Page D3.2 . 17 January 2007                     
ArchitectureWeek - Design Department
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    Elementary Aurora


    School Renewal

    Greenman Elementary was built to replace a 107-year-old, 300-student facility that the community had long outgrown. The school district had a vision: personalized learning environments, small academies, and curricular flexibility. It was up to Architecture for Education principal Gaylaird Christopher, AIA and his design team to turn that vision into reality. They found a solution in zoning the school into "classroom neighborhoods."

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    "The school went to great lengths to involve the community and staff members in the design of their neighborhood school," says Christopher. "It was a process of getting to know the people and how the architecture could meet their educational needs. We probably wouldn't have divided the school into seven classroom neighborhoods without this process."

    Completed in 2004, Greenman Elementary comprises classrooms, two kindergarten areas, music and art rooms, media center, multipurpose room with stage, warming kitchen, administrative facilities, and outdoor play areas. But the partnership approach during design led to specific considerations that make Greenman unique among educational facilities.

    A partnership with Aurora University's School of Education, for example, led to facilities for hands-on, in-classroom training for student teachers. A partnership with the YMCA's preschool program yielded on-campus preschool facilities. And elementary school student workshops generated a number of ideas for the design, as well as the actual artwork for the six large wall murals.

    Flexibility through Functionality

    Every educator demands flexibility in school design, Christopher contends, noting that his design satisfies this demand in various ways. "Within each classroom, there are 'learning walls' — custom, flexible, and adaptable furnishings that can conform to each teacher's and student's needs," he explains. "The pairing of classrooms around a resource room and group activity corridor allows for many variations of learning environment shapes, sizes, and functions."

    "Neighborhoods," or classroom clusters, aim to foster personalized learning. A cluster is a small learning community of four classrooms, two technology/ resource areas, and a flexible learning corridor. There is one cluster for pre-K and K, and six others that can be for grade-level groupings or schools-within-a-school. The clusters can be used as separate rooms or configured as larger spaces for team teaching. The resource room and corridor serve as project areas for hands-on group learning.

    Christopher believes that a complete learning environment inspires and supports instruction in all aspects: physical, social, psychological, and financial. "We impact learning by providing an environment that is student-centered and hands-on," he stresses. "In addition, our architecture promotes curiosity, imagination, and wonder, while at the same time solving real-world problems of budget, program, technology, and construction."

    School as Textbook

    The school's architecture promotes curiosity, imagination, and wonder by offering student learning outside the classroom. In fact, the entire facility is an educational environment, where the architecture serves as what Christopher calls a "three-dimensional textbook." For example, a series of porthole windows into the mechanical room allows students to observe the lights, pipes, and equipment.

    Each classroom cluster is color-coded green, red, or yellow to give each small learning unit its own identity. Reflecting the performing arts themes of the curriculum, playful window arrangements of colored glass create an expression of music, rhythm, and harmony.

    The architecture also supports social interaction and personal development. The extra wide stairway serves as a gathering area and amphitheater seating for the stage. The corridors are lined with niches and custom cubbyholes for informal interaction. Within the classrooms, window bays with seating offer intimate, quiet areas. And the library also has a built-in amphitheater for reading groups.

    A double-sided stage opens out to the multipurpose room in a traditional arrangement, but also opens out to the lobby and amphitheater stairs on the opposite side. This allows for a smaller theater-in-the-round configuration or larger productions when the amphitheater and balcony are used as extensions to the stage.

    Design on a Shoestring

    Architects solved problems of long-term budget restrictions with some ingenuity. For example, rather than tackable wall covering, which requires replacement after only a few years, the walls are finished with soft pine wood. The pine works well for tacking posters, announcements, and student art. Developing a rich amber color over time, the pine will take wear and tear gracefully.

    "Numerous design items are investments that save time and money over the life of the school and for the environment," says Anthony Poon, AIA, principal of Architecture for Education. "For example, each classroom has a private restroom. Though at first sounding inefficient, the concept has provided savings for resources and maintenance."

    These restrooms are self-maintaining by each classroom's students, so custodial duties and resources are less than for a typical group restroom. In addition, the bullying and intimidation that might occur in large restrooms are eliminated with this design.

    Inspiring Future Designs

    Greenman Elementary's design received the 2006 Exhibition of School Architecture's grand prize from the National School Boards Association (NSBA). "The architecture enriches the learning environment, enhances the education program and complements, without mimicry, the urban/ residential fabric of the neighborhood," the NSBA jury wrote.

    Praising Christopher for his well thought-out plan, executed details, materials and scale, the jury commented: "This is a school that will delight and energize both the young students and the adults who spend time there. As a center of the community, it is what all school projects should strive for."

    The school is receiving additional recognition for its educational success. It has received seven prestigious honors including the American Institute of Architects Inland California Chapter 2005 merit award and the Learning By Design 2005's grand prize award for design excellence.

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    Jennifer LeClaire is a freelance writer based in Miami Beach, Florida, specializing in architecture and design.



    ArchWeek Image

    Greenman Elementary School by Architecture for Education, south elevation.
    Photo: George Lambros

    ArchWeek Image

    South elevation detail.
    Photo: George Lambros

    ArchWeek Image

    Greenman Elementary is organized into small, clustered "learning neighborhoods."
    Image: Architecture for Education Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    A stair offers performance space, area for social interaction, teaching, and informal gathering.
    Photo: Mark Ballogg

    ArchWeek Image

    In the multipurpose room, which serves for assembly, dining, drama, music, and physical education, windows express abstract musical notes, and colors draw attention to the stage.
    Photo: Mark Ballogg

    ArchWeek Image

    Colored glass in the corridor windows help students view the world "through a different light." Cubbyholes for student belongings are faced with tackable pine-clad walls for displaying student work.
    Photo: Architecture for Education

    ArchWeek Image

    Portholes give students glimpses into the mechanical room.
    Photo: Mark Ballogg

    ArchWeek Image

    Typical classroom.
    Photo: Architecture for Education


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