Tracking trends

Nov. 1, 2004
Elementary schools in the past few decades have been showcases for evolving architectural trends: open classrooms, buildings divided into and sustainable

Elementary schools in the past few decades have been showcases for evolving architectural trends: open classrooms, buildings divided into “pods,” and sustainable or green design.

Elementary schools in the Delaware Valley — seven counties that spread from the Philadelphia area in southeastern Pennsylvania across the Delaware River to New Jersey — offer a typical representation of urban and suburban school construction trends.

In the 1960s, suburban schools such as Fleetwood Elementary School in Mount Laurel, N.J., provided a series of classrooms in the classic “preach-and-teach” style. In the typical concrete-block, one-story ranch style, the school was designed around one large hall. Classrooms open off the main hall. At the end of the hall, a large room was used as a cafeteria, assembly room, auditorium and gym.

Later, community values encouraged shared space, open classrooms and a new interest in innovative design. The John B. Kelly School in Philadelphia, constructed in 1968, was designed for 1,500 K-8 students in an octagon-shaped plan. A round cafeteria with a kitchen serving 600 students was placed in the middle of the entrance hall. Kelly, like many schools of that era, was built with no windows in the library, corridors or stairs.

Built with similar design theories, the Greenfield School was constructed in 1971 in Philadelphia. Its large, rectangular classroom pods were designed to house two classrooms working together, but now have been divided so that two grades share many of the long spaces. One classroom has windows, while the other is situated behind lockers that are supposed to divide the room. The school now has air conditioning, but like the Kelly School, the heating and air conditioning is not uniform throughout the building.

There was little school construction in the 1980s as student populations declined, but by the 1990s, the elementary school population began to swell.

Bridgeport Elementary School, built in 1990 in Montgomery County, Pa., is an example of the strides made in school design in the last 30 years. It has learning centers, illumination from skylights and large bay windows overlooking its hilltop setting. It has high-performance features, but does not have some of the characteristics of sustainable design such as an emphasis on natural light. Some of the mechanical systems could be quieter. The 65,000-square-foot school houses 500 K-4 students and is constructed on two floors.

More recent school projects have fully embraced sustainability. The Radnor Elementary School, a K-5 facility in Wayne, Pa., was completed in 2001 at a cost of $13 million.

The 92,000-square-foot facility sits on a 12-acre site and has a capacity for 500 students. The windows of the building face north and south to take advantage of as much daylight as possible. The pods are arranged to take advantage of daylighting, and a geothermal system provides heating and cooling. Each room has large operable windows.

Carpets and rubberized tiles in some hallways enhance acoustics. The maintenance staff uses ecologically safe floor finishes and cleaners so students and staff are not exposed to harmful vapors. Workers gain access to heat pumps for each classroom from the corridor so maintenance workers do not have to enter the classroom. Solar collectors power the technology lab and train students about the value of using this natural resource.

Fiske is an architectural writer.

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