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August 24, 2017

Designers study Tinkertoy-inspired school 20 years later to see what worked

  • The flexible hub-and-spoke layout at Redmond Elementary allowed architects to “plug” a new wing into the central core.
    Studio Meng Strazzara


    It’s the early 1990s and Microsoft is experiencing exponential success, leading to significant growth throughout the region, including around company’s headquarters in Redmond.

    To respond to growing enrollment, Lake Washington School District holds a design competition to create adaptable schools that will meet immediate capacity needs and accommodate future growth. Fast forward 20 years, in another time of tech-fueled prosperity, and the original design concept is put to the test to prove just how future-ready it actually was.

    Hub-and-spoke design

    Studio Meng Strazzara designed the competition winner in 1991. The school concept was based loosely on the idea of a Tinkertoy: a round, central library and administration core with the ability to plug in one-, two- or three-story wings at any point.

    The flexible location and orientation of the wings allowed the building to fit various sites. The concept was used in differing configurations at Redmond, Blackwell and Einstein elementary schools.

    At Redmond Elementary there were three wings: one with the gymnasium, commons, music and kindergarten; a second wing with seven classrooms, a shared learning area and teacher planning space; and a third wing with two-stories, 14 classrooms, shared learning areas and teacher planning spaces.

    The arrangement of the wings around the core allowed for separated bus and parent drop-off entrances, with storefront windows all the way around to allow visibility in multiple directions.

    In 2014, rapid growth prompted the district to consider expanding the building. Almost 20 years after the opening, the design team had the opportunity to do an in-depth analysis of how the facility performed long-term, as well as build upon the original concept.

    Photo courtesy of Studio Meng Strazzara [enlarge]
    The new wing has seven classrooms, a large shared learning area and two small-group rooms.

    Shared areas

    The team kicked off the design process with tours of several Lake Washington School District elementary schools, including Redmond Elementary. The team explored exactly what worked and what didn’t in the schools, particularly in regards to the classrooms and shared learning areas. We found three major indicators of a successful classroom grouping around a shared learning area:

    • Classrooms should have an equitable adjacency and presence to the shared learning area. This is most important as classrooms that are “down the hall” or “around the corner” do not take on similar “ownership” of the shared area, and teachers and students from those classrooms will use the space less frequently.

    • There should be transparency and easy access between the classrooms and shared learning areas so that students can be supervised, while allowing teachers and students to create varied, flexible learning settings.

    • Ideally the shared learning areas should have windows that provide natural light and outdoor views. Spaces with views and natural light are more enjoyable to be in, so they get used more often.

    A seamless addition

    Attempting to blend the old and the new, the addition needed to rectify any challenges with the original design while still feeling like a part of the greater whole.

    The central administration and library core at Redmond Elementary is easily and quickly accessed from all wings of the school. The new addition wing was simply plugged into the core like the existing wings. The new wing was programmed similarly to the existing one-story wing: seven classrooms and a teacher planning space, but with a much larger shared learning area and two small-group rooms.

    In the original design, the classrooms were not evenly distributed around the shared learning area. While each classroom had large exterior windows with window seats, the small interior windows limit visibility and bring little natural light into the shared learning areas.

    In the new addition, the layout of the classrooms promotes equitable visibility, presence and access from every classroom. By providing large interior windows between the shared learning area and the classrooms, visibility is maximized — natural light and views are available, creating a bright and welcoming environment.

    In keeping with the original expandable design concept and mechanical system, individual furnaces feed each classroom from a mechanical mezzanine, meaning no central heating system needed to be expanded to meet the new capacity.

    The original design also used locally manufactured brick in a standard color, which resulted in the team being able to source an exact match for the new addition. Similarly, standard roofing and window colors were used in both the original school and new addition, resulting in a seamless addition.

    Lessons learned

    Our team’s original concept was highly successful in its ability to add additional classrooms, and we made improvements to the new classrooms and shared learning area with the knowledge gained from the series of assessments.

    The largest challenge at the school is that the central core library and administration are surrounded on all sides by circulation. Serving four wings and two entrances, the circulation corridor has no areas in which either the library or administration can effectively expand. If we were to take this Tinkertoy approach again on another school, we would enlarge the central core and provide additional circulation paths beyond that contained in the perimeter ring so that expansion could still occur between the wings.

    This addition project, which opened in September 2016, gave our design team the unique experience of continuing our collaboration with the Lake Washington School District, learning and improving upon our original design for the next generation of students and educators.

    Dennis Erwood is a principal leading the education studio at the Seattle-based architectural firm Studio Meng Strazzara.

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