Manassas Park Elementary + Pre-K
Curing Nature Deficit Disorder: VMDO Architects uses sustainable buildings systems and natural cycles to demonstrate eco-conscious living to the next generation.
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Richard Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” in his national bestseller Last Child in the Woods to describe the current disconnect between children and the outdoors. According to experts, a new and growing body of research maintains that direct exposure to the natural world is essential for healthy child development. When VMDO Architects was commissioned for the 140,000-square-foot Manassas Park Elementary and Pre-School (MPES) in Manassas Park, Virginia, the design team used this philosophy to integrate the building with the surrounding ecosystem. With outdoor learning spaces, views of the forests, and building systems as “learning tools,” the school teaches environmental stewardship at every opportunity.
Dr. Thomas H. DeBolt, supervisor of the Manassas Park City Schools, recalls the status of the district 15 years ago. “There was such a low set of expectations; blue-collar jobs were good enough for everyone,” he explains. Gradually, members of the community and political leaders became involved in advancing the schools, which are now seen as community investments. VMDO Architects, which already had three Manassas Park schools under their belt, was confident that MPES could be LEED certified “for basically the same price. It wasn’t a hard sell,” says Steve Davis, AIA, director of sustainability for VMDO Architects. In fact, it’s the city’s first LEED-certified building, recently achieving Gold status.
The MPES site is nestled between a private forest and the historic Camp Carondelet, an eight-acre Civil War site. It’s a short walk away from Cougar Elementary School (CES) for the lower grades (K--2), which was designed by VMDO Architects a decade ago. The new E-shaped building is located on the former CES parking lot (the schools now share parking spaces) and is oriented for natural light and ventilation.
The participation of school representatives and teachers in the pre-design process was crucial and resulted in a few unconventional ideas. “We matched the building to the educational philosophy and approach,” says Davis. For one, there are no mirrors in any Manassas Park bathrooms. Instead, they line the corridors to eliminate wasted time in the restrooms and to serve as “passive surveillance” for teachers, according to DeBolt. This is necessary because the school takes advantage of every space—including the hallways. “We believe in their use as extended learning spaces,” he explains. Students move between rooms unsupervised, and are allowed to read and study in comfortable beanbags, chairs, and sofas, or take advantage of Wi-Fi access in these break-out hallway spaces. Carefully planned sightlines and internal glazing allow teachers to subtly monitor students.
Extended learning spaces exist outside the building as well. Illustrated with a mural detailing the school’s water system and the local cycle, rainwater is collected in a 79,000-gallon cistern for flushing and irrigation; the science teachers use the diagrams when teaching about hydrology. A bio-retention area that can accommodate a 100-year storm water event also doubles as an outdoor classroom. Lisa Wolf, a third-grade teacher at MPES, often takes the kids here as part of the lesson: “Just having the chance to be outside and enjoy the space in nature is a different kind of teaching experience.” One year after the opening, the design team coordinated a planting with the fifth-grade students, some of whom had never gardened before.
Interior details are kid-friendly and sustainable. “Everything is a learning moment,” says Davis, “not just the natural systems, but the ecological building systems as well.” The design team created “truth windows” for a peek at the different technologies and included signs for further explanation. Each wing of the building has a seasonal theme, and the classrooms are designated with a native species or plant rather than a number. A touch-screen dashboard in the lobby is at child-height so passing students can pause for a moment to click around. It shows geothermal animation, real-time temperature, and energy consumption in both English and Spanish, important because of the school’s diversity. (Many of the children are from immigrant families; the 2009-2010 enrollment included 26 percent limited-English proficient students.)
The architects had already worked with the engineers on the project and agreed on a ground-source mechanical system. They passed on some other popular “green” features due to cost, including a vegetative roof and a Power Purchase Agreement for solar power. A weather-predictive automated system flashes green lights when it’s okay to open the windows. “My kids obsessively pay attention to this,” laughs Wolf, whose students jump up when it flashes.
The ground-source heat pumps, variable-speed pumping, energy recovery for ventilation air, and large fans all contribute to reducing utility costs. The energy model predicted that MPES would use approximately 27 kBtu/ft2 in its first year, but actual usage was around 38 kBtu/ft2—still well below the 62 kBtu/ft2 used by a neighboring school. A last-minute addition of projectors for each classroom contributed to the unanticipated load, but Davis predicts improvement all-around in the second year of operation. Though not FSC-certified (Davis says local contractors were unwilling to bid the job), all wood species are native to Virginia and all but one are actually found in the neighboring Camp Carondelet forest. Davis explains that the recycled tire mats in the entryways and the flooring in the enclosed stairwells resulted in unexpected off-gassing producing strong odors, which the team plans to avoid in future projects.
As one of the COTE Top Ten jurors noted, MPES is “just the type of place you would imagine a child could grow and thrive—which should be the goal of every school.”