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Natural Environment Elevates the Learning Experience

by DLR Group
Jim French, AIA, REFP, Designer and Senior Principal
David Contag, ASLA, Landscape Architect and Senior Associate
Premnath Sundharam, AIA, LEED AP, Architect and Senior Associate




Evie Garrett Dennis E-12 campus in Denver is the first public school in the city to feature exterior circulation routes. Throughout the day, students travel from their home academy, past the Legacy Tower to the Student Union. Students can partake of outdoor dining, court games and a garden planter program. Cistena plum and maple trees (right), scandia juniper (left) and autumn purple ash (center planters) create a visual backdrop as students travel to the Student Union. Courtyard benches and trash receptacles (Wausau Tile) and 13-space bike racks by (Patterson-Williams) are among the site amenities.
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School facilities are evolving from traditional indoor learning spaces to multiple-dimensional spaces that use the entire campus as a learning environment. During our school planning work sessions and design charrettes with students, the message they consistently convey to our designers is the desire to freely move outdoors during the day. It is clear that access to outdoor spaces enhances the overall educational and social experience. Studies by the American Institutes for Research and the Council for Educational Facility Planners International indicate students' overall health and test scores can benefit from outdoor activity.

The overarching question isn't how can we provide innovative and flexible outdoor spaces to invigorate students and instructors within a budget; but how can we afford not? By reintroducing our youngsters to the wonders of the natural environment, we promote health, social well-being and awareness of our natural surroundings.




Traditional composite play structures, safety surfacing and a tricycle path make up the younger children's play area at the Adelson Academy in Las Vegas. The desert climate required nearly 50 percent shade over the play area and outdoor drinking fountains. A themed water play area (not pictured) is adjacent to this play space.


Existing Landscape Shapes School Design

Buildings take design cues and are shaped by a site's microclimate, topography, and landscape. Precise planning to safeguard and feature signature elements such as old growth trees, a unique rock outcropping, or wetlands, helps to keep the environmental signature of the site intact and can reduce overall construction costs.

Preserving wetlands, old growth trees, and forest understory was paramount to the citing of the Marysville Getchell High School campus in Marysville, Wash. The campus is composed of individual three-story structures to reduce the total building footprint and minimize site impact, while maximizing landscape preservation. Connected by boardwalks, the buildings nestle into the trees and sloping topography. Outdoor spaces--amphitheater, decks, and viewing platforms--provide multiple gathering spaces for students and staff to engage in social, professional, and educational collaboration.




Meandering paths thread north to south through the Betty Fairfax High School campus in Laveen, Ariz. (Phoenix area). Patios, plazas (background right) and small oasis-style lawns encourage structured activities by on-campus clubs. Trailing lantana is designed to creep over the retaining wall with a backdrop of South African perennial euphorbia and octopus agave. Desert fern and purple orchid trees provide year round color to enliven the meandering pathway through the campus. A hybrid bermudagrass (Tifway 419) gives students a comfortable place to sit and relax.

First impressions are key. A school's main entry gives visitors a glimpse of the building's personality, and provides wayfinding through a logical entry sequence that begins from the public street, through the site, to the front door and inside to the administration desk.

Columbia High School in Columbia, Mo. is under construction. The building design wraps around a circular plaza space with a formal entry promenade to the main door. A tiered amphitheater on one side of the plaza provides an everyday gathering space for students, and can become a large event plaza for music concerts on the lawn. The plaza is outlined in shade trees to protect patrons sitting in lawn areas, as well as mass plantings of native grasses that will serve to define and provide interest to this unique multiuse outdoor space.




Alpha Hart Lewis Elementary School in Columbia, Mo. offers three separate age-appropriate play areas. Outdoor learning opportunities include themed play equipment and garden planters. A preserved wooded native area and bioswale (not pictured) allow for science study.

Existing landscape also can be incorporated into exterior circulation pathways throughout a school campus. Landscape plantings provide shade, interest and seasonal color to make the exterior circulation pathways safe and inviting. In warmer climates, including California, designers and districts opt for exterior circulation corridors in lieu of enclosed conditioned space. Outdoor circulation at River City High School in West Sacramento, Calif., minimizes the building footprint, reduces heating and cooling costs, and allows students outdoor access.

