The 28,000-square-foot STEM center at Dwight-Englewood School is the realization of a multi-year exploration and visioning process. The facility is home to high school-level science, technology, engineering and math departments, and expresses the school’s mission and innovative STEM curriculum. The opening marks a transformation of learning for the 126-year-old institution.
The site’s sloped grade, heavily wooded surroundings, and existing architecture provided challenges for the design team. The design needed to be sensitive to the campus context, while also expressing the unique learning experience that happens within. In one instance, diagonal cross bracing remains exposed to provide a lesson in structural engineering.
Materials were carefully selected to help the modern building visually integrate into the existing campus. Warm cedar exterior finishes give the lab facades a crisp, clean look, while the classrooms’ brick and wood façades provide a more textural vernacular and blends the new facility into its surroundings. This variety in materials and finishes allow the building’s character to shift with the seasons.
The academic program consists of seven flexible classrooms and eight science labs centered around a double-height community area. Each lab and classroom has its own distinctly visible architectural form, which together, implies a rotational symmetry around the central common space.
The classroom design eliminates traditional divisions between teacher and student; instead, movable furniture, audio-visual capabilities, and writable surfaces encourage students to “hack” the space and own the learning process. The environmental graphic design and signage system include consistent visual vocabulary, colors, graphics, and scale supported by various concepts in the school’s curriculum. Writable surfaces at classroom entrances provide teachable moments that display graphic interpretations of STEM concepts. Graphics of innovative moments throughout history inspire students to keep pushing boundaries, asking questions, and expanding their knowledge to one day develop their own STEM breakthroughs.
1. What were you asked to do by the client?
The design team worked with the educators to look beyond the conventional and take a more expansive view in evaluating STEM spaces and thinking about how an ideal facility might look and function.
2. What were the agreed upon goals of the project?
The design team and a group of faculty, administrators and Board members came together for a vision session. The result was a catalogue of observations about general facility design, configuration, and specific aspects of the learning environments. The group focused on separating observations into innovations, positive aspects, and negative aspects, highlighting the opportunities available to enhance STEM facilities and education through innovative design. From the visioning session came a series of tenets that would guide the design of the project from that point forward; called the ABC’s of STEM:
• A: Everything Is Connected • B: Anytime Is a Teaching Moment • C: Learning Happens through Doing
3. How did the completed project address these goals?
The school decided that the building should encourage collaboration among departments that used to work in isolation. They felt that collaboration over time would change the curriculum, as one body of educators work together, learn together, and rethink how and what they teach.
As a result, the faculty workroom is highly visible behind a glass partition adjacent to the central gathering area, allowing staff to become part of the daily dynamics of the building.Faculty does not have offices but instead a personal workstation located within the common cluster. Open worktables encourage faculty-faculty and faculty-student interaction.
There are a variety of collaboration spaces. All of these spaces are integrated into the building circulation and offers choice to students and faculty. The walls outside the classrooms are clad in white back-painted glass to serve marker boards for impromptu problem-solving sessions. Colorful nooks, containing banquettes, tables, and chairs allows for small group study. A soft seating zone directly outside the glass-enclosed faculty area creates a living room-like setting where students and faculty can comfortably meet to discuss assignments and projects. A large terraced seating area serves as additional discussion space and its adjacency to a large video wall allows for large-group presentations. An open, flat-floor “Innovation Center”, adjacent to the robotics lab and out in the open allow students to tinker and test their projects in a quasi-workshop setting.
4. How did you address the design problem(s)?
Students retain knowledge gained by solving problems they find meaningful, so the design fosters an integrated, experiential approach in which students work on meaningful problems and are motivated to learn whatever they need to know in order to solve them. The building is designed around the ABC’s of STEM:
A: Everything Is Connected
The building contains spaces that encourage cross-discipline communication, increase faculty-student interaction, and facilitate productive gatherings, both planned and impromptu. Circulation is leveraged as an opportunity to provide space and furniture solutions that promote collaboration and interaction between students and teachers across classes, disciplines, and ages. These interventions converge in a “heart” space—a central area at a key intersection between departments and circulation paths. Transparency between spaces containing different disciplines promotes curiosity.
B: Anytime Is a Teaching Moment
The building is teachable and supports the STEM curriculum through direct and indirect educational tools, from classroom displays to expressions of the science behind the building itself. The design and construction of STEM facilities is an opportunity to expose students firsthand to engineering and sustainability principles. The structure is “transparent”— using exposed beams, energy strategies, and raw materials. Classrooms are transparent as well, with in-progress work on display. Outdoor space is integrated into students’ daily learning and life.
C: Learning Happens through Doing
Flexible, multi-zone teaching spaces promote hands-on interaction, provide opportunities for experimentation, and contain the ability to change over time.
Fixed infrastructure environments (labs, workshops, etc.) exist alongside more flexible teaching zones. This creates opportunities for a seamless transition between doing and teaching, and keeps ongoing investigations on display even when not being actively engaged.
5. How does the architecture of your project affect the community?
The 30,000 square foot building contains a mixture of classrooms, science labs, and a robotics lab, all of which focus on the process of learning. The design fosters a culture of collaboration and integration between the disciplines and between teachers and students. Recent feedback from the school reported that the space has provided new learning opportunities such as a robotics team that meets in the building on Friday nights. A testament to the building as a teaching tool, the faculty is using the learning spaces to try things they weren’t able to do before, and have been communicating with each other better than they ever have.
The building is pursuing LEED Certification, and is expected to operate at an Energy Use Index of 91, 27% less than the median for K-12 buildings in the US. The approach relies on fundamentally efficient equipment that can operate reliably in day to day operation. Incorporating the building into the hillside reduced the exposed building envelope and the related heating and cooling energy use. The strategic location and glazing provides views, daylighting, and passive solar heating. LED lighting is used in spaces where daylighting was not possible.
The MEP design employs optimized indoor air quality, water use reduction, enhanced refrigerant management, mechanical and lighting system controls and increased daylighting. After optimization of the envelope and HVAC systems, the load is served by condensing boilers with peak efficiencies of more than 90%. The plumbing design uses the most efficient plumbing fixtures available, resulting in a 40% reduction over code compliant fixtures.