Part 1: Redding School of the Arts, a Design That Teaches Others

If you have ever watched a disaster movie where a giant asteroid is hurtling toward the earth, bringing with it death and destruction to all mankind, you know what happens. Almost no one believes the warnings until they can see the danger with their own eyes, and by then, of course, it’s too late.

So it is with life, where today’s climatologists are confronted with continuing public skepticism in response to their dire pronouncements on the negative effects global warming will have on our planet’s health by the end of the 21st century.

Is this too extreme an analogy? The intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report in 2007 affirming humanity’s role in climate change.

So here’s a question for you. What if the skeptics are right and these 2,500 scientists from around the world are all wrong?

What if 600 million people living in the world’s coastal regions do not have to be relocated in the next 30 years?

What if 30 percent of all species are not at risk of extinction?

Does that mean then that oil isn’t running out, that air pollution isn’t reaching toxic levels, and more people are not starving due to the world population demands on diminishing food supplies?

Are all those reports wrong also? Because if we believe any of the above, we should understand that something serious needs to be done – regardless of global warming concerns – to preserve the quality of life not only for our children, but their children as well.

This is the message our schools have been teaching since the 1970s, but it is obvious that the message hasn’t yet sunk in (see asteroid skepticism above). Educating our children about our planet is a good idea, but if seeing is believing, then maybe we should consider that the next generation of school buildings, such as the Redding School of the Arts, can serve as potent educational tools for our teachers to utilize in their lesson plans on how to preserve our planet. Buildings are too rarely designed to take the environment into consideration, as historically this just hasn’t ranked highly with the world’s builders. Deforestation, depletion of natural resources, and contamination of the air and water are the result.

So how does a building become a teacher?

 

Trees are more important than we realize.

A simple decision to plant more trees can result in a huge benefit to the earth’s environment. Trees in our developments are too often sacrificed in the name of “efficient” site usage, being relegated to the parking lot or along the street.

The McConnell Foundation has made the unusual commitment to buffer the school from the street by almost six hundred feet, half of which is reserved for an existing stand of trees, the other half by a parking lot that is designed around existing trees. New trees will be planted at the rate of one per two automobiles with the intent to create a true shade canopy in the near future. And these trees not only look good, they absorb co2 and stabilize the soil.

 

Net-zero is a term with which we should all become familiar.

We are attempting to create as close to a net–zero building as possible, where the energy consumed is equal to or less than the energy generated. It all starts with a design that takes advantage of our climate instead of working against it. Placing the building on the site so that the majority of windows face toward the north maximizes natural light into the classrooms while avoiding excessive glare and heat gain is an easy choice. Allowing windows to open to exterior galleries, creating cross-ventilating fresh air breezes during moderate days certainly helps. By using sophisticated lighting controls that sense how much artificial light is needed, this school expects to reduce its energy use more than 90-percent below what is used in a typical building of the same size.

Creating energy is the next step. We will utilize a lot of the sun and a little of the wind to generate 100 percent of our energy, thus showing how energy independence can be accomplished on a small as well as large scale.

Water is important to our thinking as well. In India and China, wells are now being drilled to over a mile deep to reach aquifers, and the situation is becoming worse each year. It is only a matter of time until we will be talking about water prices in the same way as we now discuss gas. Our school makes this point through an extensive underground water storage system to collect and store enough winter rainfall for the majority of the summer season’s irrigation needs. This can only be accomplished because we will use water wisely through water saving fixtures such as waterless urinals and dual flush toilets, drip irrigation and drought tolerant landscaping.

Go visit a landfill on your next day off.

Recycling will be evident everywhere, whether it be through the use of materials during construction, or everyday composting and recycling done by the students and teachers. When was the last time you visited a building where the trash enclosure was a featured element of the project?

 

We need to leave enough room for gardens.

Is there a more important topic to bring to our schools than how the world can continue to feed its people?

It has been stated that perhaps Americans need to move down the food chain and thus improve our own health in the process. Providing gardens for school children and cooking classes to demonstrate to them how to apply new skills is a very under-the-radar idea, but one that could yield wonderful long term results. And in the process, as a country we may allow the rest of the world to move up the food chain.

In the end, it is the goal that this project achieve the very prestigious designation of LEED platinum, which says to everyone this is a very eco-friendly building. But this is about more than scoring points in the ultimate earth–friendly exam. We are attempting to demonstrate that environmentalism isn’t a dirty word, but rather a survival tool. And that planting trees and eating right are as important as solar panels and geothermal heat pumps. Imagine a building that has no negative effect on the environment – now that is a story worth telling.

Part 2: Design That Shares Itself

Personally, I don’t like the word “green” that’s become so popular in describing anything and everything that could possibly be friendly to the environment.

It’s as if we are saluting ourselves for doing something special that is obvious. As a society, I think that we need to have the right environmental decisions become ingrained in the mindset of our children to be successful at maintaining the long-term health of our planet. We can achieve that best at home and through our schools. For schools to become good teachers of environmental health, those who determine how schools get built need to rethink their priorities. At the local, state and federal levels, “green” needs to become so important today that tomorrow we won’t need to refer to it anymore.

I have said in the past that for us to “get it,” we need to see examples of what is possible. That’s where the Redding School of the Arts comes into play. Designed as a virtual clearinghouse of eco-friendly ideas, it literally has something for everyone. Green is not an all-or-nothing proposition. If we all contribute in a small way, big improvements can occur in our planet’s health. This school is designed to be copied (and improved upon) in any way possible.