Mature trees provide shade as students move from building to building, while grassy patches allow students to gather and relax. At Betty Fairfax High School in Laveen, Ariz., a shaded, meandering path threads its way north to south through campus, inviting students to enjoy fresh air and sunlight during the day. A string of tree-covered patios, plazas and small oasis-style lawns encourage structured activities by on-campus clubs, student government and the like, while easily catering to small impromptu gatherings of friends and classmates. Performances, pep rallies and other promotional events are staged at the southernmost end of the thread in a dedicated outdoor theatre that also doubles as a unique open-air classroom.




Columbia High School in Columbia, Mo. is under construction. The building design wraps around a circular plaza and presents a formal entry promenade to the main door. A tiered amphitheater on one side of the plaza offers an informal gathering space that can be used for larger programmed events. Trees border the plaza to shade those sitting in lawn areas. Mass plantings of native grasses define and provide interest to the space.

Evie Garrett Dennis E-12 Campus in Denver, Colo., was purposefully designed as a multi-building campus to encourage students to travel from their home academy to the Student Union for both fresh air and exercise. It is the first Denver Public Schools facility to feature exterior circulation routes.

Beyond circulation, infinite opportunities exist to complement indoor curriculum with hands on outdoor learning. These opportunities include: creative play environments, outdoor learning spaces, socialization venues, and sustainable site design.




The campus plan and multistory building design of the Marysville Getchell High School campus in Marysville, Wash. protected the surrounding wetlands and second-growth forest. The buildings are nestled into the trees and sloping topography and connected by boardwalks. An amphitheater, decks and viewing platforms bring learning to the outdoors.


Creative Play

Creative and structured play equipment varies by age. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission specifies: "For playgrounds intended to serve children of all ages, the layout of the pathways and the landscaping of the playground should show the distinct areas for the different age groups. The areas should be separated at least with a buffer zone, which could be an area of shrubs or benches."

When designing elementary schools, DLR Group plans separate play areas for three age groups: pre- kindergarten to kindergarten, 1st and 2nd graders; and 3rd-5th graders. Several playground equipment companies design and sell equipment that encourages theme-based child development and education, in addition to the popular play elements like climbers, swings, et al. These structures provide a blend of large motor skill development and themed learning centers.




The courtyards at Metea Valley High School in Aurora, Ill. feature autumn gold ginkgo shade trees and creeping lilyturf to provide cooling relief from concrete areas and filter storm water from the roof into the soil matrix.


At the Adelson Academy in Las Vegas, discovery areas include a themed water play area adjacent to the traditional composite play structure to stimulate educational play. A tricycle path links the discovery areas in the younger children's play area. The Nevada desert climate required nearly 50 percent shade over the play area, as well as outdoor drinking fountains for the children.

Playground safety surfacing is gaining momentum with districts across the country. One system of choice is a polyurethane mat overlaid with in-filled synthetic turf over a designed drainable subgrade. Today's synthetic turf looks more like real grass, can last up to 15 years, and offers tangible lifecycle savings in maintenance. Drainage is handled below ground and the system can be designed to provide the right amount of cushion based on fall height.

Turf play areas work well in all climates, but large exposed expanses of turf can absorb a great deal of heat from the sun. Providing a polyurethane-coated sand infill, or recycled plastic infill designed for turf infill, also can significantly reduce heat gain. Shade structures and in-ground irrigation should be considered to provide cooler play environments. Children can play on the turf immediately after a heavy rain since storm water readily drains through to the subgrade.



At White Cliffs Middle School in Kingman, Ariz., climbers, spinners and balance platforms are integrated into the architectural plaza spaces to encourage recreation and group socialization. Crape myrtle adds color to the middle school campus and offers shade from the hot Arizona sun. Deer grass, pink muhly and Mohave yucca plantings create a visually appealing border to the walkways.


Innovative design solutions to move kids outside, even in rainy climates like the Pacific Northwest, include using the second story of a classroom wing as a canopy. At Petersen Elementary School in Scappoose, Ore., a canopy is situated over a hard play area. Bright environmental graphics integrated into the ceiling have regional significance and are constant reminders of the local culture and history of the region.

At Panther Lake Elementary School in Federal Way, Wash., another region known for cloudy days, designers incorporated bright colors on exterior walls near student play spaces. These bold colors clearly identify the facility as an elementary school, and stimulate creativity and learning in a fun way.




The design for the Winter Park Ninth Grade Center in Orlando includes an outdoor dining hall and gathering place. The architectural canopies are a must for this humid subtropical climate and the June to September rainy season.


