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The library has fun seating accommodations and is equipped with video equipment, and even Wii, to help students with motor skills.


LearningSpring School

Sensitive Solutions: A vertical campus in the heart of NYC accommodates special-needs students while also achieving ambitious environmental standards.

By Alanna Malone
September 2012

Back in 2001, a group of concerned Manhattan families came together to discuss options for educating their children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (HF-ASD). These children have great potential, but social-communication, sensory-motor, organizational, or processing deficits might prevent them from thriving at a traditional public school. Faced with limited possibilities, the families created the LearningSpring Foundation to help customize programs that would address the academic, social, and emotional needs of their children. The curriculum is focused on preparing students for advanced education, independent living, and future employment.


Location New York, New York (Manhattan Island)

Gross area 34,000 ft2 (3,158 m2)

Completed August 2010

Cost $31 million

Annual purchased energy use (based on simulation) 35 kBtu/ft2 (400 MJ/m2), 26% reduction from base case

Annual carbon footprint 6.5 lbs. CO2/ft2 (32 kg CO2/m2)

Program Gymnasium, library, lunchroom, classrooms, administration, and special-education spaces


Metal/glass curtain wall YKK AP America storefront/curtain-wall framing

Doors Algoma Hardwoods PC Novo Door, FSC UF Free

Paneling Plyboo Bamboo Plywood

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LearningSpring School
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Initially, programs were held in a commercial office building in the city, but LearningSpring School (LSS) quickly outgrew the tiny space. The board of directors commissioned Platt Byard Dovell White Architects (PBDW) to create a new K–8 facility with a design that would enhance the students' learning experiences and accommodate the growing student body (now numbering 108). With an initial goal of LEED Silver, the fast-track project became the first building in New York State to receive a LEED for Schools Gold certification.

The private school bought property wrapping around the northwest corner of 20th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan. The three dilapidated four-story apartment buildings with retail space on the ground floor weren't salvageable, and the site was declared a brownfield after asbestos, lead, and other contaminants were discovered in the prewar structures. Extensive remediation was necessary before construction could even begin.

Designed so that the higher-occupancy spaces (gym, library, and lunchroom) are on the bottom two floors where the floor plates are the largest, the 34,000-square-foot program has two floors for lower-school classrooms followed by shared therapy and special-education spaces, topped off by upper-school classrooms. The eight-story portion of the facility has all the educational spaces, occupying the footprint of the two existing buildings on 20th Street. An easement affecting the third footprint limited new construction to four stories.

"The school straddles two different heights, which works well within the context of the street," says Erica Gaswirth, PBDW project architect. Aluminum sunshades, low-E coated insulated glass, and zinc rainscreen spandrels help to cut solar gain along the southwestern facade. A terra-cotta rainscreen buffers the corners of the facility from the adjacent buildings and runs along the street level. The integrated curtain-wall system, along with high-efficiency HVAC equipment, helped the project achieve an energy cost savings 16.2 percent better than the baseline.

Pairs of classrooms share resource areas and study rooms, while single "quiet" rooms are placed in the corridors for overstimulated students who need to decompress in a neutral space. Classrooms are arranged on the perimeter of the building to maximize daylight and views. Blackout shades are available, and daylight controls help reduce energy usage with automatic dimming.

"Children on the autistic spectrum often find it hard to focus," says Gaswirth. "We tried to minimize visual distraction by using calm colors and a material palette reminiscent of nature." Instead of being labeled with grades and room numbers, the different classrooms are known by various tree species, and the circulation stairwell features custom painted glass with a leaf motif.

Cork flooring throughout the classrooms and hallways has good acoustic qualities and helps mediate exterior sound. "The fact that the LSS students are more sensitive to sound made exceeding the LEED for Schools acoustical requirements that much more important," says Adam Paiva, an engineer from acoustical consultants Cerami & Associates. "This applies not just to finish materials in the classrooms, but also controlling the background noise from HVAC and outdoor street noise."

While students may be creating harmonies in the music room on the fifth floor, none of the sound travels past the door, since the space is acoustically isolated from the base building structure. Other spaces on this floor include the culinary kitchen and the life-skills room, where students learn about doing laundry, making the bed, and setting an alarm.

The sixth floor has a computer room, science lab, therapy spaces, and an RDI (relationship development intervention) classroom where students learn spatial concepts. The occupational-therapy room needed additional structural supports because of hanging equipment such as swings that are used as part of the therapy program. "We worked very closely with all of the different staff to really understand how they use these spaces," says Gaswirth.

"Maximizing the space while meeting all the highly specialized programmatic requirements was a challenge," she says. "But it opened up our eyes to a lot of new design opportunities."


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