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A Fresh Look at Polton Elementary

By Karen Carrillo, marketing director, DHM Design

Tulips accent Rocky Mountain granite. The Parent-Teacher Organization later funded these plantings for the school.

In 2002, Polton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado, an eastern suburb of Denver, was showing her age. Polton had well served the community, but after 30 years, major renovations were necessary and the teachers, staff and students were eager to update and expand the architecture and landscape to accommodate more students. The project designers wanted to lend an atmosphere of ownership and creativity to the academic environment. The original architecture and exterior materials for the building were designed to mimic Colorado mining towns, an interesting idea, but it gave the school a dark and dated look--not the best environment to work and learn.

Traditional swingsets with Scotch pines behind and lilac blooming in the background. Concrete edging was replaced by Wolmanized(R) timber ties. This process consists of placing wood in a cylinder from which a vacuum pulls air from the cylinder and wood cells, making space for a diluted solution of preservative. Pressure pumps then force the liquid into the wood. This wood is more durable and safer for the kids. for The retaining walls are a masonry concrete block systems with concrete edging.

Bruce Soehngen, the project manager for DHM Design, was responsible for the landscape architectural design and construction coordination between the Cherry Creek School District and the contractor. The architect, Ben Wilking at Lantz-Boggio Architects, P.C., provided programming, design, documentation and construction administration. Mimi De Rose was the principal at Polton at the time of planning and construction. It was her charge to work with the design team, plus Randy Hawbaker, the groundskeeper, and a young Boy Scout, Robbie Caldwell, who took over design and planting for the community garden as a project to attain Eagle Scout status. Todd Fukai, the current principal for the Polton project, has overseen the maintenance of the landscaping as it matures into a seamless backdrop for multiple school activities.

The courtyard and curved amphitheater, developed as a space for outdoor classrooms or community gatherings, accommodate the sunken portion of the site as it rises up to the surrounding grade. There are seating risers in the center with stairways to walk up and standard risers on each end. The reinforcing fibermesh concrete is broomed finished, creating traction and a checkerboard pattern.

At the core of the landscape concept was a community garden in the sunken courtyard at the front entry. A stepped amphitheater within the courtyard provides opportunities for outdoor gatherings and learning experiences. The original school's lower level was below surrounding grade. This condition extended into the renovation and resulted in a moat feature surrounding the school that caused a grading and drainage design challenge but also became the school's most unique character. A bridge was designed to connect to the main building entrance due to the sunken lower level. This feature has a dramatic impact for the first-time visitor but follows all requirements for accessibility. Although steps are included at various locations due to the moat, ramp access is provided throughout.

The location of the school is central to numerous greenbelts that provide walk to school opportunities. The surrounding neighborhood participated in focus groups that supplied input during the design process. Their comments and review by the city of Aurora, contributed to the final design that ultimately was approved by the school district.


Water conservation has become a primary goal of all landscape development in Colorado, resulting in a reassessment of irrigation practices and turf lawn types. During construction, severe drought conditions turned into water restrictions by the city. Aurora has continued to emphasize a xeric (low water) approach to new site development. Bluegrass that requires high water consumption was only used on the small play field at Polton. The remainder of the site was planted with alternative low-water grass.

The construction cost of the project was $7,990,000, while the cost for the landscape site development was consistent with budgetary constraints for a project of this scope. Excessive landscaping was avoided to contain cost. The original design follows the school district's standard landscape site development criteria and irrigated turf was specified throughout the project. Typical zone hardy shrubs and trees where specified on the plans. The existing grounds consisted of numerous mature trees that required preservation, relocation or removal. All landscape materials were selected to meet the school district's maintenance and operations criteria.

The main entrance bridge is constructed of cast-in-place concrete, painted metal railings, with double supports on the lower railings. The view from the bridge is Buffalo juniper and Russian sage in the upper planters. The former bridge, a rickety structure constructed of dark, treated, was about half as long.


A thorough conversation with each teacher and the principal resulted in an architectural solution that was complementary to the adjacent environment and meet the needs of the school. Three options were described to the staff and principal at the end of schematic design, giving the owner a choice in the final decision. At each step along the way, Lantz-Boggio was very careful to gather the necessary input from the building's users.

