.
- We would make different decisions to allow the project to support a green roof on the lower roof visible from the library. It is a great opportunity to educate students about environmental connections, and a green roof would assist in leveraging the building as an educational tool.
- We would locate the majority of classrooms in closer proximity to the library and the commons, though at this site that was not possible.
- We would provide a door directly into the admin/reception from the vestibule to route visitors through the main office before entering the school.
- We would provide floor drains under all wall mounted drinking fountains to minimize cleanup from the youngest users.
What would we do again?
We recognize that we are stewards of the tax dollars entrusted to us. On all of our projects we look to the site and community for inspiration, and we truly believe that every facility is unique. That inspiration is present at Rush Elementary School, and we would bring that search for inspiration first and foremost to Mary Lyon Elementary. The connection to the neighborhood, while zoning the site to support supervision and learning, are other key elements of Rush that we would do again, working closely with the school, community, and design advisory team to understand the unique context and needs of Mary Lyon Elementary, and approaches to support its community.
We would ensure the building organization supported connectivity with the short “throat” at learning clusters, and integrate quality daylighting and glazing with great sight lines between learning environments and shared areas. We would encourage the use of operable glass partitions to allow transparency and flexibility of library spaces and learning spaces. We would incorporate tactile elements of play and delight to inspire the next generation – ranging from considerations for playful views within and out of the building, to durable strategies to bring in color (note that Rush had very few paint colors to “touch up” yet had engaged areas of color). We would bring this understanding of maintenance and operational needs, balanced with inspirational environments, to create an enduring facility.