August 20, 2002

Independent schools need a road map

  • A plan for the future sustains both identity and innovation
    Carlson Architects

    University Child Development School
    Courtesy of Carlson Architects
    The new University Child Development School building in Seattle, now under construction, seeks to provide a progressive learning environment for its students. Elements include a multipurpose space, an artist-in-residence studio, arts and technology classrooms, and environmentally sensitive features. Rafn Co. of Bellevue is the general contractor.

    Seattle has one of the highest concentrations of independent schools of any city in the West.

    The independent-school landscape has come a long way since the two original schools — Lakeside for boys and Bush for girls.

    Independent schools now come in all forms. There are individual elementary, middle and upper schools as well as combined elementary/middle and middle/upper schools. There are even kindergarten through grade 12 schools. We have French immersion elementary schools, girls-only middle schools, and of course, every variety of religious-affiliated school. Each model has its own advantages and challenges.

    Independent schools are flourishing and expanding. They cannot accommodate the number of applicants each year, which results in waiting lists as well as competition for students. New schools continue to be established to serve the demand. Each school seems to be involved in expansion and facility improvement programs. Programs range from small improvements and remodels to accommodate expanding student population to building whole new campuses.

    In order to expand, independent schools must conduct a capital campaign targeted at their alumni, parents and friends. Before launching a capital campaign, the schools must assess the condition of their existing facilities, determine their current and future program needs, and develop a long-range plan that defines logical phases and costs at each phase.

    Educational programming and master planning are important specialized services that architects can provide to schools. Schools need to have a “road map” — a plan that fits them and provides them with the information to make decisions and aid fundraising efforts.

    While the mission of each school is to educate and nurture children, every school is unique in its character, personality, qualities and programs. It is important in the programming and master-planning process to discover those unique differences, the idiosyncrasies that define the special character of each school, and to then reflect them in the program and master-plan design.

    Programming is an in-depth process of discussion and interviews with faculty, staff, board members, parents, children and the head of school to develop a facilities program based upon their educational goals and curriculum. It involves the assessment of existing facilities to determine inadequacies, cost of upgrade and whether to renovate or replace. The program is a written document that defines types and sizes of spaces, special features, costs and even phasing.

    Educational programming and master planning are important specialized services that architects can provide to schools.

    Programs for independent schools are well-rounded to instill a curiosity in learning and to educate the whole child. Schools place a great emphasis on the specialty academic and common areas — science, technology, art, drama, library, language and social spaces.

    There are still some traditional single-purpose rooms for science, art and libraries, but many schools are creating spaces that are more flexible and “blur the lines” between subjects and uses.

    Science classrooms are becoming multidisciplinary lab spaces for experimentation in science, technology, video, etc.

    Art programs are more sophisticated, with studios for specific disciplines such as ceramics, sculpture, painting and drawing as well as drama facilities similar to small professional theaters. Visible art-display areas throughout the school and galleries are often programmatic requirements. Some schools even have artists-in-residence studios.

    Libraries have evolved to become learning resource centers combining technology with library resources and meeting/project work spaces.

    There is also an evolution in the design of the basic classroom. Classrooms are more flexible and informal. Instead of the traditional rows of desks, they are designed to promote more participatory discussions among students.

    The process of programming and master planning is fun for everyone involved, because it allows people to dream about the possibilities. However, it is the master-planning phase that really gets exciting, because the words and numbers of the program begin to take physical form. Whether the improvements are a renovation and addition, a new building or a new campus, the school environment will be dramatically enhanced.

    In Seattle, most independent schools exist on tight urban campus sites — frequently in single-family neighborhoods. With the scarcity of land, schools either have to maximize their permitted building area on their existing site or, if they are lucky, purchase adjacent property.

    A campus environment enhances the feeling and character of the school. The experience for the students is more like a small-scale college than an institutional school. In the design of the master plan, the outdoor spaces become as important as the indoor spaces. The ability of outdoor spaces to function for socializing, outdoor classes and larger events is essential.

    Also, the functional and architectural relationship of buildings, the circulation routes, orientation to light and breezes, and the use of landscape all become important design elements. And, of course, relationships with neighbors are critical in the process.

    University Preparatory Academy, a middle and upper school of about 430 students, is a good example of a successfully completed process.

    The school had constructed its first two buildings, a gym, a commons with dining hall, library and a few classrooms in 1990 after having rented classrooms from neighboring Temple Beth Am for years. In 1994, the school embarked on a program to build out its school campus.

    A program was developed for the school’s ideal curriculum; a land swap and shared-use agreement was worked out with the temple; a zoning study was done to determine the maximum buildable area possible for the site; master plan alternatives were developed for a multiple-building campus; and a fundraising campaign was begun.

    In the fall of 2000, the first two buildings — a classroom building and an administration/classroom building — were opened for classes. Then, in the spring of 2002, the fine arts/performing arts building was finished to complete the campus build-out after eight years of planning and construction.

    Architecturally, the new and old buildings at University Prep blend together as one, resembling a series of connected structures with a variety of shapes and variations on the basic theme.

    Barn-red building elements define the entries. There are numerous outdoor open spaces woven into the tight urban site — an amphitheater-like central green, narrow passageways between buildings, courtyards, and an indoor/outdoor lounge at the level of the adjacent P-patch gardens.

    Inside, every building and floor is interconnected and feels like a European hill town with narrow walkways leading to wide-open, light-filled, two-story spaces. Open stairways link the various levels of the three-story buildings, providing alternate circulation routes. And a variety of social spaces are sprinkled throughout.

    Another good example of a progressive learning environment is University Child Development School, an elementary and pre-elementary school, which currently has a new building under construction.

    The new building will consolidate the school onto one campus. The new structure will house the pre-elementary program, a multipurpose space, administration, an artist-in-residence studio, and classrooms for art and technology.

    Not only will the building be an open, colorful and playful learning environment, but it will also be environmentally friendly. The building will be naturally ventilated with operable windows and ventilation chimneys, and will be naturally lit with skylights and large clerestory windows. Rainwater will flow off the roof into a variety of containers and water courses that allow the children to water their gardens and to play hydrology engineer by building dams, channels and whatever else they can imagine.

    Even in the slow economy, independent schools continue to actively plan their future. They know that the economy will turn around some day, and they want to be prepared.

    As each school matures, there are many needs to fulfill in order to provide the best learning environment possible and to compete with its schools. The education process and the innovation in education never stops — it’s all for the kids.

    Donald Carlson is the principal and founder of Carlson Architects. His firm has completed planning and buildings for numerous independent schools including Lakeside, Bush, Overlake, University Prep, University Child Development School, Bertschi and the Jewish Day School.

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