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Sandy Hook Elementary School design finds safety, security in openness

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Newtown’s new school offers a model for an educational space with a subtle defensive posture

Sandy Hook Elementary School
The design for the new Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, formerly the site of a tragic school shooting, seeks to balance openness and security
Town of Newtown

Editor’s note: With safe spaces in schools top of mind in the wake of the recent shooting in Parkland, Florida, we thought it worth reconsidering lessons from the rebuilt Sandy Hook Elementary School, featured in this article published as it was opening in 2016.

When the new Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, opens this week, the design will be as notable for what it is—a community response to a terrible tragedy—as what it isn’t—a complete rethinking of school design. As showcased during a somber media day in late July, the school exudes a commitment to openness and a connection to nature, all while keeping issues of safety and student performance paramount.

In an age of heightened anxiety over school shootings and gun violence, the reopening of this school offers potent symbolism as well as a look at how educational design may evolve. The design for the new Sandy Hook “hides” its security features in plain sight, offering improved natural surveillance and increased situational awareness through an extensive series of windows, as well as a gradual, guarded approach from the main road. Despite its roots in a tragedy, the new school offers a bright, optimistic learning environment that’s inviting, not institutional.

”As architects, we aspire to opportunities like this, to be involved in the design of a building like the Sandy Hook School, a meaningful and symbolic building that truly serves a community on so many levels,” said Jay Brotman, Managing Partner at New Haven-based Svigals + Partners Architects, who designed the new school.

The new 86,800-square-foot facility, which will be home to roughly 450 students in kindergarten through 4th grade, was given a subdued debut during the media tour arranged by the school, city of Newtown, and the project architects. Built over the course of nearly two years on the same ground where the tragic shooting took place, the new structure offers a sense of calm and connection to the landscape, sunk back in a way that makes it seem like part of the landscape, as opposed to a distant, walled off fortress. One of the main concepts referenced by the design team was a desire to create a home away from home for students to help avoid unnecessary distractions (a future memorial for the 26 victims of the December 12, 2012 shooting will be located off campus, and is currently being discussed by a local government committee).

Perched amid a forested site and shielded from the main road, the school blends in with the tree line. A series of checkpoints on Dickinson Drive, the main entryway, including a surveillance gate and main entrance, provide external security, while a bus loop and layers of parking offer another buffers from the main building. The entire safety program is “second to none,” according to Newtown Superintendent Dr. Joseph V. Erardi, Jr. (who, for obvious reasons, declined to discuss security procedures in more detail).

The main structure itself exudes a feeling of openness and access, while providing constant connection and subtle levels of security. Windows are lined up to provide sightlines and sunlight, offering clear views of the exterior (and any possible intruder) from nearly every hallway or classroom. From the second story, gabled cutouts offer a clear view of the main classrooms and the outdoors, offering natural surveillance while avoiding a bunker-like mentality inside the building. While not technically bulletproof glass, the windows are impact-resistant, balancing the need to protect with the desire to keep the surrounding area in full view, and door locks allow teachers and students the opportunity to block entry from the hallway and shelter in place.

Arrayed in three distinct wings, the school wraps around a series outdoor spaces, including an amphitheater and two playgrounds that run right up to the forested edge of the school property. The building exterior reflects back upon the surroundings, with planks of machiche and garapa hardwoods arrayed in a wavy pattern suggesting the surrounding trees and hills, as well as multicolored vertical sunshades and stained glass in shades of orange, red, and yellow.

The front of the school, accessible by a series of footbridges that cross a creek and rain garden, offer a space to learn about nature and ecology while making a nod to resource conservation as well as a defining feature of the landscape (the name Sandy Hook comes from a bend in a nearby river). Students provided additional design elements, including a series of patterns and flags, which are positioned near the entryway, all created in a series of KidsBuild! Workshops organized by the architects earlier this year.

The natural theme carries over to the interior, a series of light-filled hallways and classrooms arrayed around a “Main Street” that runs the length of the building. At the end of two of the classroom wings, which cluster students and classrooms toward the rear of the site, small breakout areas referred to as treehouses provide additional seating area and access to the outdoors.

The heart of the building, an open “town square” with breakout spaces and seating, a two-story curtain wall with aluminum “tree trunks” running parallel to the lobby, and a second floor bridge running above, offers a spacious gathering spot, decorated with a series of kinetic sculptures (small leaves of spinning metal) hanging from the roof. A fiberglass sculptures of ducks recalls the birds that used to roam around the old school campus.

According to project architect Alana Konefal, one of the keys to creating the new building, and a great lesson for the students, was how opening up the design process to community input made it a much easier, and ideally well-received, building. A series of workshops with parents, teachers, and first responders helped the team at Svigals get a better sense of what Newtown residents wanted from the new school. It was a fruitful and important step she’d recommend to any team engaging in similarly meaningful project.

”Become a community and really work with your team,” she said. “You really need to allow everyone to hear each other and give them the opportunity to be heard.”

In many ways, the design for Sandy Hook, which is likely to be carefully studied by designers and educators, is noteworthy for sticking to the basics. Built with a $50 million grant from the state, the plan is the first to be compliant with a new state school safety code, the School Safety Infrastructure Council guidelines (SSIC). But it’s still, in most respects, a typical elementary school. Classrooms and auditoriums are shiny and new but standard, while personal touches give the space a welcoming, broken-in feeling for kids (Shelby the turtle greets visitors from a tank in the main lobby). It’s strength is in the subtle redesign that balances the natural inclination for increased protection with an open layout that won’t take students out of their comfort zones.