Nurturing Schools For Compassionate Communities

Much more went into the new Sandy Hook Elementary School than creative architecture and rock-solid security.

By Julia McFadden, AIA, Associate Principal, Svigals+Partners

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The undulating roof line of the front of Sandy Hook Elementary School reflects the building’s surroundings while gabled “houses” emerge above the façade, recalling the New England town’s image from afar.

Collaboration, community, and creativity: Those are the three watchwords and guideposts of today’s K-12 school architecture. For independent and public institutions, a design philosophy that links broad community goals in an engaging, productive process always helps achieve the most fruitful, effective, and lasting outcomes.

Learn more about the roles collaboration, community, and creativity played in the Sandy Hook design in our interview with Julia McFadden.

This has been the case for Svigals+Partners, New Haven, CT, in the many schools we have designed, including the new replacement school created for the Sandy Hook area in Newtown, CT. A closely watched project and process, the experience confirmed what we’ve always believed: Schools are an essential community resource, not only offering a vibrant and nurturing environment for children to learn, but also places for civic engagement and activities of all kinds.

Given this mission, we joined arms with the people of Newtown and considered the need and the opportunity to create a facility that truly emerges from the very particular time, place, and spirit of its community. In creating the new Sandy Hook Elementary School, this aim was realized through an actively engaging process with the broad array of constituencies the school serves. The collective belief was, “The more inclusive the process can be, the more meaningful the architecture can become.”

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    A wider view of the school’s front façade shows the three bridge entrances that echo the Pootatuck River’s nearby bridge and the rain garden that runs along the front of the building.

  • The aquatic-themed cistern feeds the bioswale that runs along the front of the school and provides one of the security elements built into the design.

    The aquatic-themed cistern feeds the bioswale that runs along the front of the school and provides one of the security elements built into the design.

With all the core stakeholders and the design/construction team of Svigals+Partners and Consigli Construction, Milford, MA, the architects led a series of workshops with engaging activities, resulting in a shared voice for the project. Directions emerged for site design, architecture and interiors, and the overall expression of the school. Security concerns were carefully analyzed and were seamlessly integrated into the architecture.

Several compelling themes surfaced during discussions of Newtown and Sandy Hook qualities. One was the view of the town from a distance, buildings and spires appearing above an undulating horizon of trees. The other was the geology of watercourses creating the “sandy hook” for which the area was named.

Inside, a gently curving “Main Street” organizes elective and administrative programs along the school’s north side, with the classroom wings radiating to the south, toward the woods and the views of trees and nature. The cafeteria, performance platform, and gymnasium are grouped together at the west end for ease of access after school hours and their proximity to playing fields. An ample library balances out the east end with another destination and anchor. The three classroom wings, two of which are two stories tall, radiate out from the Main Street corridor like side streets. The classrooms are distinguished with sunny yellow “porch” roofs and memorable welcome mats in bio-based tile flooring.

One of the most essential gestures is the light-filled central lobby connecting to the main corridor at a hub of activity. From the main entry, everyone has a colorful view through a two-story wall of clear and colored glass opening to the courtyard as they enter the space invigorated by converging activity from the school offices, flanking stairs to upper classrooms, and a corridor bridge overhead. On one wall, fiberglass relief sculptures, by architect and sculptor Barry Svigals, call to mind the site’s resident duck population, soaring south. Nearby hangs a dynamic leaf installation by sculptor Tim Prentice, made of shimmering and gently moving metal slips.

Art and nature converge at Sandy Hook school today. Students are welcomed every weekday morning into a nurturing, comforting environment that also meets new state standards for safety and security. Architecture and art come together as an expression of the community’s wishes, hopes, and dreams. CA

Julia McFadden, AIA, is an associate principal at Svigals+Partners, New Haven, CT. As facilitator and leader for user and community programming workshops, she steers the process toward well-defined construction priorities even as she identifies design opportunities. As project manager, McFadden led this process for the new Sandy Hook school in Newtown, CT.

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