Architect: New School To Draw Inspiration From Nature, Community

Barry Svigals, a principal at Svigals + Partners, says he has derived much inspiration for conceptual designs of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School from the natural environment of its site, as well as from many ideas revealed during meetings he and his team have arranged with parents, school staffers, leaders, and other community members.

Mr Svigals and colleagues Jay Brotman and Elena Konefal appeared before Newtown’s Public Building and Site Commission March 25, essentially doing a rerun of a February presentation to the local Board of Education and members of the Public Building & Site Commission showcasing developing schematic concepts of the soon-to-be-built facility.

Town residents at an October 2013 referendum approved accepting a $50 million state grant to rebuild the Sandy Hook Elementary School. A consortium of elected town leaders previously and unanimously agreed that new school should be constructed roughly on the same site as the former building, which was razed weeks before the first anniversary of the tragic shooting that left 20 children and six educators dead.

Mr Svigals told The Newtown Bee following this week’s meeting that references to nature and the environmental features of the site and building were laced throughout the presentation because the school’s surroundings will play an important role as the new facility is developed and eventually occupied. Local officials hope to see students back in the building by the spring of 2016.

The design firm’s creative leader said the Sandy Hook School site offers many beautiful natural features, and the repositioning of the school building on that site will take full advantage of those environmental components. Broadening his focus, Mr Svigals noted that the name Sandy Hook itself is drawn from one of the area’s most prominent natural wonders, a long leisurely bend of the Housatonic River.

“Architects and creative minds often find their inspiration drawn from our affinity to nature — and an affinity to life itself,” he said. “The trees, waters, and other natural features surrounding our projects are a cyclically renewing factor of our business.”


Connecting With Beauty

Mr Svigals said designers have historically connected to the beauty of the natural environment where they are working, citing the great Frank Lloyd Wright as an example of an architect who incorporated views and natural features in his work to make building occupants “feel like they are outside, even when they are inside.”

Returning to the Sandy Hook School conceptual schematics, Mr Svigals said the preliminary ideas for layout of the building responds directly to the site, and that everything from the parking areas to student drop-off locations to the classrooms and common areas within will be oriented toward the surrounding tree lines and adjacent Treadwell Park.

“The design ideas emerged from characteristics we all gathered from workshops and from members of the community,” he said. “These preliminary ideas are manifestations of a process including many residents and townspeople walking us hand-in-hand through the concept and design phase.”

Mr Svigals said he could not oversell the importance of community members’ input to date.

“I believe everyone has creative potential, and we as designers are deep believers in the value of that resource. That is why we included as many people from as broad a range of local influence as possible up to this point.”

PBSC Chairman Robert Mitchell said the schematic concept has evolved from three basic ideas presented to his panel and the school board in February.

“That group favored what we were calling the ‘Main Street’ concept, which we have since renamed as ‘the boulevard,’ because when you enter the school you will have these long curving hallways stretching away from the entrance lobby,” Mr Mitchell said.


Wetlands & Tree Houses

According to Mr Mitchell, a slight shift in positioning for the anticipated footprint of the building since the February meetings will improve the approach to the facility from Riverside Road, and will also improve and expand the scope of adjacent playing fields.

“It also creates a much better relationship to surrounding wetlands,” Mr Mitchell said. “The school is really in a nice little natural bowl. You can’t see many houses, so it’s like you’re surrounded by your own little forest world.”

The PBSC chairman described the former building as a “square donut,” with long, 400-foot corridors ending in sharp 90-degree turns.

“But now, as you approach the school from the street, the concept is to feel like the school is wrapping around you. That feeling will be carried through to the experience as you enter the building with these 12-foot-wide corridors bending away from you toward the back of the building.”

He said the extra-wide corridors promote what is referred to as a “Jacob’s Ladder” concept, giving children and visitors more of a gallery experience as they move from point to point encountering reading nooks, cooking areas, and other experiential or learning features. “And there will be loads of natural light provided by skylights throughout the building,” he said.

A “bioswale” near the front of the facility will serve as both a security feature and a living laboratory that will give students a hands-on seasonal wetlands opportunity. He envisioned the designed wetland replete with “cattails, along with a diverse variety of other wetland flora and fauna that will help students better connect to nature.”

Mr Mitchell then touted a plan to create enclosed courtyards at the end of each wing of the school that sat atop high graded vantage points. He described these glassed areas as “tree houses,” because from inside, students and visitors would feel like they were at or near treetop level, able to look down on the surrounding grounds.

The PBSC chairman said he is conferring with First Selectman Pat Llodra to plan a public unveiling of the final design concepts, which will incorporate a community meet and greet with architects and builders, and provide a question and answer session for residents. Mr Mitchell said that event will likely be held in the high school auditorium in the near future.


The Sandy Hook Elementary School site plan developed by Svigals + Partners, which was the focus of Tuesday night’s Public Building & Site Commission meeting.

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