The Teton Valley Community School (TVCS) is a non-profit independent school located in Victor, Idaho. At the base of the Teton Mountain range, Victor is 6,200 feet above sea level and is a quickly developing alpine area. The town’s eclectic mix of pioneer families and new residents from around the globe exemplify Victor’s unique history and diversity.
Idaho is one of the most underfunded school systems in the nation. This creates a challenge for schools to accommodate the exponential growth that is taking place in towns like Victor. TVCS currently serves 70 students from preschool through 6th grade and hopes to expand to include 7th and 8th grade by the year 2011. The school is located on a 2 acre site within two existing residences that have been transformed into classrooms. Due to space constraints the school has half of its students located at a satellite campus nearby.
An understanding of the nature of the school’s “place-based” curriculum and mission are pivotal to appreciating the programmatic elements of the classroom designed for TVCS.
One of TVCS’s main goals is long term community collaboration. The school’s new classroom buildings will serve its students with spaces for classes, hands-on workshops, and meetings for the entire Victor community. This community space would be an asset the town currently lacks.
The school combines two grades into each classroom with one teacher and encourages interaction between all grade levels. Each class has their own space in which they study all the different subjects, making a versatile classroom essential.
TVCS’s mission is to provide individual attention, collaborative learning, hands-on-experience, a strong connection to environment, develop personal responsibility and sense of place through real world learning and active stewardship to community and the environment. The curriculum involves lessons enhancing connections to earth and nature. In addition to state required subjects, the students learn by working with farm animals, gardening for sustenance, and local field trips.
Students are shown the tools necessary to encourage self-directed inquiry. This leads to an authentic understanding of the world. Inquisitiveness is fundamental to the vision of the school. Older students frequently work with younger students promoting a dynamic synergy not found in other schools.
The design team held a series of workshops with students, teachers, parents and other community members to begin to decipher the requirements of the school, while simultaneously keeping the needs of the developing area in mind. This process led to the development of spaces that could immediately serve both the school and the surrounding community.
In the final design, the design team has provided spaces that:
• nurture independent thinking and creative problem solving through self-discovery and reflection
• encourage students to creatively express themselves through a variety of oral, written, and artistic means
• use the school’s environment and community as a framework within which students can develop their own means of learning
• utilize building technology and site features that exhibit flexibility and sustainability
• serve multiple functions with the ability to generate revenue for the school while providing much needed communal spaces for the locals
• functions become transparent as a way for students and adults to develop an understanding about the built environment and the resources involved in the construction and operation of the classroom building and greater campus
…all while honoring the form and materiality of the surrounding western vernacular architecture.
DESCRIPTION OF CLASSROOM DESIGN
TVCS’s master plan is to eventually build five of the proposed classroom buildings. The design allows for flexibility in their spacing and construction. The classroom buildings can be either site built or prefabricated in two modules that can be shipped to the site. The design objectives were to create flexible spatial configurations, reduce the school’s ecological footprint, and create a strong connection to the outdoors in response to the mountain climate.
TVCS is in the process of launching a capital campaign to raise money for their classroom buildings. Our design allows for a pay-as-you-go expansion plan which is very attractive for the school in terms of not having to raise money for a large school with multiple classrooms. It allows them to raise enough money for one or two singular classroom buildings and construct them as the funds become available. As the campus develops, the spaces in between buildings allows for more infill. There are a series of pods that can be plugged in to provide additional programmatic elements shared between classroom buildings. The connector pods can be used as art studios, science labs, small libraries, or staging areas for outdoor plays and performances. As the school grows and the classroom buildings are built, there is a level of excitement about the additions of new structures and how they will positively impact the adjacent buildings. The buildings complete each other thru their dynamic relationships.
Each classroom configuration and relationship to its neighbor varies depending on the age of the child. The goal is to create connections between grades even though the classrooms are separate. Creating a sense of connectivity and unification is imperative to the function of the campus and the mission of the school. Spaces of encounter are explored between each of the individual indoor and outdoor classrooms. There is a bridge element that connects all the classroom’s loft spaces. This bridge is important because as it is a physical manifestation of connectivity between students.
Students enter through an entry vestibule used as locker space, which will help to control heat loss during the cold and snowy winter months. The open flex learning space is flanked by strawbale walls that serve as a backdrop for computer stations, storage, library, and collapsible and foldable partitions. Opposite, there is pin-up and projector screen space. A small science lab area is located at the north with tables that fold down to reveal glimpses into the mechanical room. The south side of the classroom has an attached greenhouse space and a thermal mass wall to aid in passive heating of the space. The greenhouse also serves as a threshold to the outdoor classroom. Water will be collected and stored beneath the greenhouse for irrigation of the outdoor classrooms and the greenhouse, as well as graywater for flushing toilets.
Although the valley receives up to 600” of snow in the winter months, the children at the school are very drawn to the outdoors for learning and playing. Each outdoor classroom is specific to an indoor classroom allowing all grades to take ownership of their own outdoor area. Interactivity is encouraged by the presence of a series of movable and connectable wood panel modules. The panels can be easily moved and configured by the students, encouraging them to design and organize the exterior space themselves. The outdoor area provides fences that act as barriers in some areas to create smaller learning spaces, and also bench areas for interaction between grades. Although barriers meander through the outdoor classrooms, these spaces overlap to express the idea of a shared community, cooperation, and tolerance.
Excepting the vegetable garden areas, the landscaping will incorporate native, drought resistant vegetation to reduce required irrigation. Zen rock gardens will be created using stones removed from the building sites during excavation. Perviousness will be promoted on the site by the use of pavers with grass and sand infill for the parking and pathway areas. Play areas will utilize the natural site features like trees, rocks, and berms.
The building serves as a tool for learning about the built environment thru the transparency of its construction and function. Thicknesses of the strawbale walls are made evident by apertures created for light. Recycled plastic and paper panels are used as the interior millwork. The building is heated and cooled geothermally and the required mechanical systems are labeled in large letters and housed in a room with a large viewing window for the students get a glimpse as to how the building operates. The classroom is thus built in direct conjunction to TVCS’s environment and sustainability curriculum.
The character of the exterior is derived from the surrounding western vernacular. Corrugated metal and clear acrylic panels are used. The building takes the vernacular and turns it into something unique and playful while fulfilling desires of sustainability. Material sustainability is achieved through the use of locally available resources and materials such as straw bale walls and roof, FSC lumber, exterior grade eco-panels, recycled steel for the connector bridge and the use of materials that are meant to be long lasting.
The architecture serves to promote the mission and philosophy of the Teton Valley Community School. It shall educate the whole child by inspiring creative expression, social responsibility and academic challenge. This state of the art learning facility will also encapsulate the aspirations of the town of Victor. For its inhabitants the design disappears as its lessons emerge, creating spaces for opportunity and reflection. The classroom and the campus become part of the curriculum, as the design obscures lines of ownership and promotes a relationship to the natural world. Ultimately, teachers are inspired by the natural connectivity to the environment. The classroom, campus, and curriculum become the foundation of an irreplaceable education.