07-20-21 | Feature

Bring the Classroom Outside

in Washington State

Landscape Architects with the Tri-Cities office of multidisciplinary firm, AHBL designed the innovative play areas and outdoor spaces at Arlington Elementary School in Tacoma, Washington. By utilizing lumber from the site, multi-purposed areas were created following guidelines developed by the Tacoma School District to foster success. The color scheme ties the buildings and sculpture together. Concrete paving is present as well as Autumn Fern (Dryopteris Erythrosora Brilliance), Tall Stewartia (Stewartia Monadelpha), Creeping Mahonia (Mahonia Nervosa).
Staying with the richness of the Pacific Northwest, Landscape Architects of AHBL, emphasized natural play elements throughout the site. The logs that the children are playing on were harvested from the property prior to construction and now serve as play elements and seating. The ground is constructed of poured-in-place safety surfacing. The colors of the circles were chosen based on a study that was conducted to see what resonated with the student body. The hydroseed lawn mix was installed prior to the project completion so that students could immediately enjoy the area.
A concrete water element found in one of the courtyards has a spigot inside that allows water to flow through and spill out onto the pavement. A shallow swale in the paving directs water to a stormwater drain while also providing a hands-on experience for children.
The school sits on a natural aquafer recharge. Beneath the playground there is an underdrain system that feeds this aquafer.
To maintain proper drainage the sloping areas leading from the school to the playground were maintained and developed into formal transitions, play areas and slides, and riparian segments that allow the children to choose the method and place they wish to enter the play areas from the school buildings.
Designed with various skill levels and age groups in mind, these courtyards allow for flexibility to teach in the outdoors while still giving teachers the capability to be secure, bringing lesson plans to life under the clouds.
The entirety of the project is tied together through cohesive colors and an overall theme that makes learning moldable to individual students. Arlington Elementary is an adaptable school that forges a unique hybrid solution to declining graduation rates.
In 2010, the district hit an all time low with only 55 percent graduating and looked to change the course of future student's success.
This project's desire to stray from the norm, allows for more mobility throughout and aligns with against the grain design like Silicon Valley.

In 2011, the Washington state legislature created the Innovative Schools and Zones program to encourage redesigns for better learning environments across all districts. In 2012, Tacoma Public Schools was selected as the first system to apply these guidelines and Arlington Elementary school of Tacoma was selected to become the first full elementary school renovation using the new framework. The Tri-Cities office of AHBL, a planning, design, and engineering firm, was selected to design the 57,000 square foot pre-k through fifth grade project.

Through a collaborative, interpretative process, the Landscape Architects' site planning efforts maximized the use of the full site and capitalized on the natural topography to provide comfortable and inclusive play and common areas for all students. Passive areas are adjacent to active play to foster connection for students who aren't comfortable jumping right into active play but still want to feel included. This arrangement allows them to feel involved while still being within a defensible space.

As Landscape Architects, AHBL saw the Arlington Elementary School replacement project as an opportunity to weave together multiple layers of intention into the site design - site geology and ecology, unique learning spaces such as outdoor classrooms, and inclusive play areas.

The play area was designed in such a way that it respects the natural topography as well as an active student body. Elements such as a slide hill, rolling hill, boulder scramble, natural stone steps, tetherball courts, four-square courts, rolling lawns, and swings, complement the site and create a sustainable year-round play area for the students and community.

The Tacoma, Washington geographic area sits on an aquifer recharge area where free-draining gravelly soils are present. Historically dense coniferous forests meet and flourish in the area which was an inspiration during the design process. Utilizing the natural environment that surrounds the school, harvested lumber has been turned into features like the "log scramble", natural seating, slope management, and mixed use amenities.
Drawing from the Puget Lowland prairie habitats and Garry Oak native habitats, the planting plan utilized the northwest native forest and native meadow plants to create a rich diversity of localized flora.

The site plan worked to place planting areas alongside the building to create, combine, and connect indoor and outdoor learning environments of various sizes and configurations. These unique courtyards allow teachers to expand their classrooms beyond four walls and utilize the outdoor break-out area as additional instructional space.
The outdoor social space and playground areas were designed for changing school demographics and student needs. The team worked with the clients, including the architect, school district, community, and students, to find ways to create outdoor social and play spaces that work for the widest array of individuals while creating diverse and engaging spaces. These spaces are intended to support inclusivity for all physical and cognitive abilities, various ages, and supporting family and community members.

As some students in this area do not have an opportunity to interact with nature on a daily basis, emphasis was placed on nature throughout the site. This included the ability to change location during a lesson to draw upon the localized natural elements now found within the site. As the first elementary school redesigned to better accommodate the new framework, Arlington Elementary School became a pillar in the community and an interactive learning environment. The project was completed in time for the school opening in the Fall of 2017. AHBL was able to keep the project within the
$28 million budget and facilitate the awarding of the 2018 Pinnacle Award, the 2018 People's Choice Award, and the 2018 Polished Apple Award from the Association for Learning Environments.

As seen in LASN magazine, June 2021.


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