By Boris Srdar, FAIA, for National Architecture Week: Reinvention #ArchWeek15
How do you reinvent an existing elementary school?
When we first visited the site, Cherry Crest Elementary School in Bellevue, Washington, was a hidden recluse, tucked into a heavily wooded site surrounded by a long established residential community. The building itself was past its useful life and needed to be replaced. With solid concrete block walls broken by only occasional windows and covered with a deep overhang, the existing facility did little to connect to its surroundings. The site is an exceptionally beautiful example of a quintessential northwest environment: 50 foot tall Douglas firs surround the school, the forest floor is filled with ferns and flowering currant, and rhododendrons dot sunny corners.
As we started to talk with the owner and community groups, the message was clear—the building had to go, but the site itself was beloved.
Having pursued the experiential quality of architecture on many projects over the years, I knew this was a dream come true opportunity to reimagine the connection between building and site. The quality and character of this site mandated that any new architectural intervention honor the natural environment here. The architecture and landscape needed to be designed together, to enhance one another and create a “slowness of discovery” through their close and continuous interaction.
The design process was highly collaborative, with good ideas coming from everywhere. We worked closely with the school district, the steering committee and the broader school community, looking for the best options to connect the new architecture with the site everyone loved so much.
Learning happens everywhere.
Out of these charrettes came a design that establishes an intertwining relationship between architecture and site, creating a new, completely different sense of place for the school. By weaving the building and site into a single experiential environment, barriers are broken down between large and small spaces. Curriculum and student engagement are stimulated. Learning happens everywhere.
Students have responded joyfully to learning in a virtual treehouse.
By tightly nestling the building within the mature forest, the new school elicits a sense of being “on the site” rather than “in the building,” creating an immediate experiential link between the environment and learning. This is a “quiet architecture” that draws on the natural setting, inspiring serenity, contemplation and reflection, vital for achieving a lasting and meaningful experience of architecture in nature. Students have responded joyfully to learning in a virtual treehouse, adopting areas of the site as their own learning spaces.
Included in the connection between building and site is a visible and interactive approach to sustainable design. As a testament to the visionary aspirations of its community, this environmentally minded school multi-tasks: sustainable features function as components of a highly efficient facility (EUI of 13.86) and as student-centered interactive teaching tools. Environmental cycles such as the natural processes of site storm water drainage are celebrated in the design.
Beyond integrating the building and site, the school also blends learning and socializing, fostering collaboration and user interaction at all levels. Large group and individual spaces, formal and informal areas are woven together much like the site and facility are interwoven. This provides flexibility for a variety of learning styles and projects. Students and teachers are encouraged to collaborate in varied settings, including outdoors.
Through reinventing the connection between architecture and nature on this site, the new Cherry Crest Elementary establishes an oasis within its community.
Through reinventing the connection between architecture and nature on this site, the new Cherry Crest Elementary establishes an oasis within its community, a serene moment nestled in the shadow of the forest, a place to learn and grow in harmony with the environment.