The building was originally designed as a two-story structure with six classroom pods, with each of the three pods on three levels. It was not accessible to those with physical disabilities and the building layout was confusing for first time visitors and to children and teachers not familiar with the school. The school addition was a two-story building to the west end of the building that respected the existing two-level building and the major east-west axis of the building to remain. There are 18 new classrooms in the addition, grouped in clusters of six classrooms. Five of the six classroom pods were also demolished. The sixth was remodeled for a mechanical room and a classroom. The existing building that remained was remodeled in areas and most public areas received new paint and carpet, as well as air conditioning.

"There were several unique features of the project, made possible by the Cherry Creek School District's flexibility and nonrigid approach to programmatic standards," said Ben Wilking, project architect.

A look at the northwest corner of the site as it connects to the neighborhood open space reveals existing cottonwoods. There were no fences or gates at the three connections between the open space and the school to encourage a park-like setting for this suburban area.

The two-story stair at the far west end anchors the addition and its central location is a base point of reference. Large break-out spaces outside of each classroom cluster serves as a flexible room for the teachers and students. An outdoor amphitheater visible from the parking lot was an idea of one of the teachers that is unique to elementary schools. This space has become quite popular and is used by both the school and other groups, from lunch hour gatherings to evening sock hops and silent auctions.

The most visible new feature of the school addition is a bridge to access the second floor administration office. The original entrance was hidden behind the classroom pods and difficult to see for first time visitors. The wood siding was in need of repair and not a good solution for the original design. The addition/remodel used cementitious stucco and brick masonry. Sloping roofs that were part of the building addition used asphalt shingles. Much of the original windows that remained were replaced.

Multiple levels of play structures, which were relatively new, were retained by the design team for the preschoolers, kindergarteners and the elementary students. Disturbing the area would have meant more ADA upgrades.

As with any project, there were difficulties that created opportunities for the design and construction team. One difficulty in particular was the surprise of the actual depth of bedrock for the building addition. The initial soils tests assumed a depth roughly 20-feet above the bedrock. A shelf of bedrock above an underground stream prevented the augur performing the original soils test from penetrating further into the ground. During the drilling and placement of concrete piers for the basement, the general contractor did everything possible to remove water as it appeared during the process. The piers required casings and ended up almost twice the depth as the assumed depth.

A view of the community garden from the inside the garden pathway. Ornamental grasses, day lilies, maidenhair, blue avina and miscanthus grass abound. Chanticleer pear trees ring the amphitheater, a favorite sitting area and gathering space.

The Community Garden

The community garden was conceived as a space for the school to personalize and commemorate. Two rectangle areas of approximately 450 square feet each and two rectangles of 350 square feet each were left unfinished to allow the school to take ownership in the look and feel of the garden areas. These areas were designed separate from the school’s irrigation system, which according to Mr. Fukai, the current principal at Polton, is a major savings in water and maintenance. The xeric choices made in plant selection appeal to a native Colorado character, needing little to stay beautiful in the mountain climate.

"Coming from other schools, I can see where using a xeric approach is aesthetically pleasing, while saving water and time," explained Fukai. "We don't have full time gardeners, so finding a balance between maintenance and beauty was a challenge that the designers successfully met."

The gardens at the elementary school were partitioned to make access easier. This is before a foot of top soil was placed to raise the garden a bit and to benefit the plants in their early stages of growth. The contractors are pouring concrete over fiber mesh and constructing the sunken garden path.

Robbie Caldwell, a 16-year-old attending Eagle Crest High School was looking for a project that would earn him the Eagle Scout designation. After Boy Scouts win all the requisite merit badges, they have to accomplish a project to get to that next level. Robbie's mother, Carol Caldwell, was a Title 1 teacher at Polton Elementary, helping students whose reading skills were below par. She mentioned to Robbie the school was being remodeled and there was an opportunity to plan several gardens at the front of the school. He took on the challenge and was required to present his plans to the Polton staff and to the directors of his Boy Scout Troop and his Eagle Scout advisor. Robbie volunteered 250 hours of work to make the gardens a beautiful addition to the Polton landscape.

