Independent School Finds Opportunity for Progressive Learning Spaces in a Well-worn Church

In the church’s nave, SKL architects advantaged the unique wishbone shell to create large open spaces for new school functions.

In the church’s nave, SKL architects advantaged the unique wishbone shell to create large open spaces for new school functions.

Collaboration, Creativity and Community

A 2007 Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Department of Education survey found that 43 percent of schools in the U.S. see the condition of their buildings as “interfering with the ability of the school to deliver instruction.” The effects of such conditions were reported to range from lower student achievement to reduced teacher productivity. Retrofitting and repurposing an old, underutilized building allowed Westside School to create a school building that contributed to the overall academic success of a student.

To design functional spaces at Westside School, SKL’s design team brought teachers together to discuss progressive learning environments for better learning outcomes. From those discussions the team set out to optimize functional relationships; for example, putting smaller spaces next to larger spaces so they can overflow as needed. The team also sought to maximize energy efficiency by designing the building to function well, actively and passively.

Twenty-seven large light-filled classrooms house two classes per grade, plus a middle school program. The wrapping addition combined with existing interior spaces to make larger classrooms and provide additional daylight. Cutting through the classroom spaces, the glulam arches mark the juncture of old and new structures and the divide between active and passive learning spaces. Each classroom is designed with two types of learning space: more traditional formal desk arrangements in the internal (original) structure and flexible learning areas for hands-on, group activities in the outer (new) structure.

At the pre-K and K levels, classrooms are paired and connected to each other; classes can flow back and forth between shared space to facilitate co-teaching (team teaching) and collaborative imagination.

Beyond the classrooms, the architecture provides a range of engaging learning environments. Idea spaces carved into the classrooms and created from corridor space between classrooms provide flexible areas for spontaneous meetings and informal, smaller, group learning shared between classes. Other found spaces—whether a nook under the stairs or a bench tucked behind a screen—encourage interaction, creativity and curiosity for every age group. These design features create flexible collaboration spaces for individuals, pairs or small groups without increasing square footage.

Colors and graphics were developed to make wayfinding intuitive and fun. Colors provide place definition without words. If the walls and carpet are blue, it’s the middle school; green denotes the lower school.

The transparency of the classrooms allows other students to see in, creating a sense of shared experience and stirring anticipation in lower grades with a glimpse at what future grades will bring. Student work is displayed throughout the hallways and common areas, as well as in a gallery space on the second level, providing a showcase for students’ creativity, as well as creating schoolwide dialog.

As the main entry and welcoming spot for the school, the Commons provides another informal gathering and display space where parents, faculty and students convene and connect. The physical and emotional heart of the school, the sun-filled foyer attracts students and teachers to congregate throughout the day. Parents are drawn to gather and linger at the lobby coffee bar when dropping off or picking up their children.

First Photo: SKL Architects
Second Photo: Benjamin Benschneider

About the Author

Gladys Ly-Au Young
Architect Gladys Ly-Au Young, AIA, is a founding principal at Sundberg Kennedy Ly-Au Young Architects, Seattle. With a MSc in Sustainable Design from Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, she brings a deep commitment to sustainable design to her work.

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