Architecture firm: Mithun
Owner: Bainbridge Island School District
Location: Bainbridge Island, Washington
Project site: Previously developed
Building program type(s): Education - K-12 school
Nestled into a forested site on Washington’s Bainbridge Island, Blakely Elementary offers pre-K through fourth grade students an innovative indoor/outdoor learning environment with a solid connection to its place. The new school replaces an aging facility, originally constructed in the 1960s, and reflects the Bainbridge Island School District’s high academic standards as well as the environmental aspirations and informal atmosphere of the island’s southern end.
“This project demonstrates strong skills in responding to the unique site that transverses to the forest ridge. The different levels and materials create wonderful spatial experiences for small children." - Jury comment
For the project, the team held extensive workshops with the school’s teachers and staff, arriving at a design that celebrates the site’s rising topography and optimizes sustainability performance. The existing school was occupied throughout construction, meaning the new facility would need to be placed upland, where it is wrapped on three sides by the forest lands of an adjacent environmental education center. The site is split by a glacially carved hill, which provided an opportunity for a connecting spine that links the school’s primary programmatic elements. It is marked by a series of folded shells and a column of load-bearing whole-tree columns that form an experiential marker along the forest edge.
“The school creates a procession from entry to the library, an engaging experience for learners. It’s like a playground.” - Jury comment
Core learning spaces are expressed as L-shaped clusters that group sets of four classrooms around a shared learning space. This arrangement gives teachers clear lines of sight and equal access to diverse educational environments that support a range of group sizes and direct connections to a south-facing courtyard. The school currently serves 450 students, but the campus was designed for the potential addition of a sixth classroom cluster to accommodate future growth.
Numerous building elements are designed for sitting, touching, and haptic engagement throughout the school. The column bases along the school’s central stair are designed for sitting, while at the outdoor covered play area the bases are subtly faceted with “runnable” surfaces that encourage motion and play. The inspiration of a Douglas fir’s craggy, dark bark can be felt throughout the building. The school’s skin is composed of vertical fractal patterns and clay-colored window surrounds, punctuated by vivid seismic braces exposed in multiple classrooms, and handrails on the central stair reference tree rings.
The school’s landscape deviates from the typical lawn and sidewalk norms, opting instead for an ecologically functioning native environment with more than 20,000 native and drought-tolerant shrubs, perennials, and grasses that intermingle with 300 native trees. All of the site’s stormwater is filtered through rain gardens overflowing to underground cisterns that hold 380,000 gallons of water, and eventually released at rates that mimic the surrounding forest’s hydrology. The new forest connects to the site’s mature perimeter, bolstering habitat connections and immersing students and staff in a woodland experience throughout every school day.