CASE STUDY: Montessori Children’s Center, San Francisco

Owner: Olympic View Realty, LLC
Architect: Mark Horton/Architecture— Mark Horton, AIA, principal-in-charge; Chris Roach, project architect; Paul Haydu, project designer
Consultants: Endres Ware Engineers (structural); MHC Engineers (mep); Brian Kangas Foulk Engineers (civil); Treadwell & Rollo (geotechnical); Charles M. Salter Associates (acoustical); Conger Moss Guillard (landscape); Northern Sun Associates (general contractor)

Premanufactured Building System: VP Buildings
Ceiling systems: USG
Carpet: Milliken
Paints and stains: Benjamin Moore
Kitchen appliances: General Electric
Interior ambient lighting: Prudential, SPI, and Zumtobel
Plumbing fixtures: Kohler and Elkay

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Building Great K-12 Schools in Economically Challenging Times
In these tough times making good school design decisions has never been more difficult or more important. To find out how some of the nation’s top architects and administrators are coping with these challenges attend Architectural Record’s Schools of the 21st Century Symposium. It will be held Friday, April 9th, at the Hyatt McCormick Place in Chicago, the day before the NSBA Conference. The event is free of charge and is being presented with the support of McGraw-Hill Education and the American Architectural Foundation.

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A New Slant on Preschool
Using a prefabricated structure and varied materials, a building promotes learning through all five senses
By C.C. Sullivan

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The Montessori Children’s Center in San Francisco had an opportunity for blank-slate planning when it was compelled to move from its home in an adapted locker room of an university athletic facility. To make way for new occupants, the landlord of the planned-unit development offered to relocate the pre-school a half-mile away. The project’s planners saw the new structure and its playground as a chance to create a facility that embodied the school’s unique philosophy and curriculum.

Sliding glass doors in the south facade open to a landscaped play area, where aromatic plants and varying surfaces encourage sensory exploration. Window headers echo the slope of the roof. Corrugated metal panels and large glazed openings contrast with stucco surfaces and punched openings. Photo © Matthew Millman.

So the two-classroom, 4,400-square-foot building had to reflect the Montessori method, which generally focuses on natural discovery and self-motivated learning through all five senses, structured and paced according to each child’s needs and choices. “We provide a foundation for the excitement of learning,” Judith Flynn, the school’s founder and director has explained. “And we create a harmonious atmosphere so children can develop all aspects of their personalities—physical, social, intellectual, and emotional.” Typically classes span a three-year age range to encourage the passing of knowledge between older and younger children. Learning areas are designed to house various stations for activities, many employing patterns and colors to stimulate the mind.

A stained concrete playground patio (above) transitions to vinyl classroom floors inside the building (bellow). Differing colors of the vinyl flooring material and a ceiling soffit distinguish classroom space from a circulation zone. Photo © Matthew Millman.

The spatial programming and design ideas respond to the curriculum by emphasizing the connection to nature and the distinction between indoors and outdoors, says Mark Horton, AIA, the architect. Horton gathered information through firsthand observation of early-age classrooms.

To express a connection to the environment “the building faces south and [the roof] was sloped to allow the school to collect rainwater in a cistern for their garden,” says Horton. The standing-seam metal roof’s three supporting steel trusses were assembled off-site and are oriented along the building’s long east-west axis. The approach decreased the number of field connections required and helped ease construction, according to the architect. Ample windows on the south facade have angled headers that echo the slope of the roof. The eastern wall lists dramatically in an opposing direction.

Classrooms open to a landscaped play area through sliding glass doors. Vinyl floors transition to a stained concrete terrace emphasizing the indoor-outdoor threshold. Other finishes add pattern and texture: corrugated metal panels and large areas of glazing contrast with stucco surfaces and punched openings. Different colors accentuate the various materials. The theme extends to the playground, where aromatic plants and special surfaces support sensory exploration.

With vanilla tones, the interiors are subdued. Contrasting flooring colors reflect a ceiling soffit line demarcating classroom space and circulation area.

Not just a box
From the exterior, the pre-school’s unusual shape and demeanor announce immediately that the academic approach contained within is not run-of-the-mill. The link between the classrooms and the outdoors informs much of the student experience, and the expressive patterning and coloring reinforce experiential Montessori learning. This modest, $1.5 million facility fuels discovery and discussion.

Yet, while its custom premanufactured structural system saved construction time, it wasn’t especially economical. And not all of the building’s features are used by the Montessori teachers. For example, the school has yet to collect rainwater from the roof. Horton attributes this under-utilization to the project’s unusual circumstances and to a lack of educator input in the design process. “There were two clients, the paying party and the Montessori school, and it became awkward,” he says. In spite of the less-than-ideal situation, the resulting school seems remarkably in sync with the Montessori mission.

C.C. Sullivan is an author and communications consultant specializing in architecture and construction.