Owner: Winchester Thurston School
Architect: Bohlin Cywinski Jackson - Jon C. Jackson, AIA, principal-in-charge; C. Roxanne Sherbeck, lead designer
Consultants: Dotter Engineering, Structural Engineering Corporation, Konefal & Company (structural); P.L. Frank (mechanical); Caplan Engineering, Hornfeck Engineering (electrical); L.D. Astorino (m/e/p); Dodson Engineering (mechanical/plumbing)

ROOF DECK: Tectum Inc.
WINDOWS: Andersen
GYMNASIUM WOOD FLOOR: Horner Flooring Company
PLUMBING FIXTURES: American Standard; Sloan Valve; Chicago Faucets; Geberit

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.

Click here for more information.

CASE STUDY: Winchester Thurston School, Independent

A Welcoming Environment
Designers create a cozy complex in tune with a school's educational philosophy and its bucolic site
By Alex Bozikovic

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The independent Winchester Thurston School has roots in central Pittsburgh that go back to the 1880s. But by the 1980s, many potential students were living in the suburbs. The school's North Hills Campus was created to serve as a feeder school for its urban counterpart. Through a 20-year collaboration with the Pittsburgh office of architecture firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, the campus has developed its own architectural identity, bringing domestic forms and materials into the context of a small school.

A slightly irregular geometry stimulates students' thinking, the designers say.
Photo © Ed Massert

Built on a former horse farm in the town of Allison Park, the 16,000-square-foot complex began in 1988 with a single classroom building and the adaptive reuse of two existing outbuildings. The most recent third phase of renovations, completed in fall 2005, reconfigured the original classroom structure and added a second major building to the site: known as the Campus Center, it contains a multipurpose room and specialized classrooms for art and music.

The buildings' exteriors employ a historicist vocabulary of materials and forms. The familiar gabled roofs, blue clapboard siding and white trim fit their context and made the inexpensive project easier to build, says BCJ's Roxanne Sherbeck, the campus's lead designer for all three phases. But "there was also a philosophical interest," she says. "Because it was a sort of transition for kids from home to school in town, we tried to make it both familiar and workable as a school building."

Floor Plan - click to enlarge.
1) Office 2) Catering 3) Multipurpose room 4) Storage 5) Music 6) Art 7) Fifth grade 8) Fourth grade 9) Third grade 10) Second grade 11) Science 12) Outdoor center 13) Dock 14) Pond

With gabled roofs and clapboard siding, the architects have created an almost domestic atmosphere.
Photo © Ed Massert

Nancy Rogers, the director of the campus, says the informal design matches the "learner-centered" teaching philosophy of North Hills, which serves students from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade. "It doesn't have an institutional feel," she says. "It's very welcoming." But Rogers, who has been at the campus since it opened in 1988, says the 96 students are also well served by a "child-focused," contemporary interior with nooks ideal for reading and conversation and irregularly shaped classrooms.

As Sherbeck explains, these elements are designed to add character and also to stimulate critical thinking, one of the school's core values. Exposed beams in one corridor of main building remind students "not to take [the structure] for granted," she says.

As for the individual classrooms, Sherbeck says that the school and designers opted for less order than would be typical. "The geometry is less regular, and more flowing. We've shaved corners here or there and focused windows in unexpected ways."

In fact, daylighting and exterior views are a crucial part of the design. The original classroom building now accommodates six grade level classrooms, a science room, and the media center. Almost all of these spaces overlook a pond and have southern exposures, partly shaded by a strategic arrangement of trellises. Each classroom also has its own heat pump with separate controls for added energy efficiency.

Windows are often placed at children's eye level, and Rogers says this helps establish an ecological awareness, which the school takes seriously. The campus was intended to take full advantage of its semi-rural setting, and indeed one of the old outbuildings has been transformed into an environmental laboratory. "There's a lot of emphasis on being part of a real world," Sherbeck says, "as opposed to an abstract educational conception."

Toronto-based Alex Bozikovic is a design columnist at The Globe and Mail and a contributor to Architectural Record.

As part of the most recent phase of construction, the campus's original classroom building (above left) has been reconfigured, and now contains mostly grade level classrooms. The new Campus Center includes a multipurpose room and provides spaces for instruction in art (above right) and music.
Photos © Ed Massert (right); Karl Backus (left)