06-15-20 | Feature

Learning Without Walls

Benjamin W. Murch Elementary
by Joan Honeyman, RLA, ASLA, Jordan Honeyman Landscape Architecture

Benjamin W. Murch Elementary School in NW Washington, DC underwent a major renovation and expansion requiring a complete redesign of all outdoor spaces on the 4.5 acre property. Enhancing curriculum outdoors was important to the school; this was complemented by the landscape architect's goal to connect the public to their environment within the context of education, recreation and play.
The school has a robust garden program that takes advantage of sunny spaces to increase planting areas and allow community interaction with garden spaces. Built partially below grade to blend in with the historic school building, the cafeteria has a large green roof used by the pre-k and kindergarden classes.
A synthetic turf field with stormwater management below replaced failing grass and increased active recreation opportunities during recess and PE classes. The field is separated from other play areas with honey locust trees and large circular benches that enclose ample soil panels. The 3' deep by 4' wide panels run continuously between the trees below the blacktop surface to encourage strong tree growth.
The 1930's historic building and new addition come together at a new and inviting ADA accessible entry. Ample bike racks around the site accommodate the many families that bike to school. Low maintenance grasses and shrubs welcome students, faculty and visitors.
The cafeteria green roof adjacent to the main entry is home to the school garden, outdoor classroom, and kindergarten playground. Ornamental and productive planting in raised beds brings plants closer to the children, and an arbor and seating area provide a space for formal outdoor instruction by the garden educators.
The school community requested a playspace that would be exciting for older elementary children. Students enjoy the challenge of structures more than 12 feet high and playground supervisors appreciate seating provided along the perimeter. The play equipment and surfacing were inspired by the local Rock Creek Park wooded hiking trails and stream valleys.

"The best classroom and richest classroom is roofed only by the sky."
- Margaret McMillan (C 1925)

A child's learning environment should foster creativity and healthy development including physical, social, emotional and cognitive skills. Outdoor classrooms can help children thrive by learning through movement and play while connecting with nature.

When the renovation and expansion of Benjamin W. Murch Elementary School in Washington, DC was designed, local firm Jordan Honeyman Landscape Architecture thought both outside the box as well as the classroom to create a 21st century outdoor learning environment that complements and unites the new classroom and gym addition to the existing 1930's historic building. The school's requirements for balancing outdoor curricula for the students and community while maximizing limited recreation space resulted in a complete redesign of the entire site. The elementary school, with a student population consisting of pre-kindergarten through 5th grade, is located on a 4.5-acre property in northwest Washington. Its adjacency to Rock Creek Park, the natural green spine that runs through the city, became the inspiration for the ecological context within which the new schoolyard was designed.

Community Support
The main design challenge for JHLA was to reconfigure the reduced outdoor activity space covered by the new addition while providing educational opportunities for environmental learning. The project had a very vocal community presence as well as an involved and dedicated faculty with much interest in the project from DC Public Schools. Murch ES was accustomed to a large outdoor activity area for recess and after school activities, with a ball field and dynamic playgrounds including seating and shade. The play yard was also heavily used by the community in the evenings and on weekends. The space was constantly packed with kids and their families, playing soccer or enjoying the climbing structures while parents gathered in groups in the shade to catch up. Once word got out that their beloved "bluetop", which was the nickname for the painted blue asphalt play surfacing, was being greatly decreased by a new addition to the existing school building, the community was activated to make sure every square foot of available outside space was optimized. This mandate was in addition to the school faculty's requirement for increasing outdoor curricula using sustainable elements to create opportunities for environmental learning. Jordan Honeyman used their baseline design principles of practical solutions through sustainable methods to accommodate these school and community requirements, physically and visually unite the new addition and time-honored, historic building and create seamless transitions between indoor and outdoor learning areas.


Amenities for Learning
Educational opportunities to learn about sustainable elements and LID practices surround the LEED Gold school as the schoolyard was developed into a series of outdoor classrooms and recreation areas. The green roof above the cafeteria, established as the pre-k and kindergarten activity area, consists of a play structure, outdoor classroom and school farm including raised vegetable beds, compost tumblers and a garden shed. The littlest of students plant seeds and make picture labels for their beds, in coordination with the writing, drawing and food awareness curriculum. More vegetable beds for older students are located at street level for additional food production.

Bioretention facilities located at the entry to the historic building and around the front and side of the school are planted with native and adaptive species to attract pollinators and used as outdoor classrooms for students and the neighborhood. Large recycled lumber platforms overlook the raingardens and educational signage explains these LID, waterwise techniques. Another outdoor classroom is surrounded by a pollinator and edible plants garden which includes paw paws and apple trees. Various colorful signs throughout the schoolyard highlight more pollinator and monarch butterfly habitat gardens, compost bins and a rain barrel. Smaller plaques that identify plant species have QR readers linked to a plant data base for students and the community to research online. Several intensive green roofs are planted with sedums, alliums and other water wise species.

Both the younger and older student playgrounds contain structures that are themed to complement the nearby natural features of Rock Creek Park. Nature is also reflected in the colorful creek pattern on the flexible PIP surfacing. The outside play space that interfaces with the pre-k and kindergarten classroom is designed with flexible, natural play elements to encourage students to climb, hop and explore the environment. The wonderful indoor/outdoor relationship between the classroom, with its big windows, and this outdoor space was designed using the biophilic concept of establishing building connections to the natural environment. In addition to these play spaces, a multipurpose field with stormwater management below the synthetic turf was carved out of the remaining exterior space next to the playground for older children.

Due to great community and school personnel interest and involvement on this project, Jordan Honeyman engaged the stakeholders on many occasions. Presentations at concept level were interactive and informed the site design while subsequent meetings kept the school families up to date on developments during the design process. The School Improvement Team, a group of recent and alumni parents, worked closely with the faculty and DC Public Schools and was influential in determining site programming. The designers worked closely with all of these groups to ensure the site design met their expectations for a sustainable campus with maximum recreational space and many options for understanding and delighting in the environment.

The carefully crafted design carried out by the JHLA design team has resulted in a lively, cohesive and ecofriendly schoolyard. Integrating ecology, LID techniques and references to broader local ecosystems into the outdoor curriculum, connects kids and the public to their environment in an academic and fun manner. The economy of scale has forced the creation of smaller but enhanced recreation spaces, and in working collaboratively with project stakeholders, a truly unique resource has been successfully tailored for local users but is also relevant for a wider city audience.

Team List:
Murch Elementary Project Team
Owner/Client: DC Department of General Services (DGS) Landscape Architect: Jordan Honeyman Landscape Architecture Architects: R. McGhee & Associates, Hord Coplan Macht
Civil Engineer: CDDI
Structural Engineer: SK& A
MEP: Setty and Associates
General Contractor: MCN Build
Landscape Contractor: Beechfield Landscaping

As seen in LASN magazine, June 2020.


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