Charter Oak International Academy06-20-23 | Feature

Charter Oak International Academy

Connecting Students to Nature

At the Charter Oak International Academy in West Hartford, Connecticut, landscape architecture firm Richter & Cegan was responsible for overall site design, including site layout, materials and detailing, grading, and planting. The design including the main entry area, Pre-K entry area, bus queuing lane, three separate play areas for Pre-K, Kindergarten through second grade, and third through fifth grade, a large, paved play area with compass rose design, and a learning garden. Photo by Andrew Rugge. Courtesy Perkins Eastman.
This site plan shows the 9.5-acre landscape design for the Pre-K through fifth grade school which surrounds the 83,500-square-foot school building. Photo by Richter & Cegan Inc.
The Landscape Architect's goal was to develop a strong inside/outside relationship which provides connectedness to outdoor spaces and nature. For this, the team opened the space that connects to the neighborhood and surrounding community. Full cut-off, Dark-Sky compliant area lighting, projecting light downward, has a contemporary look that reinforces the circular theme of the overall design. PHOTOS BY ROBERT BENSON PHOTOGRAPHY
The Landscape Architect's goal was to develop a strong inside/outside relationship which provides connectedness to outdoor spaces and nature. For this, the team opened the space that connects to the neighborhood and surrounding community. Full cut-off, Dark-Sky compliant area lighting, projecting light downward, has a contemporary look that reinforces the circular theme of the overall design. PHOTOS BY ROBERT BENSON PHOTOGRAPHY
At the school's center is an 1,800-square-foot outdoor amphitheater capable of seating 75 individuals. The main walkways and amphitheater seat walls are concrete, while the amphitheater stage is integral colored concrete. The smaller outdoor classroom spaces are made of crushed granite surfacing with boulder seating for a more informal, natural setting. The landscape architect was inspired by The Charter Oak tree, which is the namesake of the school and an important symbol of Connecticut and its history. So they added a tree silhouette design on the amphitheater window. References to nature were also important design consideration that came about from input from the community.
This 4,300-square-foot learning garden is located at the northwest corner of the school, adjacent to the outdoor paved play and playground areas, but separated by fencing and plants for screening. Ornamental metal fencing was placed along the more visible side of the learning garden with vinyl chain link fence behind the garden on the less visible side.
An overlook viewing a center rain garden is found at the top of the amphitheater. A time capsule was buried in the center of this circle. This area is centered on the auditorium retractable door providing a focal point for ceremonial events such as Veterans Day when portable flag poles and wreaths have been placed in this space for viewing from the auditorium.
To provide screening, color, and texture around the perimeter of the learning garden the Landscape Architect added a mix of native trees, shrubs and ferns.The trees include Betula nigra 'Heritage' (Heritage River Birch), Itea virginica 'Henry's Garnet' (Henry's Garnet Virginia Sweetspire), and Myrica pennsylvanica (Northern Bayberry).Within the learning garden is a mix of mostly native shrubs, perennials, and vines including flowering shrubs for taller accents with a variety of bloom times and vines to grow up the armature structure.
Placed at different corners of the campus, the play areas were broken out into three areas according to different grades: Pre-K, Kindergarten through Grades 2, and Grades 3 through 5 (picture here). The play elements were provided by Landscape Structures and include composite play structures, swings and other individual play components for a variety of play experiences. Ramps provide universal access to many of the play structures. The overall design of these sections reinforces the circular theme of the school and campus. The playground surfacing includes curved, wave patterns to provide visual interest and movement while connecting to the circular theme.
Between the school building and play area is a compass rose imprinted into the bituminous concrete pavement through an acrylic color coating system. The compass rose provides a large, paved space for the school's International Day parade and flag displays. This area is partially framed by a concrete seat wall with precast concrete coping and about 50 Okame Cherry trees planted behind and around the wall. The choice of a compass rose reinforces the circular theme of the school.

Named after Connecticut's official state tree, the overall design for the new Charter Oak International Academy focused on developing strong inside/outside relationships and connections to nature and outdoor spaces that would strengthen and support the school's educational mission. Located in West Hartford, Connecticut, the original 1930s building was rectilinear and dark with little natural light. Designed by Richter and Cegan, the new 83,500-square-foot Pre-K through Grade 5 magnet school replaces the old school with a circular structure that incorporates more natural light into the classrooms and common areas with increased views to the outdoors.

The 9.5-acre site includes many existing mature oak trees providing a strong tree-lined perimeter that connect to the original design team concept of the Charter Oak International Academy being a "pavilion in a park." Preservation of the existing mature oak trees was a priority to help maintain a park-like setting for the school. A major challenge of the project was that the existing school had to remain operational during construction, so an enabling plan was developed that also focused on protecting and preserving the existing oak trees and providing outdoor play opportunities for the students by salvaging and temporarily relocating the existing play equipment.

