Bluestone Elementary School

Architect:  VMDO Architects

Owner:  Harrisonburg City  Public Schools

Location:  Harrisonburg , Virginia

Category: Design Excellence

Living up to its "Friendly City" nickname, Harrisonburg, Virginia, is a designated refugee resettlement community currently experiencing significant growth. More than 35% of the students enrolled in the city's schools identify as English-language learners. They hail from more than 60 countries and speak just as many different languages. This new school helps the school district meet the growing needs of its diverse student body and signals its commitment to the environment and inclusive learning spaces.

Bluestone Elementary School's design emphasizes a range of spaces and scales for different learning opportunities that are balanced with several public areas. Its dynamic landscape and wayfinding system celebrates the city's unique geography and geology. In doing so, the team encourages students to become active stewards of the region while developing deeper connections to the world around them.

"With this project, every opportunity was taken to integrate a learning moment directly into the architecture and design, and that rigor sets it apart to make this an example of student-driven design," noted the jury. "This project delivers spatial attributes and site amenities that empower future-ready learners while harvesting an appreciation of sustainability, wellness, and cultural diversity."

"This project delivers spatial attributes and site amenities that empower future-ready learners while harvesting an appreciation of sustainability, wellness, and cultural diversity." - Jury comment

At its core, the school is designed to celebrate diversity and meet the needs of its teachers and students. During the planning process, teachers expressed an interest in team teaching and a need for flexible spaces. With those directives in mind, the team delivered 42 core learning studios organized into discrete grade-level neighborhoods. The studios all feature flexible scales and arrangements that allow teachers to configure their spaces for small groups or combine classrooms for team teaching. Extended learning areas distributed throughout each neighborhood help empower one-on-one collaborations that bolster project-based learning happening elsewhere.  

Across the school's three stories, areas for play and outdoor learning were maximized. A series of patios, terraces, learning meadows, and outdoor classrooms that are carved into the site's topography flow from each of the four main entries. Boulders and trees that were harvested during construction were transformed into natural play structures. Much like their indoor counterparts, the exterior learning spaces include a variety of scales to accommodate a wide range of programming and community events.

Near the lobby, an interactive flag wall heralds the school's emphasis on inclusion and the broad range of cultures found across its population. Throughout the building, sweeping views of the landscape connect students and staff to the unique beauty of the Shenandoah Valley. The dining commons are modeled on a "garden patch" serving model. Connected to raised vegetable beds and exterior learning spaces, it incentivizes healthy food choices and activity.

In 2019, the school was feted with a Livable Building Award from the Center for the Built Environment. By championing the diversity of people, place, and program, this school significantly contributes to its students' health and happiness.

Additional information

Mechanical,  Electrical, and Plumbing Engineering: CMTA Engineers

Structural Engineering:  Fox & Associates

Civil Engineering: Gay & Neel

Landscape  Architecture: JJM Design

Foodservice Design: Foodservice Consultants Studio  

Geotechnical Engineering: Froehling & Robertson

Environmental Graphics:  Iconograph

General Contractor: Nielsen Builders, Inc.


Olivia Graf Doyle, Assoc. AIA (Chair), Architecture for Education, Inc, Los Angeles, CA

Angela Freeman, Reynolds School District, Portland, Oregon

Evie Klein, Assoc. AIA, Pratt Institute, New York, NY

Mathew Ryan Lowe, DLA Architects,  Itasca, Illinois  

Image credits

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Lincoln Barbour

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Lincoln Barbour

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Alan Karchmer

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Alan Karchmer

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Lincoln Barbour