Nature is in the DNA of Ox Ridge Elementary School. An existing garden was cared for by students and parent volunteers. Varietal trees throughout the site were labeled with their specimen type. And bird houses and feeders were strewn across the site. This love of nature excited our integrated team that includes a project manager, architectural, landscape, and interior design studios, working on the new 106,000-sf elementary school.
Alignment with the school’s thinking inspired them to produce innovative outdoor spaces for learning, not typically seen in public education. Our team’s vision also achieves the school’s mission—to develop joyful, healthy, persistently curious learners—a goal that is even more critical in this time of hybrid learning that will enable the school to remain committed to serving the individualized educational needs of approximately 420 students.
Design Thinkers’ editor, Marie Bonelli, sat down with the project team—Amanda Hastings, interior designer, Amy Samuelson, project manager, and Jessica Petro, landscape architect to learn more about their unique expertise and inspirations designed to enhance student learning in new and innovative ways.
DT EDITOR: What is your favorite part of the design that integrates the inside and out?
AMANDA: Our client was already using the outdoor spaces of their existing school as teaching spaces and were embracing their love of nature and art throughout the school. We used this as inspiration to guide design elements, from the color pallet, to tile patterns, to acoustic treatments and various details that not only bring elements of nature into the school to create that strong connection with the landscape but also helped us tell the school’s story. It was such a joyful experience for the team to be able to create a sense of playfulness that would be engaging for students and faculty and showcase their school spirit in a way that cohesively enhanced the overall design concept, inside and out.
AMY: I love the courtyard and the many ways it links to the building. It serves as a beautiful view at both levels of the single loaded corridor, linking the elementary school academic pods to the assembly wing. Natural light penetrates the interior flexible learning corridors. Direct connections are made to the Art Classroom for indoor/outdoor creativity spaces; to a “secret” outdoor reading area from the Pre-k common room; and to the school’s main lobby so all visitors can immediately experience a view of the courtyard upon entry. The Patio connects to the lobby, serving as an expanded gathering space at that upper level where art shows and events can take place.
JESSICA: Developing the courtyard was my favorite part, which resulted in an engaging outdoor learning environment. Its shape, for one, was challenging; it essentially is a long rectangle running North-South and there is a 14-foot grade change running West-East within it. But these design challenges created opportunities: the long rectangle allowed for varied viewsheds into the courtyard. Each view unfolded different spaces to discover which we wanted to engage their imagination and create a magical experience for a child wanting to ‘explore’ the environment. Programming and placement for these outdoor learning opportunities were further defined by the grade change constraints and its accessible circulation. A large amphitheater in the center of the courtyard fits nicely into the grade change, leaving opportunity to program smaller intimate spaces. One example is our bird’s nest design which is a small gathering space with a low rustic wood fence enclosure. The space is meant to feel like you are sitting within a bird’s nest at a high point of the courtyard.
My favorite connection of the inside/out is at the Art Room within the courtyard. The children will look out their windows to the courtyard and see a large boulder wall with planting, and at the foreground, moveable seating for an outdoor classroom. Mounted on the wall will be a dry erase board, but instead of a white background, we are looking to have a decal of abstract art from the color palette inside, so it would feel like a piece of fine art along a gallery wall.
So much of our days are spent inside, experiencing the power of nature through a window is restorative and needed in our day to day life.
DT EDITOR: Since schools have been so significantly impacted by the COVID pandemic, how does this design respond?
AMANDA: Though we started designing this school prior to Covid-19, there are elements previously planned that lend themselves to the current environment. For example, creating a “Learning Commons” outside each classroom offer opportunities beyond the classroom and more room for a variety of learning activities where children can be appropriately distanced, as well as space for one-on-one learning. The Early Learning Program also has a large Learning Commons with direct proximity to the exterior courtyard able to be used in numerous ways. This connection allows them to expand their play area easily from inside to out, providing children and teachers access to fresh air and again give them more useable space for that is now a necessity for Covid-19 safety.
JESSICA: It does so by providing multiple exterior spaces for programmable teaching opportunities. We entered construction documentation when COVID-19 hit, and our client had already defined the program goals for their exterior environments and the opportunities they wanted their children to experience. They desired both visual and physical connections to nature, multiple play and learning spaces, spaces that could support larger gatherings for multiple classrooms and small intimate spaces for quiet learning and reflective time. Creating a diverse outdoor program gives our client the best solution in meeting the challenges of learning during, and post Covid-19.
DT EDITOR: What are the designed spaces that create exterior learning opportunities?
DT EDITOR: What did you learn individually within this integrated project, or what challenge did you face?
AMANDA: A key factor in facing any design challenges that arose on the Ox Ridge project was starting with a strong design concept that guided us throughout the process. Knowing that we wanted to integrate components of nature and the exterior landscape within the interiors, allowed us to focus on what design elements and details were essential to relay that overall concept. Ultimately, we were able to tell the school’s story throughout the entire building in a very successful and meaningful way.
AMY: As the project manager, my primary responsibilities to the client are to remain on schedule and on budget. Working with our team to also prioritize the integration of interior and exterior design was a challenge worth taking on. From the beginning of conceptual design, we made sure that the new building took advantage of the natural slope of the site. As on all our school projects, I look forward to seeing the spaces busy with students and faculty, and on this one, I am also looking forward to seeing the courtyard and other exterior spaces bustling with learning and playing!
JESSICA: The client early on defined the quality and use of the exterior space as a main component of their program for learning. The importance of working collectively together as one design team, with one voice, allowed the client to hear and see the design vision we proposed: this wholly integrated experience, in which one could continually experience the indoor/outdoor connection within the building.