Greening The Classroom
By Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson
Snaking along D.C.’s Capital Beltway, a journey marked by the hurry-up and brake of unmitigated traffic and the numbing effect of so much concrete sprawl, it’s hard to believe man knows what he’s doing when it comes to the built environment. This may partially explain why arriving at Manassas Park Elementary School (MPES) and Pre-K, located in a Virginia suburb of the Washington Metro area, is such a breath of fresh air.
Completed last year by Charlottesville-based VMDO Architects, the new 128,343 square-foot public elementary school and 12,120 square-foot Pre-K immediately stand out from the blanched cul-de-sacs and strip malls of the surrounding suburbs. MPES abuts the edge of an eight-acre deciduous forest known as Camp Carondelet and is complemented by a carefully considered landscape of native plants, outdoor classrooms and courtyards, and “no mow” meadow grasses. The school seems to have been plopped into the center of a nature preserve. Everything about the design and site plan marries structure with the environment and student learning, earning the school a 2010 AIA/COTE Top Ten Green Project designation.
VMDO completed a K-3 school on this site in 2001. Manassas Park asked the firm to expand the campus with two additional buildings capable of housing ages 4-11 and to make them “green.” The architects aimed to meet the 2030 Challenge by creating structures that use 50 percent less energy than a typical code compliant school and to do it for a budget of just $200 per square-foot (including site preparation). But they also took it as an opportunity to go beyond mere building performance. “A green school is different from a green building,” says Wyck Knox, AIA, an architect with VMDO and manager of this project. Standing amidst the Tulip Poplars and Bigtooth Aspens of Camp Carondelet one recent summer day, Knox explains the inspiration for the school. “Too many of our kids are afraid of the woods,” he says. The mantra for the design team became: “People cannot protect something they can’t understand.”
Everything at MPES offers a teaching moment for the kids. The learning begins outside with a 79,000 gallon rainwater cistern system that doubles as a classroom. A gauge shows how much water has been collected from rooftop runoff, while graphic panels designed by VMDO describe how storm water flows through the region and out into the Chesapeake Bay. Charlottesville-based Siteworks worked with VMDO on the exterior landscaping, which includes an outdoor amphitheater that serves as storm water bio-retention and ground-source wells topped by playing fields.
VMDO placed the Pre-K building near the existing school and sited the three-story MPES—for students in grades 3-5—near Camp Carondelet. MPES is shaped like an “E” with two main courtyards opening to the woods that function as an outdoor extension of the classroom. These courtyards become “a captured laboratory” for students according to Siteworks co-founder Pete O’Shea. “The big idea on the site was to claim those courtyard spaces as a way to extend the forest,” he says. Naturally fallen trees from the woods demarcate paths and beds have been planted with native species (VMDO and Siteworks donated over 200 plants to the site and volunteered time to help students plant them). Over time, O’Shea says this space will grow and evolve in the same way a natural forest would. “It’s taking the idea of many kids’ favorite book Where the Wild Things Are, where the bedroom becomes a forest. [The plantings in the courtyards] will emerge out of the ground over time after many classes and generations come through.”
MPES has three academic buildings created by the “E”—or “houses”—that correlate with the seasons: summer, autumn, and spring. They contain classes from all grades that circulate throughout the building during eight period days. The spine of the building is called the Winter Commons and contains shared spaces such as the library and main office. Students enter the building from the north, which is the Summer House, move through the Fall and Winter Houses during their day, and exit through the Spring House—mirroring the seasons of their school year. The interior décor of each house signals the season it represents, with the Summer House in verdant greens, the Autumn House in rich orange, etc. Interior materials replicate those found in the woods, such as white and red oak.
It takes a moment to realize that the bright light indoors is coming not from overhead fluorescents, but from solar tubes. This is perhaps best illustrated in the library where solar tubes are equipped with butterfly dimmers to allow for varied levels of light. There is also artificial lighting in the school and it offers another valuable lesson for students. “We wanted kids to see the difference between natural and artificial light,” Knox says. On sunny days, electric lights are rarely used. The horizontal circulation of the building takes it organization from the nearby woods. The first floor of the school is called the Forest Floor, the second is the Understory, and the third is the Canopy. Rooms on each floor are named to reflect a plant or an animal that would live in that particular place within the forest and images of these plants and animals match the season. So a room located in the Spring House is named for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly, the state insect for Virginia, which is pictured perched on a tree branch in spring.
Additional panels throughout the school define terms related to the seasons, like “dormancy” in winter. VMDO worked to match the information on graphic panels with state curricular standards. Principal Stacey Mamon says the school works exactly as it should, and almost too well. The graphics panels had to be covered during standardized testing of students.
The infrastructure of the school is also visible. A transparent wall shows the pipes for the geothermal wells and panels point out where sunlight is being harvested. When outdoor conditions allow for natural ventilation a green light alerts students who then get to open the windows. “They become active participants in the building management,” Knox explains. Small nooks throughout the school are expertly appropriated for independent study. They function almost like little living rooms, with wide expanses of glass overlooking the woods and comfy sofas or beanbag chairs for reading. “To me this is an obvious thing,” Knox says. “Why try to instill a love of reading in kids by making them sit in stick-straight chairs?”
The site lines in MPES not only afford unadulterated views of the exterior, they also allow teachers to keep an eye on students in a passive way. From a classroom, a teacher can easily see a student in a reading nook, offering a sense of independence to the kids. The design offers not just a respect for nature, but also for the student and teacher experience. Students are encouraged to explore and to contemplate. Nature, architecture, and way-finding all serve as springboards for student self-discovery.
“The best kind of learning is learning when you’re not learning,” Knox says. “This is a building that provides that kind of self-directed learning and, hopefully, develops the next generation of conservationists.”
Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson is a Contributing Editor with Architect Magazine. Her work has also appeared in Metropolis, Slate, and The New York Times Magazine.