Outdoor Learning

All grade levels can benefit from outdoor classrooms that provide laboratories for science, agriculture or environmental sustainability. At Pioneer Middle School in DuPont, Wash., several growing plots were developed with a permeable growing soil medium over sub-drain system. Clean storm water runoff from the roof areas was directed to these planting areas to minimize storm water runoff and help irrigate the plots of vegetables, and ornamental plantings. Accent areas of recycled colored glass mulch provide visual interest and an area for runoff infiltration.

At Pioneer Middle School, students experience edible food and herb gardens, and monitor plant growth and composting in the growing plots just outside the academic wing. In collaboration with Aspen Design landscape architects, DLR Group created a working garden and a world history herb garden for science and food-lab instructors. The herb garden is divided into sections representing different eras and the herbs that would have been prevalent during that era. The Renaissance and Age of Discovery herbs include chives and parsley, while the Eastern Asia and Pacific garden includes bronze fennel and ginseng.




Mexican fan palms, carrotwood trees (left) and timber bamboo (right) line the courtyard at Panorama High School in Los Angeles. Tables with shade umbrellas let students eat al fresco.


At Petersen Elementary, the building's integration with the site creates opportunities for a roof garden and rain garden. The second-level roof garden offers structured outdoor learning opportunities, and three planters provide planting areas for each grade level. Students learn about natural water filtration processes, the importance of site permeability and the relationship of landscape to water quality and balance. The rain garden also plays on cultural heritage. Its design is rooted in the Chinook language definition of "Scappoose" - gravely plains or rocky creek.

Socialization

Outdoor play is critical to promote socialization and life skills for secondary students. At White Cliffs Middle School in Kingman, Ariz., several nodes with unique climbers were integrated into the architectural plaza spaces. A more holistic approach to education was emphasized with the outdoor play equipment to encourage physical health, communicating the district's core value of integrating physical development alongside character development. In addition to the climbers, the play area includes spinners and balance platforms to offer recreation and group socialization. White Cliffs Middle School features a hard play surface with tetherball and basketball and several seating area venues for students to study or socialize.




At Panther Lake Elementary School in Federal Way, Wash., a region known for many overcast days, designers incorporated stimulating bright, fun colors on exterior walls near student play spaces.


Outdoor dining areas designed as unique plaza spaces and located adjacent to indoor dining/commons areas can accommodate overflow or serve as a secure outdoor place to grab lunch with friends. Incorporating architectural canopies and providing the proper orientation on site are critical to protect students from hot sun, strong wings or rain.

Courtyards provide a secure environment for students to use throughout the day. A focal point of the Winter Park Ninth Grade Center in Orlando, Fla., is a courtyard to promote interaction among students and staff. The courtyard is used as an outdoor dining hall, as well as a group gathering location.

At Panorama High School in Los Angeles, Calif., three campus buildings frame a central courtyard. Tables allow for small group collaboration and provide a catalyst for social development.




The design of the Petersen Elementary School rain garden in Scappoose, Ore. is rooted in the Chinook language definition of "Scappoose," which translates as "gravely plains or rocky creek."

Students routinely gather and socialize within two enclosed courtyards at Metea Valley High School in Aurora, Ill. One of the courtyards expands the adjacent cafeteria and library. It features an amphitheater for additional outdoor activities during the day, as well as after-hours programs. A second courtyard is a sculpture courtyard served by the adjoining art department. This outdoor learning environment extends to the second story, where a roof garden and green house are used by natural science classrooms in upper level advanced placement courses.

Water Management

Proper management of water use is critical in landscape design. DLR Group has developed WaterWISE (Water in Sustainable Environments), an online tool helps designers evaluate climate factors in passive stormwater management. Those factors include retention and detention ponds; bioswales that filter stormwater; native plant palettes that promote biodiversity and reduce potable water demand; reclaiming rain water or using city supplied reclaimed water for irrigation; passive irrigation techniques, e.g., drip irrigation; and extensive irrigation controls, starting with air-and-moisture sensors and moving into computerized weather stations that calculate evapotranspiration rate for plants and recalculate the watering cycle on each given day based on water needs per region.

WaterWISE enables designers to analyze the irrigation requirements for a site's landscape design early in the design. Design teams can visualize the landscape design impact on building aesthetics and compare irrigation water demands against average design conditions, and also assess rainwater harvesting possibilities from roof run-off.




