Some Designs Tailoring Buildings to Their Sites

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Most school districts plant trees around their schools, but a few have found ways to plant schools around trees, designing the structures in ways that leave the best natural features of the sites intact.

Architects who have altered the design of school buildings to preserve their natural settings say such structures are rare, largely because school boards often assume that working around nature to build an "environmentally sensitive" school is too expensive.

Actually, the designers contend, the opposite holds true: Building schools around nature often is less costly than building schools over nature because it requires less site work.

Moreover, they say, working around nature can provide a school's architect, and later its teachers, with opportunities they otherwise would not have had.

When the architect James G. Thomas began planning the Lady's Island Middle School near Beaufort, S.C., for example, he found that the proposed site was dominated by a tidal marsh, a pond, a sinkhole, and oak trees.

"You would have had to destroy the site, basically, to build a conventional school on it," Mr. Thom4as said. "It might not have been possible to build a conventional square school on it without creating engineering problems."

Instead of changing the site, Mr. Thomas changed the school, abandoning the constraints of "conventional" design and creating a building that skirted the edge of the marsh, preserved the oaks in courtyards, used the sinkhole as the frame for an amphitheater, and left the pond intact.

"The school really belongs to the land and preserves it, so that the land really contributes something to the school," Mr. Thomas said.

Building the school around a series of courtyards has made it easy for teachers to teach outside, he noted. "We really did incorporate the outdoors into the experience of the school."

Streams and Desert Gullies

Another example of environmentally sensitive, site-specific schools is the 160-acre Black Mountain High School and Cactus Shadows Middle School complex in the Cave Creek School District, north of Phoenix. Its buildings skirt both mesquite trees and the desert gullies where vegetation grows.

The Phoenix architect Herman L. Orcutt said avoiding the gullies not only left vegetation intact, but kept the schools from being exposed to flooding when a storm hits.

In Chelmsford, Mass., members of the Architects Collaborative took the biggest obstacle of the site for Chelmsford Junior High School--a stream that could not be rerouted without costly landscaping--and turned it to their advantage. They built the school over the stream, creating one of its most attractive features.

John Castellana, chairman of the American Institute of Architects' architecture for education committee, predicted that environmentally sensitive school designs will become more commonplace as school districts are confronted with additional laws protecting wetlands.

Robert J. Berkebile of Kansas City, Mo., said his chapter of the a.i.a. plans to ask the organization to promote environmentally sensitive architecture across the board, including schools.

Mr. Berkebile stressed that architects can show environmental sensitivity by using nonpolluting materials and energy-efficient designs that will save the districts money down the road. "If the building design can be done in an exemplary way, then it can be a teaching tool for students," he said.--ps

Vol. 08, Issue 32

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