August 20, 2009

Robert Frost Elementary design takes road less traveled

  • Shared learning areas offer a chance to open up the school in new ways.
    Studio Meng Strazzara


    Robert Frost Elementary School in Kirkland will open its doors to students this fall, bringing a new educational environment to the Lake Washington School District featuring art, poetry and light-filled, shared instructional spaces.

    Two specific and very important parts of the design of this school are worth highlighting. The first is the attention paid to creating the unique classroom and shared instructional area configurations, and the second is the great effort undertaken to incorporate and celebrate the project’s namesake, poet Robert Frost.

    Shared spaces

    Shared instructional areas, in one form of another, have been part of educational environments for many years. Lake Washington School District has incorporated shared learning spaces into its newer elementary schools, providing prescriptive guidelines for both size and function in their educational specifications.

    Image courtesy of Studio Meng Strazzara
    All the shared learning areas were designed with transparent walls to allow views of the outdoor courtyards and surrounding woods.

    Throughout its history, the district has also created various building prototypes to take advantage of efficiencies in design and construction. In recent years, however, the district has moved away from prototypical designs and opened up opportunities in the interpretation of its specifications in regard to overall school design and specific approaches to shared spaces.

    The opportunity to move away from a prototypical building design and to “reinvent” the idea of shared instructional areas at Robert Frost was driven by both the unique nature of the site and the outcome of a Studio Meng Strazzara consensus planning workshop held at the outset of the project.

    The design team and school staff approached the shared learning spaces with a clean slate. They had all worked with these “in between” areas before, but wanted to pursue a design that: a) took full advantage of the beautiful, wooded outdoor surroundings, b) used the latest in door, window and wall systems to maximize the utility, flexibility and security of the teaching environments, and c) created a place that the students and teachers would love.

    All of the shared learning spaces were designed to have large, transparent walls with unimpeded views to the outdoor courtyards and woods. Each area on the first or second floor also has direct access to a hardscaped outdoor area and walkways that lead to a “seating in the round” wooded outdoor space.

    Rather than simply using a combination of standard doors and interior windows to connect each classroom to the shared learning space and to each other, the design team incorporated glass-filled moveable wall systems to empower teachers to open up large portions of their classrooms to the shared space and to the adjacent classroom.

    The wall systems were situated to permit visibility throughout the teaching environment, permitting shared learning while also providing safe and secure sight lines for monitoring students in various areas. Even the restroom entries were oriented towards the shared space, enabling the teachers to monitor student movement in and out of the restrooms.

    With the moveable, transparent wall systems, large windows and easy access to outdoor open spaces, these shared learning spaces are ready to deliver on the promise of better opportunities for learning through virtually limitless flexibility and stronger, clearer connections, both inside and out.

    Frost’s influence

    Photo courtesy of Studio Meng Strazzara
    Excerpts from Robert Frost’s poems have been sandblasted onto large stones placed outside the school. This one, from “The Road Not Taken,” says: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

    When schools are named, it often comes so late in the design process that it is not possible to honor the school’s namesake in the design.

    We were fortunate to be replacing an existing school named for a famous poet. At the school, there is great awareness of the poetry and legacy of Robert Frost. Students learn about the man, his poetry and his impact on American literature.

    Frost’s poetry will be celebrated both inside and out. There are eight outdoor locations where excerpts from his poems are sandblasted in large stones.

    We worked with Worthy and Associates Landscape Architects to create several design elements driven by Frost’s poetry. The most prominent of these are the grove of birches near the main entry (“Birches”), the stone seat walls located throughout the site (“Mending Wall”), the storm drainage “creek” that channels storm water runoff from the playfield and covered play area (“Hyla Brook”), and the diverging pathways in the woods behind the school (“The Road Not Taken”).

    Artists Judith and Daniel Caldwell have created two wonderful pieces inspired by Frost’s work.

    His first published poem was “My Butterfly.” In the school lobby and commons, 100 brightly colored aluminum butterflies hang from the ceiling, with others “perched” throughout the school. An excerpt cast in bronze from one of Frost’s last poems, “Pod of the Milkweed,” stretches across the lobby as you enter the building.

    In September 2007, the last remaining sugar maple from Frost’s historic farm in Derry, N.H., was taken down due to rot. This tree, and others at the site, was the inspiration for the poem “Tree at My Window.”

    Sue Anne Sullivan, the school principal, contacted the farm trustee and received a number of branches from the tree. From these branches, a bench is being made by local woodworkers Bryan Northrop and Patrick Kenney, who have donated their time for the project. A bust of Frost that was moved from the old school will sit on a wood base, also from the Derry farm sugar maple.

    Dennis Erwood, AIA, is a principal with Studio Meng Strazzara in Seattle and is a leader of the Educational Design Studio. He is principal-in-charge of the Robert Frost Elementary School.

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