August 20, 2009

Medina school celebrates cycles of nature, learning

  • Natural symbols throughout St. Thomas School — the state’s first gold-certified LEED for Schools project — express its goal to nurture student growth.
    Bassetti Architects


    St. Thomas School, an independent school in Medina, is the first LEED for schools gold-certified project in the state.

    The $24 million, 55,000-square-foot building was designed with two main project goals: The building must demonstrate leadership in environmental responsibility, and it must support the school’s educational program by addressing the latest research on cognitive development.

    St. Thomas is designed for children 2½ years old through sixth grade, and as the children grow, so does their environment. The building design celebrates cycles of nature and cycles of human learning, from nature to nurture to exploration. For students, these elements can have lifetime impacts of understanding.

    Learning spaces

    Photo by John Edwards
    Seasonal stages of the oak tree are represented throughout the school to express its theme: Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow.

    Modern research about the brain and learning such as Howard Gardner’s “Multiple Intelligences” and John Medina’s “Brain Rules” inspired the designers to ask, “How do we create spaces to support varying pathways to learning?” The response found at St. Thomas School includes flexible learning spaces that are designed to stimulate various senses and engage diverse learning styles.

    Organized in grade-based pairs, classrooms spanning first through sixth grades comprise the two-story west wing. The north wing contains the Early Learning Center, library, and specialty classrooms for science, technology, language, art and music. A central core contains a multipurpose space, a gymnasium, administrative offices, kitchen facilities and mechanical rooms.

    Each wing is designed to have its own sense of community. Classrooms open out into shared circulation and teaching spaces called plazas. These flexible areas provide an activity zone for multiple classes, group learning, tutoring, as well as special places for individual activities.

    The irregularly shaped plazas are integral to the design strategy that layers spaces from structured to casual. This sequence begins in the nurturing space of the classroom, transitions to the free-form space in the plaza, moves to the protective roof of a covered outdoor area at each wing, and finally to the open environment of the playground.

    The school creates a sense of safety and connection and provides a way for the children to move from layer to layer as they grow.

    Sensory engagement

    Photo by Kate Baldwin
    Classrooms open out into shared circulation and teaching spaces that provide a flexible zone for group learning, tutoring and individual activities.

    At early ages there is no separation between learning and play. The playground is designed for sensory engagement and learning through play, using a wide variety of big and small motor skills: running and jumping, or playing with a doll or car along a rivulet. There are places for kids to engage with a small group of friends, and places for kids to explore materiality in a sandbox or water box.

    Sustainable design

    During the early design stage of St. Thomas School, teachers toured Cottage Lake Elementary in Woodinville, a naturally lit and ventilated school, also designed by Bassetti Architects.

    The group was especially impressed by the high level of comfort and quiet. As a result, daylighting and natural ventilation became two primary sustainable design strategies for the project.

    School leaders also chose LEED gold certification as a way to demonstrate their goal of leadership in environmental responsibility. Finishes in each room emphasize natural materials and low-VOC paints to create a comfortable, healthy space for students and users. Wood throughout the building is FSC certified.

    All learning spaces employ natural daylighting, supplemented by efficient lighting design, which allows them to function most of the year without electric lighting. Naturally lit spaces give the children a sensibility about how daylight occurs, and reduced glare and eyestrain improves the learning environment.

    Owner: St. Thomas School, Medina

    Owner’s representative: Seneca Group

    Architect: Bassetti Architects

    General contractor: Sellen Construction

    Structural engineer: Coughlin Porter Lundeen

    Mechanical engineer: Stantec Engineering

    Electrical engineer: Travis, Fitzmaurice & Associates

    Civil engineer: SvR Design

    Landscape architect: Site Workshop

    Acoustic engineer: Sparling

    Cost consultant: Davis Langdon

    Kitchen design: JLR Design Group

    A natural ventilation system provides fresh air and controls temperatures without fans or ductwork, eliminating the need for air conditioning in classrooms. This system not only saves energy, it is also notably quiet, creating optimum listening and speaking conditions in the classroom.

    The school achieved an Energy Star design rating that indicates the building will use almost 30 percent less energy than a typical school of this size. This energy savings reduces the building’s carbon dioxide emissions by about 130 tons per year.

    Water is celebrated as it makes its way through the site. At the edge of the covered play area roof outside the Early Learning Center, rainwater splashes into a rock basin below. In an exploratory climbing zone, children climb on the rocks around a swale, where stormwater is stored on the site, much like they would play around a pond.

    Virtually all paved areas on site utilize porous pavement. When it rains, water soaks through the pavement and percolates into the ground below to a gravel layer. The water is then piped through the swale where it is filtered by grass and other plants. The clean water enters the local watershed through a meter that mimics the rate of flow of an undeveloped parcel of land.

    Cycles of nature

    Signage and graphics throughout the school incorporate images of natural flora, expressing the school’s theme, “mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow.” Representations of the seasonal stages of the oak tree are embedded in the floor of each wing. From acorn to seedling, to leaves and trunk, the school uses the oak tree as a teaching tool to tell a story about nature.

    The school’s mission is to develop responsible citizens of a global society. The environmental and educational project goals are reflected in a building design that clearly benefits the children’s educational experience.

    Lorne McConachie, AIA, a principal at Bassetti Architects in Seattle, has worked with educators in developing design strategies for schools that support an array of teaching and learning pathways.

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