Thurston Elementary School
Photo © Lincoln Barbour

CASE STUDY: Thurston Elementary School, Springfield, Oregon, Mahlum

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By B.J. Novitski

Architect: Mahlum
CLIENT: Springfield Public Schools
Size: 58,770 square feet (gross)

siding: James Hardie (fiber cement)
Windows: Pella Commercial; PPG
ceiling: Armstrong; Rulon (wood)
tile: Daltile

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Located near a fragment of the Oregon Trail, a new school reflects the pioneering traditions of the historic area and a local sense of economy and practicality. The K-5 Thurston Elementary School, in Springfield, Oregon, replaces a 55-year-old building that was "falling around our ears," says principal Shari Furtwangler. She and her staff are delighted with the 18-month-old facility, and they have a lot to be proud of.

Explicit goals for the project included creating a safe and welcoming environment for learning; integrating sustainability features that could double as learning tools; and providing a venue for community events. The Portland, Oregon, office of Mahlum, in association with Eugene-based Robertson Sherwood Architects, developed the 500-pupil facility as a prototype for the school district.

The organizational plan supports a collaborative teaching philosophy. Three wings extend from an administrative/public realm spine, each with its own "neighborhood": four classrooms per floor clustered around a shared breakout space for small group instruction. To emphasize a community feeling, the design team inserted interior windows between classrooms and breakout spaces in these sections. Expansive exterior windows give students vistas to fields and hills. The gentle slopes of the building's massing both reflect this landscape and make graceful transitions between high-ceilinged public spaces and kid-scale environments.

Mahlum partner in charge Diane Shiner says her team was able to keep construction costs under control through judicious use of materials and methods. For structure and shell, they relied on steel and insulated tilt-up concrete construction, a system used primarily for local industrial buildings. To relieve the coarseness of the concrete, the architects designed a pattern of curves and vertical striations on the exterior to mimic the surrounding hills and trees; they "embossed" one panel at the entrance with a mural depicting nearby historic buildings; and they trimmed many of the interior spaces with wood. The concrete, mostly left exposed, eliminates the expense of interior and exterior siding. Likewise, the team sized spans for the poplar library ceiling in consultation with local mills to minimize waste. Although wood is a much-loved material for its warmth and ties to the region's timber economy, they detailed it strategically to maximize the effect while minimizing the cost.

Another striking material choice enlivens hand-washing stations cleverly inset in the corridors near - not inside - the restrooms. Here, the students actually painted wall tiles, depicting their teachers and one another, before the tiles were fired.

Thurston Elementary offers bonuses for adults, too. The teachers rave about the lighting quality and the ample storage space. A white wall makes the gym suitable for public presentations and opens it up onto a commons room, turning a small stage with a drop-down curtain into a theatrical venue. A nearby pantry is available for community use.

Shiner explains the school district chose to avoid the expense of LEED certification, but she believes the school is LEED Silver equivalent. Sustainable features include daylighting with lightshelves, reflective ceilings, and occupancy sensors; high-efficiency HVAC; and white reflective roofs. Additionally, roof rainwater is channeled from downspouts into concrete runnels that flow openly though the courtyards between classroom wings. The water then flows into bioswales, so the ebb and flow becomes a seasonal lesson on the environment. At the front entrance, the water pours down into a plaza fountain.

This small gem of an elementary school has found fans at every level, from the students who maintain a 95 percent attendance level, to the teachers who brag about their "awesome views," to the neighbors who share the facilities and playing fields. In a time when all school districts are feeling pinched budgets, it's heartwarming that the architects have found small touches that add up to big differences.

B.J. Novitski is a contributing editor for RECORD.

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