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The School An Entire Town Designed: Rebuilding Sandy Hook Elementary

The new Sandy Hook Elementary School has opened its doors.

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Heading back to school is a familiar fall ritual for most kids, one that's filled with excitement for the year ahead and lament for the end of summer vacation. But at the newly rebuilt Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, it'll also be imbued with the emotional weight of the shooting on December 12, 2012, that killed 20 children and eight adults in one of the worst acts of violence in U.S. history.

This fall, after razing the original low-slung 1956 brick building and receiving $50 million from the state of Connecticut to rebuild, Newtown has a new elementary school. "This is a school to nurture and grow young members of our society," says Jay Brotman, an architect managing partner at Svigals + Partners, the New Haven-based firm that designed the school. "As architects, we aspire for opportunities like this, to build a meaningful symbol that serves a community as well as a global emblem."

It’s a beautiful building. With a wavy roofline, wood-and-fieldstone cladding, large expanses of glass, and plenty of art, it aspires to be a safe, inspiring, and welcoming space that celebrates the town's natural beauty rather than to evoke one catastrophic event from its 311-year history.

Of course I, like the other reporters who visited the school in July on a media tour, was well aware of what happened in 2012. I was hunting for as many of the subtle safety and security interventions as I could find. Yet as we walked through the building, the architects pointed out all of the thoughtful touches intended to enrich the kids. Inside, visitors are greeted with colorful murals and monumental expanses of stained glass; a lethargic turtle swam in a tank of water. It’s a school I would’ve loved to attend as a child. The security measures, by contrast, are subtly embedded in the design. If I were a student walking across one of the school's "footbridges" above a number of below-grade rain gardens, for example, I would imagine it as a ceremonial crossing into a castle, not as a stealthy way to limit access to the building's perimeter.

The building represents a delicate balancing act on the architects' part, between security and functionality in the educational spaces—and ensuring that aesthetics don't take a back seat, either.

Bringing The Outside In

Newtown is tucked into a hilly landscape draped with trees. Sandy Hook—a village within the town—derives its name from a nearby hook-shaped geological feature carved out by the rivers in the area. The natural landscape factors heavily into the town's persona, and its beauty is a point of pride for the residents. All Svigals + Partners had to do was take a look around for inspirational fodder to inform the design.

"We wanted the school to reflect the community and the things that were important to them," says Alana Konefal, the project architect.

The rolling horizon is referenced in the sinuous roofline and ripple effect of the two-toned hardwood cladding the building's facade. A rain garden that naturally filters stormwater abuts the facade and is planted with native botanicals. "It's the intersection of identity and sustainability," says Julie McFadden, an associate principal at Svigals + Partners, about the landscape feature. Footbridges traverse the rain garden to provide access to the building. The bioswales—a landscape feature that collects rainwater so it can be absorbed by the earth rather than flood storm drains—slope down almost like a moat.

While the lush plants and boulders are lovely, they betray one of the stealthy security features in the building—serving as one of several subtle physical barriers between the building's perimeter and people.

There are three courtyards behind the building planted with trees, shrubs, and grass, which offer outdoor space for the kids and faculty to use. The outdoors make their way inside, too. In the atrium, the architects designed tree trunk-like beams to support the structure. The top half of the double-height windows are composed of vibrant stained glass that casts an abstract canopy over the space. A kinetic leaf sculpture by local artist Tim Prentice dangles overhead. A mural of flying ducks—which used to wander around the campus before construction and were the unofficial school mascots—adorns the walls. In the cafeteria, green acoustic tiles hang from the ceiling like foliage. Lastly, at the end of the building's two wings is a breakout space dubbed the "tree house" where teachers can hold class or students can use for reading or studying.

"We were so inspired by the landscape that we wanted to feel the outdoors when inside," Konefal says.

Organic Surveillance

When I first read about Svigals + Partners’ strategy for rebuilding the school, it seemed very ambitious to think that the design could "hide" the security measures into the structure. I figured that the design would change a fair amount, as is the case with most architectural projects; surely administrators or policy wonks would clamber for heavy barbed-wire gates or hulking metal detectors. But when I drove up the newly built entry road to the campus and the school gradually came into view, I was pleasantly surprised—the structure looked exactly as the illustrations promised, from the squiggly silhouette to the wood rain screen and verdant landscape.

To Svigals + Partners, the linchpin of the school's success was embedding air-tight security features in the architecture without it reading as unwelcoming. At a press conference, one reporter compared the school to "a gentle fortress."