Project Theme
The circular theme of the building and site reflects the educational philosophy of this International Baccalaureate (IB) school, whose mission is to develop global learners who will work toward a more peaceful and sustainable world through inclusion and cooperation. In design, circular forms can inspire face-to-face interactions by students gathering for discussions in the round, similar to how diplomats often meet at the United Nations. In collaboration with the design team, a campus-wide circular design component was developed to embrace and support the IB school philosophy and provide strong inside/outside relationships.
Circular forms also represent interconnectedness which supports the teaching philosophy of the school by having students make connections between their classes and the outside world. Learning is connected to the world around the students which starts right outside the building. The entire campus provides alternative teaching environments and learning opportunities for students including a central courtyard with an amphitheater, rain garden, outdoor classroom spaces, and an outdoor learning garden.

Connecting Students to Nature
One of the design goals for the Charter Oak International Academy included connecting the students to nature by providing various outdoor educational opportunities. A central courtyard provides a setting for students to pass through a variety of colorful and textural plantings while going between classes. The extensive plantings provide separation between uses while also providing classroom views to nature and opportunities for outside exploration. Native trees including Red Maples (Acer rubrum 'Red Sunset'), River Birch (Betula nigra 'Heritage'), and Allegheny Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) provide shade. These trees along with native shrubs such as Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica 'Henry's Garnet'), Redvein Enkianthus (Enkianthus campanulatus), and Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia 'Raspberry Glow'), the Connecticut State Flower, offer a variety of seasonal interest. Grasses frame the main circular walkway, including Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'), Blue Fescue (Festuca glauca 'Elijah Blue') and Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Hameln').


Various outdoor classroom spaces are located in nooks off of the main circular walk with a variety of seating including tables and chairs and boulders for more informal seating. Integral to the courtyard design is a central rain garden that is both functional and educational, providing opportunities for nature studies and observations of plants and insects.

The outdoor learning garden is an important site feature for the school community who desired a variety of teaching environments, including an outdoor teaching space immersing students in nature. Children can learn to interact with the land through hands on programs involving planting and caring for plants. The outdoor learning garden contains raised planters for gardening and a work table with under table storage to support outdoor studies. A deck area with both benches and log seating for flexibility serves as a large gathering area for demonstrations. A cedar armature supports experimentation by providing a structure for mounting tools such as thermostats, water gauges, and pulleys. For a more immersive experience, a meadow area with a flagstone walkway leads to a boulder seating area for smaller groups. The Pre-K and Kindergarten play area also incorporates a star shaped raised bed planter and plantings to support outdoor studies and exploration at an early age.

The perimeter of the learning garden is planted with a mix of native trees, shrubs, and ferns and vines on the armature structure to provide screening, color, and texture. Plants include Shadblow Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis), River Birch (Betula nigra 'Heritage'), Inkberry (Ilex glabra 'Compacta'), Northern Bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica), and Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica 'Henry's Garnet'). Within the learning garden, flowering shrubs such as Witchhazels (Hamamelis vernalis and Hamamelis x intermedia 'Arnold's Promise') and Butterfly Bush (Buddleia daviddi 'Black Knight') provide taller accents with a variety of bloom times. The vines include Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis paniculata) and Climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala petiolaris). The meadow area includes a variety of mostly native perennials and grasses.

Amphitheater and Play Areas
A unique component of the central courtyard is the outdoor amphitheater and exterior stage that connects to the school auditorium and stage with a double-height retractable glass door. The goal was to have the outdoor amphitheater become an extension of the auditorium and create a space for outdoor performances. Inside and outside performances can be easily accommodated, providing flexibility for programming. The auditorium window incorporates an oak tree silhouette design inspired by the existing oak trees on site and the Charter Oak, which is the namesake of the school and an important symbol of Connecticut and its history. The library window opposite the auditorium also includes references to nature with a branching design made from perforated metal screening. References to nature are an important design element that carries throughout the project and was an important feature for the community.

Playgrounds and a large, paved play area adjacent to the outdoor learning garden establishes active recreational space. The paved play area includes a central compass rose design that serves as the location for an International Day parade and flag displays. The compass rose is a figure often found on maps reflecting the academy's global focus. Okame Flowering Cherries (Prunus x incam 'Okame') are planted behind the seatwalls to frame the compass rose and flagpole. The playground area design also reinforces the circular theme of the school and campus, including curved, wave patterns within the poured-in-place surfacing to provide visual interest and movement while complementing the circular theme. A River Birch (Betula nigra 'Heritage') grove creates a cohesive, repetitive element along the north side of the playground areas while screening the playgrounds from the adjacent neighborhood homes.

In all, the Charter Oak International Academy is an example of close collaboration between design team members resulting in a cohesive vision coming to life. Richter and Cegan collaborated closely with the architects and design team throughout the process to help create an engaging school environment that supports and advances the school's mission. The dynamic and varied exterior spaces provide the academy teachers, students, and staff with opportunities to connect to nature with a variety of outdoor educational opportunities.

Landscape Architect: Richter & Cegan Inc.
- Project Team: Michael Cegan (Principal Designer), Greg Nicoll (Project Manager)
- Robert Hard (Construction Administration)
Architect: Perkins Eastman, Stamford, CT
Civil/Structural/MEP-F Engineers: BVH Integrated Services, P.C. (a Salas O'Brien Company), Bloomfield, CT
Construction Manager: Fusco Corporation, New Haven, CT
Site Contractor: Gerber Construction Inc., Ellington, CT
Landscape Contractor: TC Landscaping