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DESIGN TREND: buildings that teach

Educational facilities can deliver instruction, as well as house it. The 2009 CAE Design Award recipients included several buildings that had been designed to teach.

One of the purposes of the Environmental Education Visitor Activity Center in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains is immediately evident: to structure an encounter with the natural world. The design maximizes the transparency of the envelope to connect people inside to the setting, heightening their appreciation not only for the beauty of the native forest, but also for the forces at work within it. It uses a direct and unmediated expression of structure to frame perception of the site from within and to characterize the relationship between the building and its surrounding environment, including solar orientation and prevailing winds. More than an expression of sensitivity to the microclimate, the building can be experienced as a thermal event.

The activity center is an intentional teacher. Rubber shingles on the front façade, cut from discarded tires reclaimed from a nearby river and park, challenge visitors to think about environmental responsibility. Manually operated windows and lighting controls involve users in energy conservation. This project emphasizes the human aspect of environmental responsibility. It takes sustainability beyond technology: it is not simply a matter of installing occupancy detectors; it is also about teaching people how to control their space, and that means understanding their environment.

While environmental education may be the first example that comes to mind, buildings can be effective teachers in other areas as well. The Indian Community School was designed to teach urban students about the spiritual values of their Native American heritage and to foster a sense of connection to ancestral lands. The school flows along a gently sloping ridge, surrounded by wetlands, prairie grasses and the remnants of a hardwood forest, all of which serve as outdoor learning spaces. Transparency further embeds the school in its site. Every space is connected to the outdoors in a unique way: the Tree House Balcony juts out toward the woods; the spiral Earth to Sky Stair is bathed in natural light.

Inside, the openness to nature, abundant daylight and natural materials (hardwoods, stone and copper) evoke the tribal lands in northern Wisconsin. The K-8 school also incorporates ceremonial spaces designed to support its unique cultural curriculum, among them the Seven Nations gathering area, which has a small indoor garden representing each of the tribal regions in the United States.

The site is an integral part of the Indian Community School, but it is possible to create a freestanding teaching building. Once positioned to optimize its energy conservation and production capabilities, the modular Zero Energy Classroom is largely independent of site. It is turned in on itself, focused on its mission: to function off the grid—and to be obvious about it. Everything from the serrated roof with its clerestory windows to the big, shiny rain barrels out front acclaims its designers’ intentions.

This energy-neutral portable was designed to be a learning tool, as well as a laboratory for sustainable design. It conserves, collects, generates and records natural resources: electrical energy, daylight, wind energy and rainwater. System performance data are broadcast to a child-friendly, interactive website. The building highlights its green systems, such as the photovoltaic panels, wind turbine, shading devices and sustainable materials, to help students better understand buildings, nature and sustainable practices.

Though one usually thinks of buildings teaching their occupants, some also teach the people on the outside, looking in. Open to the urban street below, the two-story, glass-curtained studios in Canada’s National Ballet School create bright backdrops evocative of performance stages. One can easily imagine how the sensations of space and light must inspire dancers to soar. At the same time, the design intentionally invites the surrounding community into the world of ballet. By allowing the city to see the dancers, it highlights the art of ballet as storytelling; and one of the studio pavilions features a plane of frit glass with a phrase of choreographed movement in Benesh notation from “The Nutcracker.”

In a similar way, the Yale University Sculpture Building and Gallery uses transparency to draw the community onto the campus and to engage them in the visual arts. Arranged around traditional quadrangles, much of the university excludes the city. This design sought to open a dialogue between the campus and the community through visual interest and transparency, as well as landscaped pathways that traverse the site to create a link between the two.

Project Information

Environmental Education Visitor Activity Center (National Park Service, PA), Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

Indian Community School (Milwaukie, WI), Antoine Predock Architect, PC

Zero Energy Classroom (Hawaii), Anderson Anderson Architecture

Canada’s National Ballet School (Toronto, ON), Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects

Yale University Sculpture Building and Gallery (New Haven, CT), Kiernan Timberlake


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