The pathway down to the kindergarten entrance provides ADA access for student pickup and dropoff. The bridge leads to the entrance on the main level, with the west side of the garden extending beneath the bridge. The original plan included a border of low, dense privet, which can be trimmed into a box shape for a more formal look.

“We had no idea how much work it would be,” but everybody pitched in,” explained Carol, whose husband, Mike, was the scout leader of Robbie’s troop. ”

Mimi De Rose, the school principal, attended construction meetings each week. She also met with the architect and district staff, which included district grounds and maintenance.

"It was great that our district was willing to provide student gardens," enthused De Rose. "They approved the integration of the gardens into the overall landscape design and agreed to irrigate them if the school did the rest."

With construction and placement of temporary classrooms on the school grounds, many trees could not be saved, however, the pine trees (left) were preserved. With such a small area in front of the building and the presence of a drainage canal, there wasn't proper room to plant new trees.

De Rose primarily approved perennials, since they are generally low maintenance, drought tolerant plants. Fabric and bark mulch was used to provide a weed barrier. Red concrete stepping stones were strategically placed to maintain plants in the interior of each rectangular plot. Funds were later approved for the large granite rocks placed in the garden the following spring.

"I met with our aspiring Eagle Scout to discuss the design. He had most of it drawn up already and mainly needed my approval,” De Rose explained. “We discussed using a variety of plants that took into account varying heights, colors, blooming times and durations, as well as the ultimate heights of full grown plants, their spread and texture.”

The look of the sunken courtyard and community garden about two years after the planting. The upper planters, part of the original design, sport buffalo juniper and Russian sage. Russian sage is a perfect choice for Colorado's high, dry climate and alkaline soils.

Everything needed to complete the design and planting of the approximately 1,600 square foot gardens was donated, from the garden supplies, to plants and bulbs to the pizza for the volunteers' lunch. Local nurseries and Polton teachers donated their time and plants to help make the gardens a success.

“The school district and Mrs. De Rose were very supportive of the project,” Caldwell noted. “They bought the top soil and were very tolerant of letting kids do all the planning and work in these areas.”

Robbie researched drought resistant plants in books and with the help of local nurseries. He spent hours with knowledgeable local garden center staff to determine which plants were suitable and would complement one another in their respective boxed garden areas. Aside from the sustainability criterion, he also had to consider the area underneath the long walkway up to the school’s front would be in continuous shade. These areas were planted with black-eyed Susans and coral bells to offset the amount of sun needed.

The final square of the community garden was completed by 2:00 on September 28th, 2002. After sweeping, evening out the mulch and collecting their tools, Boy Scout Troop 12 and their 10 Polton student volunteers went home.

The design of each area used concentric circles of similar plants that visually connected with each other across the dividing walkways between the gardens. Robbie’s criteria for plants were they be slow growing and need little maintenance and water, such as mums, asters and ice plants. As a tribute to the Iraq war, red, white and blue tulips.

Boy Scout Troop 12 with Polton Principal Mimi De Rose and students of Polton Elementary after planting the 1,600 square foot gardens in 2002.

Despite the project being moved up one month due to a fear of early frost, planting was successfully completed by Robbie’s troop and about 30 volunteers. On the day of planting, the kids in Polton’s special education department worked all day to lay out the weed barrier, plants, 300 bulbs and 8 cubic yards of mulch.

Each group was assigned a task. The first task was to lay out the 3x300 foot black plastic weedblock, then place the plants in the designated square. Students and scouts dug holes to plant the individual plants, grasses and perennials in the four separate gardens.

"These were students who needed help making connections with each other and with their community," added Carol Caldwell. "They did a great job and ended up maintaining the garden area for the next two years, learning how to weed and trim plants properly."

Since construction in the fall of 2002, the garden has been transformed into a beautiful perennial flower and ornamental grass display that is thoroughly compatible with the spirit of the original design and xeric intent.

The turf of choice, due to watering restrictions, was Arkansas Valley, low-grow grass blends of cool and warm season grasses with good drought tolerance. Cotoneaster shrubs (right) and Chanticleer pear trees in the upper planters highlight the landscape.

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December 14, 2019, 7:56 am PDT

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