"I don’t see the fortress part of it myself," Brotman says. "I think that it's open. You see glass everywhere; it’s accessible to nature."

Many of the school's safety measures—that the architects and school were willing to disclose—are centered around "natural surveillance," which focuses on offering plenty of sight lines from inside the building to the surrounding campus and also within the structure. This essentially turns everyone in the building into a sentry that can alert the administrative staff if anything seems amiss.

Svigals + Partners rerouted the driveway into the school, so there's only one way for cars to enter or exit the campus; they all need to be approved before proceeding past the security gate. Fences line the campus's perimeter, but they're set back into the trees and shrubs, away from the building so as not to be obtrusive. The parking lot is divided into separate areas for staff and visitors to ease traffic flow. The school bus pickup and drop-off is directly in front of the doors—providing another spatial buffer to increase visibility. From inside, staff can see who's approaching the building without cars potentially obscuring suspicious people.

The building's footprint is shaped almost like a capital "E"; the front of the building holds the administrative offices, cafeteria, music and art rooms, and tech lab. This lets the staff keep a watchful eye on the parking lot courtesy of large windows, which are composed of bulletproof glass. The classrooms are in three wings that extend toward the building's back.

Some features are directly linked to legislation spurred by the shooting. During Sandy Hook's construction, Connecticut adopted safety standards for all new school construction in the state. Many of the design details Svigals + Partners incorporated into the structure were part of the "checklist," such as lockable doors on every classroom, having unobstructed ground-level views outside, separating kindergarten and pre-K play areas from the other grades, and locating playgrounds at least 50 feet away from areas that public vehicles access.

Community-Led Design

All of the design features—from security measures to the building's personality—resulted from carefully choreographed community involvement. Brotman firmly believes that community participation was the most important element in the project. Achieving a design that was sensitive to the recovering community hinged on welcoming the town into the school's planning and concepting.

From the project's outset three years ago, workshop groups—which included teachers, administrative staff, parents of students in the district, and first responders—collaborated with the architects. "[Through this type of] process is the only way that we can create a building that is reflective of the community," he says. "The community's issues and concerns all come out during the process of speaking with them. It’s getting that community together, and making sure we’re all on a level playing field. You leave the experts outside."

Community involvement in the design was the first step in rallying the town behind the concept. It familiarized the town with the building, it gave the participants ownership over the concept, and it turned people into advocates for the building every time they'd talk with their neighbors and friends about the process. "Those 'ambassadors' [or workshop participants] helped us ensure that the entire community knew what we were doing and that this school results in something they would be proud of," Brotman says.

The architects also hosted a workshop series called "KidsBuild!," which invited children into the design process. In addition to receiving a lesson in the basics of construction, they also contributed artwork that would be woven into the campus. The flags flying on light poles illuminating the approach to the school feature illustrations from the kids.

Inside, the school is a microcosm of a town. When people enter, they pass by a "Be Kind" mural composed of ceramic tiles that some of the kids created into the central corridor, referred to as "Main Street." The classroom wings extend perpendicularly from the hallway so that everyone has to walk through it—a way to familiarize the student body with their peers who may not be classmates.

The architects used a "neighborhood" metaphor for the wings, as well, and designed the classroom thresholds to subtly reference houses. There's a "porch" over each door and colorful floor tiles signify doormats. Cubbies are placed near each door as if it was a mudroom. Each of the classrooms has an adjoining door so that the teachers can communicate if need be. (Though not explicitly mentioned, these are surely a security measure.) Windows into the classrooms emphasize the constant hum of activity that will take place in the school. One of the most stand-out gestures is a narrow, double-height corridor that lets students on the second floor peer into the music room. With a gabled ceiling clad in wood and stained glass windows on the far end, it feels positively serene—almost church-like.

There isn't a brash architectural gesture or wacky experimental flourish in the school. There won't be a memorial on site. As much as possible, the administration wanted the space to feel like a regular school without a burdensome history. "It felt like a normal project, but with so much compassion," Konefal says.

It's been four years since classes have been held at Sandy Hook. This fall about 400 students from kindergarten to fourth grade will pass through its doors; only 35 of them (who are now fourth graders) were at the school when the shooting happened—a fairly small number due in part to the fact that most students have moved on to middle school. About 60% of the faculty and staff will be returning, too.

The real test of the design's merits will happen when they start to inhabit and use the space. But the architects did right by them in building a beautiful shell that, above all else, is a vibrant site for learning.

[All Photos: Robert Benson Photography/courtesy Svigals + Partners]

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