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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Extra Sensory Perception
New special-needs schools demonstrate careful consideration for the touch, feel, and sound of architecture.
By David Sokol

“We won the project through a competition, which was a complete surprise because we didn’t have previous school experience,” Alan Dunlop of Glasgow-based Gordon Murray + Alan Dunlop Architects says of Hazelwood School. The year-old Glasgow facility serves a small group of children with dual sensory impairment and, Dunlop’s inexperience notwithstanding, Hazelwood has racked up a series of accolades—a DesignShare Honor Award, the Civic Trust Award, placement on the World Architecture Awards shortlist, and the Andrew Doolan Award for the best building in Scotland. Tellingly, the juries of these prizes make their selections from a wide range of building types for diverse sets of users. In other words, Hazelwood is an award winner not just for the ways it serves its unique student population. It exemplifies design excellence in general.

Anchor Center for Blind Children: The low-slung Julie McAndrews Mork Building (top) suits Denver’s new Stapleton neighborhood. Consecutive indentations in the wall and light strips underfoot guide children (above).
Photos © Nic Lehoux (top); Ron Holland (above)

One could rightly assume, then, that there is very little to differentiate a carefully considered school for special-needs children from another well-designed work of education architecture. Yet, as a series of recently completed facilities for special-needs students demonstrates, designing for disability requires dedicating extra attention to the experiential aspects of architecture.

Though thousands of miles apart, Hazelwood and the Julie McAndrews Mork Building—part of the Anchor Center for Blind Children located in Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood—have analogous features. At Hazelwood, for example, the central corridor boasts a so-called sensory wall which appears like unfurled origami. Students trace the folds of the wall and the channels in its cork-covered surface to guide themselves between destinations. The building’s exterior materials are varied, too, so that children can navigate gardens.

“You begin to understand the importance of sound, or whether you were walking on a hard or soft surface.”

The main hallway of the Mork building, by the local studio Davis Partnership Architects, is home to a cousin of Hazelwood’s sensory wall. A generously scaled recess is embossed into one side—a kind of inverted handrail—and material changes at interior doors indicate one’s arrival at a class, the eye exam room, or the sensory gym. An illuminated strip runs underneath and parallel to this “Trail Rail,” since the youngest of Anchor’s preschoolers may feel more comfortable crawling, and because many students, possessing limited sight, can perceive brightness.

The pair of schools deploys other wayfinding concepts. Children wielding canes may use echolocation as an additional guide through the hallways: The tapping of the cane produces different perceptions based on the volume of the space. Moreover, for Mork students who sense light levels, skylights are situated in the ceiling of the hallway “where the kids stop or turn to go into a classroom or other function spaces,” says Davis managing partner Brit Probst, AIA.

Hazelwood School: The Glasgow-based school teaches life skills to pupils between the ages of 2 and 9. The interior’s “sensory wall” (top) as well as exterior material selections (above) provide cues for students as they move between activities.
Photos © Andrew Lee (top); Keith Hunter (above)

Both design teams undertook empathetic research to determine these elements. Dunlop recalls hours spent listening to teachers and parents, while at the Anchor Center’s old facility, Davis’s architects outfitted themselves with special glasses that “help re-create the different kinds of sight impairments that are common in the blind population,” explains Probst, who also notes that all other senses were heightened by the experience. “You begin to understand the importance of sound, or whether you were walking on a hard or soft surface.”

Paying special attention to compensatory senses also characterizes schools for special-needs students. At Brewster Hall, a new K–8 building at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf in Falmouth, Maine, Portland-based architect Barba+Wheelock deftly balanced daylighting and lamp illumination. The resulting system of light shelves and roof monitors allows daylight into deep interior spaces like the library and minimizes glare in order to facilitate hearing-impaired students’ reliance on visual information. (The design also reduces lighting and cooling demands, helping the building secure LEED Silver certification.) In a slightly different take on this principle, Mork’s classrooms include tapered vertical surfaces, corrugated wall panels, and scalloped drywall to minimize noise distraction for students whose precise hearing counteracts lack of sight.

Regardless of where children lie on the spectrum of special needs, the new buildings serving them exemplify such sensitivity. Take Manhattan’s Stephen Gaynor School, where high-functioning children cope with attention deficit, dyslexia, or low muscle tone: The Rogers Marvel design features a colorful central stairwell that expedites wayfinding; small classrooms’ clerestory windows provide daylight without the distracting views of the city.

These tactics should sound familiar. So how does an architect design a school where a deaf, blind child learns to navigate the world with dignity? Not much differently from how she designs any school where students are conquering learning disabilities. “There’s no reason that it couldn’t be a mainstream school,” Dunlop says of Hazelwood. Which suggests that what a student experiences in any school should be conceived so carefully.


Brewster Hall: The new building at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf in Falmouth, Maine (top), deploys multiple strategies for infusing the interior spaces such as the library (above) with daylight without glare, thereby optimizing the environment for K–8 students who learn primarily by visual engagement.
Photos © Brian Vanden Brinck

Stephen Gaynor School: Stephen Gaynor School shares its new multistory home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with the Ballet Hispanico. A muscular stairwell (top) connects the school’s floors, providing students with a consistent wayfinding landmark. While the library (above) enjoys extensive glazing, classrooms feature clerestory windows to minimize distractions.
Photos © David Sunderberg/Esto