[Environmental Outlook]
August 20, 1998

This school building will also be a teacher


Visualize your old high school. Start with the exterior. Do you see a venerable expanse of brick or maybe a cement block monolith? Move to the interior. See long corridors with fluorescent lighting, rows of metal lockers, classrooms crammed with desks?

Now visualize these terms: daylighting, site preservation, natural materials, rooms with views, flexibility and adaptability. Are you still thinking of your high school or are you thinking about an open, airy space with big windows and room to move?

The Bellingham School District -- along with teachers, students, administrators, business leaders, higher education instructors and community members -- thought of both. The community's design philosophy integrates a progressive educational program with a flexible, community-oriented learning space.

Documented and titled "High Schools of the Future," the result is the new Squalicum High School in Bellingham.

This school presented a unique opportunity to the designers. The concept of education and school design was being reinvented, and the physical site presented environmental challenges including wetland preservation and successful integration into the surrounding neighborhood.

Working with Integrus Architects of Seattle and HGA Architects of Minneapolis, students worked in teams to develop ideas, create diagrams and models, and present their concepts. Bob Jones, principal of Squalicum High School, said, "The reason the building is built the way it is, is because of that student/parent/community involvement."

The community members created a school that not only carries out their educational mission, but also enhances and preserves the neighborhood's natural amenities.

When Bob Jones discusses the design process, he refers to four characteristics the team felt should be inherent in the school: increased community use and involvement; increased flexibility; technological accessibility; and most importantly, de-centralization of school management and building space.

Walking through the school, you see how this has been achieved -- a large, open auditorium space is located in the middle of the school, while three separate "houses" radiate out and back from that central area. Each house has its own set of administrative staff, its own resource room and its own identity. The identity is taken from the surrounding region, and the spectacular views outside the windows of each house: "Mountain," "Bay" and "Sky."

The idea is to unite the school with its site: trees, mountains, water and sun. Large windows and skylights serve an important purpose to the school, integrating the indoor and outdoor environments, and using the site and building as learning tools.

Because links to the environment pervade the ideology of the school, the architects and school district accepted as an opportunity rather than a liability the land's varied and challenging topography. They regraded wet, mucky meadows to the north and turned them into sports fields, thereby maintaining open space while creating usable areas for the school and the community. The entrance to the school faces south toward McLeod Road, on the high point of a gradual slope, while the bulk of the structure radiates back and to the north, screened from the neighborhood by the hillside and forest.

Preserving and enhancing wetland quality became a major emphasis for the project. Filling the low-grade wet meadows required that higher-quality, more diverse wetlands replace them. Wetland biologist Bob Andersen of R.S. Andersen, AICP, and Integrus Architecture have been working to create a unique system whereby all built structures -- from the school building to the parking lots -- are designed to capture rainwater, remove pollutants, then divert it through the ground to feed existing wetlands and create new ones.

"The key element is marrying building design to wetland enhancement," Andersen said.

The most dramatic example of this system is a 20-foot long rainspout that extends beyond the roof of the building on the east side of the school and is raised some 15 feet off the ground. Its function is not simply mechanical, but sculptural and educational.

During a storm, this spout conducts water collected from the roof, creating a waterfall that cascades into a river rock-lined catchment basin located next to an outdoor teaching area. This water is channeled from the basin into the surrounding wetland area, illustrating to students how their environments are interacting. The educational purpose of this setting is to involve students both passively and actively in the function of the ecosystems around them.

Active involvement occurs through class projects based upon monitoring the health, biodiversity and successional changes in each area, and continuous maintenance of the wetland systems. These projects will increase students' knowledge and sensitivity to environmental issues, teach about competition and niche selection of plants, and also help Andersen track the hardiness of plant and animal species in emergent Pacific Northwest wetlands.

Involving students passively in the natural process is achieved by bringing them in close proximity to the wetlands as often as possible. Informal gathering plazas with low walls for sitting are placed between the school building and the wetland buffers, encouraging students to use the areas for both social and educational purposes.

Integration of the building with its surroundings inspires every phase of the design and construction process. Some measures are tangible, others more subtle. Natural, recycled and local materials are used throughout the building and S.D. Deacon, the general contractor, used a recycling program to lower waste disposal costs and reduce pressure on local landfills.

Attention has been given to the use of color in the structure: exposed metal, neutral earth tones such as straw and field grass, and the masonry which is in shades reminiscent of Chuckanut sandstone, and reds and tans. Textured cement containers full of native plants create a smooth transition to the native plants in the wetland buffers.

You can visit the project during the formal dedication ceremony Sept. 12. You may see does and their fawns romping by the tennis courts -- evidence of the successful interaction between Squalicum High School and its neighborhood.

Keri DeTore is marketing coordinator for Integrus Architecture in Seattle.

Copyright © 1998 Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce.