Arlington Elementary School

Architect: Mahlum Architects

Owner:  Tacoma Public Schools

Location: Tacoma, Washington

An exploration of the spatial possibilities that emerge when schools are envisioned as living, breathing organisms, this Tacoma, Washington, elementary school eschews basic assumptions and promotes a new model of civic practice in education. Designed to be the center of the community it serves, Arlington Elementary School fundamentally redefines what a student is by assuming we are all learners.

The design process began with a robust framework of inquiry created by Tacoma Public Schools, which like many other districts across the country has seen declining graduation rates. Bolstered by state legislation that supports new, innovative school programs, the framework asks a series of provocative questions rather than providing rigid solutions. The first school constructed from the ground up since the framework was published, Arlington is a case study in what can happen when a community rethinks standard schools and instills a culture that continuously challenges and supports students.

At Arlington, flexibility reigns. There are no classrooms, only spaces for learners and learning activities. In addition to serving 450 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, the school is a resource for adult education, offers community programs, and functions as a regional hub for preschools. Mobile teaching stations liberate teachers and enable smooth transitions between spaces. Stackable furniture creates soft divisions of space, and walls can be written on and moved, affording students room to explore.

A central tenet of the school’s design was to support the relationship between indoor and outdoor learning. A covered play area that doubles as an outdoor theater allows students to go outside, even in poor weather, and water tables prompt early explorations of fluid dynamics. The school’s saw-toothed roof floods natural light into interior spaces, and views of green spaces and the sky throughout demonstrate its embrace of nature.

The design team turned to modular construction to meet the project’s budget demands without sacrificing the program. Constructing the new school on the playfields of the school it replaced, the project was delivered for a mere $283 per square foot.

Additional information

Civil Engineer & Landscape Architect: AHBL, Inc.

Mechanical Engineer: Metrix Engineers

Electrical Engineer: BCE Engineers

Structural Engineer:  Coughlin Porter Lundeen

Acoustics: A3 Acoustics

Cost Estimator: The Robinson Company

General Contractor: Neely Construction


Jeanne Chen, AIA, Chair, Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners, Santa Monica, California

Rania Alomar, AIA, RA-DA, West Hollywood, California

Alicia Berg, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL

Raymond M. Bowman, Assoc. AIA, Pittsburgh, PA

Katherine K. Chia, FAIA, Desai Chia Architecture PC, New York, NY

Shannon R. Christensen, AIA, CTA Architects Engineers, Billings, Montana

Eugene C. Dunwody Jr., AIA, Dunwody/ Beeland Architects, Macon, Georgia

Henry Moss, AIA, Bruner/Cott & Associates, Inc., Cambridge, Massachusetts

David Rosa-Rivera, Savannah College of Art and Design, Bayamón, Puerto Rico

Image credits

Arlington Elementary School

Benjamin Benschneider


Benjamin Benschneider


Benjamin Benschneider


Benjamin Benschneider


Benjamin Benschneider