To make it really easy to take the ideas being offered and use them in other places, we decided to make ourselves very obvious, whether you are an everyday user or just a one-time visitor. We want to “hit you over the head” with the proverbial hammer. It’s wonderful to build an environmentally advanced building, but its eco-friendly features need to be transparent to all those who travel through its hallways.

From the moment you enter the site, the message will be clear — here are the choices we made — and it is up to you to decide what is useful to your everyday life. Transparency will occur with windows into every mechanical space as well as windows into the classrooms. With a series of panelized doors, the galleries connecting those classrooms can be opened to outdoor classrooms surrounded by landscaped screen walls. A dual-flush toilet, low-flow sink or high-efficiency hand dryer turns an ordinary restroom into a teaching opportunity. Students can look through a window into the elevator shaft to see how an elevator works. We are planning for a natural water feature at the front entry, one that operates without power by using rainwater runoff from the building’s roof. The concept of life-cycle design will be demonstrated in the use of durable materials and low-maintenance building systems designed for a hundred-year building, with interpretive displays for each. This building is a sort of evolving lab experiment, and we have to be flexible enough in our design that unforeseen developments 50 years from now can be accommodated within the structure of our building, something we call future-proofing.

While all this may look great on paper, how do you measure the success of a lab experiment? From the opening bell of the first day of school, everyone with a computer should be able to log onto an Internet-based “building dashboard” to observe how efficiently the building is operating at any given moment. This dashboard will monitor the building’s energy systems and not only make the results easily accessible but also modify student and teacher behaviors with regard to more effective energy use. That’s critical to our being able to show anyone who is interested than our building was not only planned to be energy efficient, but that in practice actually can be energy efficient.

When completed, it will be obvious that this school differs in many ways from conventional building design, but that is not the goal. Ultimately, what we want to achieve is a “new normal,” a building that we hope represents what all buildings will someday become.

Part 3: Design That Inspires All

Every one of us has had a teacher who inspired us in our early life, maybe more than one. Teachers who are able to create an environment where learning becomes an exciting experience are never forgotten.

On the other hand, how many of us were inspired as children by the building itself where we went to school? You remember those buildings; more often than not we referred to them as prisons, with heavy brick facades, dark hallways smelling of too much antiseptic, and classroom windows that often were covered with blinds to keep out the sun’s glare.

 

Too many schools are still being built today as warehouses with windows; they get the job done on some minimal level, but beyond that, they simply do not excite the children who spend a great deal of their lives within their walls.

Creating an environmentally friendly building is important, but that’s only part of the equation. If you ask kids, their parents or the teachers what is important to them, the to-do list gets a lot longer. We asked the students at Redding School of the Arts from kindergarten to eighth grade what was important to them. The words they used were exciting, fun, comfortable, fun, unique, and fun. Get the idea? Kids want a place that stimulates them all the time. The teachers agreed but added a few new words, such as flexibility in their teaching environment, and storage. Parents of course added safety.

How did we address these wants? It starts with the classroom design because that is where children spend most of their time at school. Our classrooms are shaped to allow for flexibility in teaching styles that can range from formal lecture to informal studio. Each classroom has a primary learning area with an adjacent accessory space for small group learning. One hundred percent of the general classrooms are oriented to the north and east for best quality of natural lighting. The ceilings and walls are acoustically insulated to provide a balance between sound quality within the class and sound isolation from adjacent rooms. Technology is recognized as an important tool for teachers with projectors and large-screen TV’s that can broadcast within the class or to another school entirely. Storage is available within the class and in a room adjacent to each class as well as general storage for the school. This allows for multiple learning materials to be more easily rotated by the individual teachers. Our classrooms even have retractable rolling stages for student performance.

Learning in this school is designed to go beyond the general classroom.

The hallways have been designed as “learning streets,” with space for sitting, talking and studying under a translucent canopy and flooded with fresh air. Everywhere there are opportunities for student exhibits, because that is where the focus should be. There is no cafeteria, no gymnasium and no auditorium, yet all these activities can be accommodated within the building design. The assembly and performance space is a covered outdoor theater. Carefully designed to allow for multimedia presentations in less than ideal weather, the space is mostly protected from the elements with some heating and cooling. There is no stage house, but rather three adjacent music/dance classrooms, one or all of which can be opened to the seating depending on the needs of the production. The cafeteria has been replaced with four separate thematic cafes, which allows for student socializing in medium group sizes. Exercise occurs everywhere, from dance rooms to a covered play court. We want to create new traditions instead of traditional spaces.

And speaking of play, we listened carefully to the students and their list.

Learning is a serious business, but all too often the architecture of our schools is too serious.

We wanted to incorporate a sense of playfulness into this design, from the floor patterns running through the galleries to the LED lighting designed to change color depending on the school themes being demonstrated. Outdoor “art walls” have been added for student painting and repainting. The outdoor area is a balance between creative play and unstructured open spaces. Whether it’s the playground, the gardens or the outdoor classrooms, the outside environment is as important in this design as the inside, and the line between the two has been intentionally blurred. There’s even a slide from the second floor to the first in the main gallery.

This school has been designed to function for a hundred years. Well before then, we should all hope that the innovative environmental and energy features incorporated into its design have become commonplace in all our buildings. Children will always be children, with their need to be inspired to dream big dreams.

And those ideals will never become commonplace.