For most students, the start of a new school year brings promise, excitement and possibility. For the just under 400 pre-school through to grade four students at Sandy Hook Elementary School, this fall semester also meant a fresh start at their newly built school.
Situated on the same grounds as the old building – after the community voted, emphatically, to see it razed – the new school was a highly collaborative effort among the town, the students and the architects, of New Haven.
The open forum was paramount to the success of the building. Community leaders played an integral role from the beginning, helping launch the project and shepherd its development. “The two most important aspects were about helping establish a strong sense of involvement and belonging, as well as deepening the trust among the participants and the broader community,” says project architect Alana Konefal.
A prevailing theme that arose from this approach was the natural beauty of the Newtown landscape – the rolling hills, large leafy trees and abundant waterways all played into the end design. “Connections to nature are ideal for schools,” says Konefal. “Our firm’s focus with respect to schools is to create places that nurture and inspire learning. We design our schools to be full of daylight and connected to nature.”
What one first notices when approaching the building, which is set back from the road, is its undulating rainscreen facade, made of machiche and garapa hardwoods – the rolling roofline a nod to the surrounding landscape. “We wanted students arriving at school to be ‘embraced’ by the school’s curving plan, which appears to reach out in a welcoming gesture,” says Konefal.
Inside, expansive windows strengthen the connection to the outside, while natural references come through with the use of such materials as stone and wood, and also with artwork that depicts trees, leaves and ducks. “The old school had an enclosed courtyard where a duck would annually nest and lay eggs,” says Konefal.
Paying homage to the school’s feathered friends, a sculpted bas relief in the lobby (by Barry Svigals) and a mural in the main office (by local artist Robert Reynolds) both feature ducks in flight. In the lobby, tall aluminum “tree trunks” stand in front of the two-storey window and rotating kinetic mobiles of metallic leaves by sculptor Tim Prentice enhance the natural theme.
Of course, state-of-the-art, though subtle, safety features have been built in – from the building’s elevated position (which raises the ground level classrooms, making it difficult to see in) to its impact-resistant windows, video monitoring and wood-look steel doors that lock when closed and cannot be opened from the outside.
But it’s the nurturing touches that are most felt, perhaps best seen in two second-floor treehouses that overlook the grounds and forests. Says Konefal, “The treehouses offer privacy and a reflective point of view, a nod to nature, and a unique way for the students to connect to it.”