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August 1, 2019

New middle school furthers Seattle Academy’s urban evolution

  • The six-story classroom building makes the most of its limited site while connecting with the surrounding neighborhood.
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    According to a recent study by the United Nations, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas — a proportion that is expected to increase to 68% by 2050.

    The Puget Sound Regional Council estimates that by 2050 the Seattle region will grow by 1.8 million people, which highlights the importance of design-centered approaches to creating vibrant mixed-use neighborhoods for the city’s future.

    The Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences Middle School exemplifies a new model for schools in dense urban centers.

    The new middle school continues the evolution of Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences Middle School’s urban campus and provides educational programming configured vertically to leverage the limited site and enhance pedagogical principles, while connecting with the adjacent campus and surrounding neighborhood.

    At the dynamic intersection between arterial and neighborhood streets, the middle school synthesizes its urban condition and program into two masses: a six-story academic volume relating in scale to the mixed-use commercial core along the arterial and a lower volume dedicated to athletic activities, which mirrors the scale of the adjacent urban residential neighborhood.

    The middle school’s core academic spaces occupy the upper floors in the new 69,900-square-foot building, while the lower floors provide for entry, general gathering, administration, maker space and music instruction. A gymnasium and outdoor rooftop playfield provide much-needed physical activity space. The lower floors of the middle school provide internal access to adjacent Seattle Academy buildings, underscoring the project’s important function as a campus connector.

    Photos by Lara Swimmer [enlarge]
    The middle school has an academic building and an adjacent gym with a rooftop playfield.

    Programming interaction

    The school’s educational curriculum is grounded in a culture of performance, focusing on creative, project-based learning and challenging students to take risks.

    Middle school lies at the intersection of elementary education and high school, a springboard to adult life — offering students opportunities to explore the currents that push them forward, while finding eddies that allow them to pull out and break from established patterns.

    The design of the new middle school actively supports this mission, configured to provide middle school students with a supportive learning environment that fosters independence and experimentation, while also infusing educational spaces with city life.

    Each middle school grade occupies a floor within the building. Classrooms, the building block of the program, are organized around collaborative learning spaces promoting project-based learning and cross-disciplinary discovery.

    The collaboration spaces are composed of a ribbon of faceted panels that line the walls and ceilings and visually reinforce the connections internally and within the neighborhood. The spaces are designed as a series of stepped, double-height interior volumes that cascade between floors, enhancing visual and physical connectivity within the stacked program and creating opportunities for students to explore, cross paths, interact and engage beyond the four walls of the classroom.

    Ecological responsibility

    The middle school reflects the Seattle Academy’s DNA of innovation and commitment to a socially and ecologically responsible learning community, where sustainable features actively foster student engagement. The building creates a new front door with innovative construction techniques, materials, natural light and an apparent simplicity that challenges the traditional school models.

    Building analysis modeling early in the design process helped to optimize daylight, solar exposure and natural ventilation. The multi-story classroom bar was intentionally oriented north-south, integrating with the adjacent urban fabric and maximizing solar heat gain in the winter, while sunshades limit solar gain in the summer. Daylight, natural ventilation and passive cooling were key factors in the programming and arrangement of learning spaces.

    The three grade levels take advantage of Seattle’s mild climate, incorporating mechanically assisted natural ventilation and passive cooling. Indicator lights tied to sensors in every classroom empower students to manage classroom operation modes. As indoor temperatures cool, the indicator light turns red, windows are kept closed and radiant panels warm the spaces. When dictated by changes in air quality or temperature, the light turns green to encourage students to open windows and operate ceiling fans.

    Finally, the rooftop playfield efficiently utilizes an often-overlooked outdoor space in the dense urban neighborhood, while solar panels incorporated on the main building roof offset 9.8% of the building’s electrical consumption. Living roofs adjacent to classrooms celebrate ecological responsibility and illustrate water quality issues and important ecological concepts for students.

    The academic spaces occupy the upper floors of the 69,900-square-foot building.

    A gymnasium and rooftop playfield provide much-needed space for physical activity.

    Connecting to community

    While the stepped collaboration spaces are central to the Seattle Academy’s educational mission, they also form the architectural expression of the building. On the exterior, brick wraps both building volumes and is punctuated by expanses of transparency that directly relate to the collaboration spaces within. This transparent glazing cascades down the exterior of the building and resolves into a primary gathering space adjacent to the building entry that anchors the urban intersection. The glazing provides an opportunity for the neighborhood to connect with school activity.

    An outdoor space at the entry provides a welcoming, street-level community gathering place for students and an urban amenity for the community. There is a balance created, both aesthetically and in scale, between the school’s identity and the character of the surrounding neighborhood that adds value to the adjacent community as a neighborhood asset within Capitol Hill’s urban fabric.

    The middle school’s urban integration and use of sustainable elements showcases forward thinking educational design in the urban context and exemplifies the school’s pedagogy through a variety of collaborative, educational spaces that support the school’s mission of cultural performance.

    Given the complexity of the program and the constraints of the site, simplicity is perhaps the project’s strength.

    Wendy Pautz is a partner at LMN Architects

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