At Pioneer Middle School in DuPont, Wash. DLR Group, in collaboration with Aspen Design landscape architects, created a working garden and a world history herb garden for science and food-lab instructors. The growing plots have permeable a soil medium over a subdrain system. Stormwater runoff from the roof helps irrigate the vegetables and ornamental plantings. Accent areas of recycled colored glass mulch provide visual interest and an area for runoff infiltration.


Paradise Valley Unified School District's (PVUSD) new Elementary School #32 in Phoenix is being designed with an aggressive water conservation goal: eliminate potable water demand for irrigation. The landscape design begins with a native and drought tolerant plant palette and drip systems to reduce potable water demand. Using WaterWISE as a design tool, DLR Group determined the majority of the site's landscape needs could be satisfied with rainwater, except for the play fields. After additional analysis, designers concluded the play fields would efficiently serve as a detention basin for storm water run-off.

Using four above-ground corrugated steel tanks, PVUSD's new elementary school has the potential to completely offset the potable water irrigation needs for the majority of its landscape design. The tanks are supplemented with city reclaimed water to assist during periods of drought. Such overt sustainable landscape design elements provide excellent avenues for interactive and educational lessons on water conservation.

Environments Impact Education

The scale and individual design elements of outdoor environments is dictated by local microclimates. Regardless of location, when creative outdoor spaces can combine learning, socializing and playing, the end result is a comfortable, sustainable and usable outdoor space that elevates the learning experience for students.

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Design Teams

Adelson Academy
Landscape Architect: Lifescapes International and DLR Group
Architect: DLR Group
Civil Engineer: Wright Engineering
Photographer: Mark Boisclair

Alpha Hart Lewis Elementary School
Landscape Architect: DLR Group
Architect: DLR Group and Simon Oswald Architects
Civil Engineer: Engineering Services and Surveying
Photographer: Alistair Tutton

Betty Fairfax High School
Landscape Architect: DLR Group
Architect: DLR Group
Civil Engineer: Atherton Engineering
Photographer: Mark Boisclair

Columbia High School
Landscape Architect: DLR Group
Architect: DLR Group and Simon Oswald Architects
Civil Engineer: Engineering Services and Surveying
Rendering: courtesy of DLR Group

Evie Garrett Dennis E-12 Campus
Landscape Architect: Vogel and Associates
Architect: DLR Group
Civil Engineer: Engineering Partners
Photographer: Ed La Casse

Lee's Summit West High School
Landscape Architect: DLR Group
Architect: DLR Group
Civil Engineer: Olsson Associates
Photographer: Michael Spillers

Marysville Getchell High School Campus
Landscape Architect: Cascade Design Collaborative
Architect: DLR Group
Civil Engineer: SCE, Inc.
Photographer: DLR Group, Kelley Tanner

Metea Valley High School
Landscape Architect: Hitchcock Design Group
Architect: DLR Group
Civil Engineer: Roake and Associates
Photographer: James Steinkamp

Shawnee Mission East High School
Landscape Architect: DLR Group
Architect: DLR Group
Civil Engineer: Olsson Associates
Photographer: Alistair Tutton

Panorama High School
Landscape Architect: Melendrez
Architect: DLR Group
Civil Engineer: Wagner Engineering & Survey
Photographer: Fred Daly

Panther Lake Elementary School
Landscape Architect: Karen Kiest | Landscape Architects
Architect: DLR Group
Civil Engineer: OTAK
Photographer: Chris J. Roberts

Paradise Valley Unified School District's new Elementary School #32
Landscape Architect: Site Design, LLC
Architect: DLR Group
Civil Engineer: Atherton Engineering, Inc

Petersen Elementary School
Landscape Architect: Cardno WRG
Architect: DLR Group
Civil Engineer: MGH
Photographer: Lincoln Barbour

Pioneer Middle School
Landscape Architect: Aspen Design
Architect: DLR Group
Civil Engineer: DLR Group
Photographer: Chris J. Roberts

River City High School
Landscape Architect: DLR Group
Architect: DLR Group
Civil Engineer: Cunningham Corporation
Photographer: Mark Boisclair

White Cliffs Middle School
Landscape Architect: DLR Group
Architect: DLR Group
Civil Engineer: Mojave Engineering
Photographer: Neil Koppes

Winter Park Ninth Grade Center
Landscape Architect: Nancy Prine Landscape Architect
Architect: DLR Group
Civil Engineer: Klima Weeks Civil Engineering
Photographer: James Steinkamp


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November 18, 2019, 10:39 am PDT

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