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K-8 Campus Design


Located in Oxnard, Calif., the Rio STEAM School is currently in construction, with designs by KSA Design Studio coming to life for the K-8 community that attend the school in the fall. Each bend in the river-like pathway that runs through the school marks a "Maker Space," a spot where children can gain hands-on experience through a play activity that represents the tenants of the STEAM school: Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math, as seen in this landscape concept plan. Each of the numbered images surrounding the drawing represents an aspect of play or learning that inspired the design of the campus.

In the city of Oxnard, Calif., there arose a need for a new school to serve children who needed a unique, challenging place to learn through school subjects as well as through the environment and landscape. Katherine Spitz Associates Design Studio (KSA) was awarded the project after responding to a request for a proposal from Architecture for Education for landscape architectural services for the RIO School District and its new K-8 Community STEAM School Campus. STEAM is an educational approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics as access points for guiding student learning, dialogue and critical thinking. The school is currently in the construction phase.

Once the designers at KSA began working on the landscape design for the new school, they realized that while they needed to create a landscape that inspires learning and growth in the children, they also needed to include aspects that teach them about the traditions and needs of their community.

Meeting Needs
According to the firm, as the design process progressed, it was difficult to develop the landscape with all of the different stakeholders involved, each having their own opinions. Everyone from Chumash Elders, who emphasized the importance of the heritage of the land on which the school sits, to teachers and Rio School District officials to the design professionals, were passionate about certain items regarding landscape. According to the designers at KSA, all of the comments were warranted and helped the ideas develop into a successful, final landscape design.


Highlighting the use of native plants, educational landscape design and the inspiration of the Santa Clarita River that rushes nearby, Katherine Spitz Associates Design Studio designed the Rio STEAM School is a complex campus for complex kids.


An amphitheater serves as a space for students to act out scenes from books and plays as well as a comfortable outdoor learning area where class can be taken outside. KSA designers planned for interactive markings showing man's footsteps throughout the years. Seen in this drawing are caveman footprints, the footprints of those who marched for civil rights and footprints from the surface of the moon, spread out on the different levels.

Some of the specific concerns of the different groups included the infusion of educational and recreational activities into the design and the incorporation of Chumash culture. Another aspect that was brought into the mix was the planting choices. Native and drought tolerant planting is key to providing an environmentally and culturally sensitive landscape. This was brought up as important not only for the school's environment but also for teaching the students to take care of the landscape in the future. Finally, it was vital to some stakeholders that signage and graphics be placed throughout the campus to teach about the site's history and the environmental benefit of the plants.

Rolling on a River
The design for the project was inspired by the adjacent Santa Clarita River, the historical native culture and ecology of the site and the inherent affinity of children towards nature. KSA designed the campus so that the main pathway in the school's landscape mirrors the river that runs beside the institution. The small, meandering river-inspired walkway, named the "River of Knowledge" runs through the entire campus, both as an avenue for moving about the campus and as a metaphor for the flowing design of the site; the walkway weaves around the design features and cuts through the central, unifying courtyard.

The concept of the river is embodied in multiple learning spaces and STEAM centers, following a pathway of students' developmental stages. Student growth and development mirrors the course of the meander - both evolving and changing over time. The river-pathway design visually connects the students, classrooms and STEAM Centers and serves as a natural method of slowing rain runoff and filtering water before it returns to the water table and replenishes much needed reserves.


This rendering shows the entrance of the school, where the blue path, representing the "River of Knowledge" begins, leading students through the landscape to the different buildings and activity stations.


While the plan for the landscape changed in between when this aerial drawing of the campus was made and when construction began, it shows the design on the green roof, which slopes to the ground to allow students to walk up onto it with supervision.

Learning in the Landscape
The biggest priority in the design of the elementary-middle school overall was to use the school buildings as tools for learning about architecture and structure by exposing building systems and the insides of walls. Similarly, KSA's design approach extends this to the entire landscape of the campus. The firm used design features that incorporate rainwater collection, a weather station, a green roof, bioswales and a fish pond as tools to inform students how landscape design specifically effects the natural environment.

Designers from KSA recognized the differences in need in a landscape between older students such as those attending high school and college, and the children they were designing the campus for in this case. While high school and college campus projects are normally centered around the planting concept, this project required the incorporation of tactile learning elements into the scope, to enhance the interest of students in the landscape. The firm also emphasized the city of Oxnard's unique connection to the Chumash Indians, and the design of the "River of Knowledge" was meant to further enhance the students' interest and connection to the history of their hometown as well as the unique identity of the STEAM campus.

Building Steam
STEAM centers in the landscape are integral to the new Rio K-8 campus. They foster hands on learning and provide a welcoming and easily accessible focal points for technical and creative activities. Each Maker Space, a specific area in the landscape dedicated to learning, has a focus, whether science, technology, engineering, art or math. Students from all grade levels can interact in these collaborative spaces.


This rough sketch highlights the idea of the main path that winds throughout the campus as a mock river. Stepping stone-type play structures look as if they could be at home in the Santa Clarita River that flows near the school.

Private patios and gardens for each classroom provide yet another level of educational space, away from the excitement of the STEAM center, integrating nature into the learning process. The Maker Space/STEAM Center opens up to the campus quad and promenade, extending the usable area for learning to the outdoors, and providing opportunities to craft science experiments, race robots or paint scenes from nature.

The Rio STEAM School is currently in the construction phase, but it will be ready to accept students onto the landscape and into the classrooms this coming school year. Due to the complimentary design of the indoor and outdoor facilities, the incoming classes of children will be able to grow their bodies and minds both inside and out throughout the year.

As seen in LASN magazine, June 2019.

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September 21, 2019, 11:30 am PDT

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