06-23-20 | Feature

Working with the Elements

Weisman Design Group
by Weisman Design

Weisman Design Group was part of a team that collaborated on the creation of Bennett Elementary in Bellevue, Washington. The siting of the 3-story building allowed for a significant reduction in soil removal and slope disturbance.
Outdoor learning spaces are viewed as an essential resource of the day-to-day curriculum and intended to fuel the students' embrace of their environment.
The large site includes a slope to the east of about 45' with large wooded groves and rudimentary trails. Previously there was a school and sports field spread out over the area. The old school building occupied the same location as the new one.
Seven outdoor learning spaces were planned so that a class can leave the interior of the building for a lesson with a proximity to urban nature, mature trees and landscape infrastructure inviting students to explore and discover.
Multiple surfacing materials, more common to residential projects, such as pavers, wood decking and artificial turf, are intended to allow the students to feel protected while having access to the outdoors.
Large air intake and exhaust vent columns are veiled by artful aluminum screens.
The interior courtyard includes monumental stone steps, which also accommodate group seating. A synthetic turf field replaced an existing all-weather sand field in about the same place.
Natural play was also a critical focus of the 9.2 acre project.
The screens for the air intake and exhaust vent columns are lit up at night by multi-colored LED lights. By drawing attention to these stacks in a highly trafficked area rather than concealing them, the designers hope to prompt students and others to ask questions about the infrastructure's placement, purpose and function.
While rooftop access is generally not desired by school districts, the client and designers agreed on the opportunities and benefits of allowing them on this project. Two rooftop gathering spaces were specified, which take advantage of the building's stepped placement. They also offer views of the landscape and the solar photovoltaic panel systems, hoping to contribute to students' understanding of green infrastructure and technology.

In a residential neighborhood of Bellevue, Washington, the design of Bennett Elementary stands in contrast to the stale suburban school typology: instead pairing outdoor exploration and learning with a contemporary educational facility. Preserving existing Douglas Firs grove at a scale of 12 times the required amount, the school is nestled between conifer stands, which allow for calming views from within classrooms. Rudimentary exploration trails were improved without disturbing mature trees and to take advantage of views made possible by significant elevation gain on the site. Working with the grade rather than fighting it, the designers stacked and staggered the building masses up the slope, allowing mechanical equipment space to be buried under the learning spaces. This building siting resulted in an increase in the amount and variety of views to the west, shrunk the profile of the eastern faA?ade so as to appear less massive to neighbors, and created multiple opportunities for outdoor and rooftop learning spaces.

Bennett Elementary is located in a single-family, residential neighborhood. As a client to Weisman Design Group, Bellevue School District is increasingly committed to reducing environmental impacts of building projects and increasing opportunities for outdoor education.

Since a multitude of recent studies have pointed to a correlation between physical exposure to our views of green space with increased cognition levels and reduced stress among students, the design of Bennett Elementary's landscape and building reflects this approach to K-12 learning spaces. Numerous courtyards and windows allow the building to maximize natural light, which can feel fleeting in Pacific Northwest winters. The designers took every opportunity to incorporate outdoor learning spaces (seven in total), serving as an extension of the building as a learning landscape. These spaces are significant for their siting and capacity, so that entire classes can easily spill out for a lesson, but also in their proximity to urban nature, mature trees and landscape infrastructure. They invite students to not only sit, but to explore and discover.

Elevation changes within an interior courtyard are addressed with monumental seat steps, lending itself to large group seating, for outdoor class sessions or special events. A more formal landscape aesthetic within the courtyard provides a different kind of visual inspiration to the students, apart from the native Northwest palette of the perimeter of the property.

Two rooftop gathering spaces take advantage of the building's stepped placement into the hill, and allow for access to the outdoors, views of the landscape and views of the building's green roofs and vast solar photovoltaic panel systems, contributing to their understanding of green infrastructure and technology. While rooftop access is generally not desired by school districts, the client and designers agreed the opportunities and benefits allowed by these unique outdoor spaces were great.

Elsewhere on site, durable material such as cast-in-place concrete, precast concrete, galvanized steel and stainless steel are chosen for the areas that receive the most intensive use. Synthetic turf was selected for the sports field to reduce watering and maintenance needs. Nearby, a boulder-dotted natural adventure-ground emerges from the forest, easing children in the transition from natural elements to the artifice of traditional play structures beyond, yet proving just as popular. Here, natural play is normalized and located shoulder-to-shoulder with a more traditional playground, allowing for a spectrum of interaction and choice.

A driving component of the designer's vision was to create a site that was welcoming to the community, not only serving students and teachers. As the campus is open to the public after school hours, the landscape and circulation was carefully considered to accommodate crossflows, dog-walkers and curious neighbors. All of the outdoor learning spaces, seating and play areas, being open to the public after-hours, were designed as versatile spaces that enrich the neighborhood. In addition, the green infrastructure and rain gardens serve as informal teaching opportunities.

Bennett Elementary was also driven by a need for low water use and low-maintenance landscapes. This need pairs well with other environmental sensitive strategies such as using native plantings, designing for temporary irrigation and demarcating areas of undisturbed existing vegetation. Materials salvaged from the construction process were reused as a large boulder wall in an adventure playground.

Local code requires saving 15% of interior tree caliper inches; by creating landscape buffer areas, which were left largely undisturbed beyond some selective removal of invasive trees and snagging of problem trees, the design and siting of the building allowed for 59% of interior tree caliper inches to be preserved on-site. This resulted in 18% of the entire site being left untouched as woodland. When possible, trees selected for removal were left as snags and/or stumps to provide habitat for birds, insects, fungi and plants. In total, 100% of perimeter trees were preserved to maintain a mature public- facing canopy and vibrant pedestrian experience for site visitors and neighbors.

The landscape design of Bennett Elementary School left lawns entirely out of the equation as a result of strong environmental ethic from both firm and client, and concerns over ongoing water and maintenance costs. The landscape is primarily planted with native plants featuring some drought- adapted ornamentals, all of which were carefully selected as non-toxic, child-friendly species, which encourage interaction and exploration. Rain gardens near the building capture pavement surface run-off and present teaching opportunities. Their dual placement, both in an intimate setting near the building's classrooms doors on the east side of the building as well as in the south parking lot, serve to familiarize students and their families with functional rainwater detention in multiple landscape settings and scenarios.
After winning the bid, the construction was completed in 13 months, which is a notably rapid pace for a large and complex public project with challenging site conditions.

The site-sensitive, outdoor-learning focused design of Bennett Elementary was truly the result of strong collaboration between design disciplines. As a result, the school stands as a significant example of contemporary design, highlighting the landscape as a learning device in multiple ways while achieving reductions to the environmental disturbance of construction and performance. The school now serves both its student population as well as the surrounding neighborhood. Given the rapid timeline and strict budgets of publicly funded projects such as this, the completion of Bennett Elementary and the extent to which the design vision was brought to fruition is a testament to the efficiency of the design teams and to the potential of public school design.

As seen in LASN magazine, June 2020.


Sign up for
LAWeekly newsletter. Get exclusive content today.