Subscribe / Renew
|► Subscribe to our Free Weekly Newsletter
|print email to a friend reprints add to mydjc
August 1, 2019
Today more than ever before, designers are tasked with balancing diverse influences.
These include, but certainly are not limited to, increased budget pressure; compact sites that present challenging development requirements, and a requirement for architecture to keep ahead of our rapidly changing cultural, professional and educational landscape.
While maximizing the investment of public funds, it is increasingly important for public buildings to suit their primary purpose while also inviting broad community use after hours.
Today’s school buildings strive to provide diverse and varied experiences to students, while inviting supplementary activities, both indoors and out. In the same way we encourage students to tap into a range of skills to solve problems with overlapping subject matter, we strive to produce buildings with components and spaces that support dual-purpose use.
Spatial relationships, size and sequencing of K-12 learning environments are consistently being re-studied in the effort to support rapidly evolving ideologies for learning and teaching.
Such is the case for Northeast Tacoma’s Browns Point Elementary School, a project delivered as part of Tacoma Public Schools’ 2013 bond.
This series of bond projects tasked design teams with dual-purposing every built square foot, interspersing opportunities for learning throughout and allowing quick and easy space transformation to suit changing needs.
In response to these criteria, Browns Point Elementary School relies on two primary strategies: first, circulation is considered a multifunctional “zone” intertwined with learning space, daylight and views. Second, outdoor space is carefully planned to invite engagement, performance opportunity and project-based work outside of the classroom.
Browns Point, one of a number of projects produced under this bond, shares a common attribute of celebrating the process of learning. Its efficient design enhances flow and function at every turn.
In many communities, schools are the centers for congregation during non-school hours. This is true in the Browns Point neighborhood, in part due to the area’s remote location across the waters of Commencement Bay.
An exercise of community asset mapping revealed the reliance of residents in utilizing the building and site for organized sports, as a neighborhood playground and spot for event gathering. This informed the floor plan’s big move to promote the gymnasium, typically placed toward the back of the building, to the front and center.
This location allows easy access and celebrates, rather than hides, the exciting activity within through ground-level windows. Primary entrance for students and visitors during the school day, and secondary entrance for those accessing the building from the direction of the ballfields after hours, are offered through dual entries that flank the gym.
High and low glazing on three of the four sides allow visual connection to the front of the site, 51st Street to the north and the school’s own internal core. To suit community events, doors open directly to the covered outdoor space at the front of the school to welcome visitors and allow activity to flow seamlessly from inside to out.
Most school floor plans are based on a series of wings connected by lengthy, double-loaded corridors. This traditional configuration offers direct access, acoustic separation and ample wall area to use as display surface. The downside: long corridors take time to navigate, a negative impact to valuable instructional time.
Contrarily, reducing the amount of space dedicated to circulation shortens transition time, compacts the building footprint (reducing construction costs), and preserves space for dedicated instruction.
In an effort to decrease building area while protecting daylight and views, the floor plan of Browns Point reallocates circulation square footage as shared learning space. As a result, shared learning spaces are larger and more functional. Their placement between classrooms and outdoor courtyard gives nearly every classroom daylight from both the north and south.
Outdoor covered space is a near-necessity for schools in the Pacific Northwest, to provide shelter before and after school and during recess on gray, wet days. Often an easy target for cost-cutting, it is important to maintain protected areas to facilitate much-needed outdoor time for elementary students.
The former Browns Point school building had negligible covered space, forcing rainy-day recess into small foyer spaces and long lines of students in corridors during afternoon pick-up.
Early in the design process for the replacement building, providing covered areas for these activities, as well as for other community events, was identified as a top priority.
It was recognized that because these activities could both occur in front of the building and happen at different times of day, the area allocated could be combined to offer a larger canopy than initially thought.
With the security gates open at the front of the school, parents can congregate under cover during pick up and drop off time. The canopy also serves after hours, for the community to share in the benefit of paved covered area as well as access to the building’s activity zone.
Performance space for performing arts and music, both formal and informal, lets students express themselves while sharing talents with family and peers.
In most schools, performance is directed toward the large assembly spaces offered by multipurpose rooms or gymnasiums. At Browns Point Elementary School, the music room is located between the performance platform and the end of the courtyard. This fulfills the adjacency requirement for complementary use with the multipurpose room as well as provides the ability to hold performances outside.
A large, transparent door set within a wall of glazing allows the easy movement of instruments and props to an outdoor stage, while inviting daylight inside providing pleasant views to another instructional space.
The overlap between public and private space at Browns Point Elementary School achieves a sense of spaciousness within an efficient design. A combination of circulation-with-program-space fulfills the school district’s desire to provide dual-purpose function to support students in their learning endeavors, while accommodating members of the community who make funding for these facilities possible.
Brian Ho is a managing principal of TCF Architecture and an accredited learning environment planner. Holli Smith is a senior associate, architect and certified interior designer.