Bluestone Elementary’s learning-friendly design racking up awards

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From natural features on the playground to expansive views through enormous windows, Bluestone Elementary was designed to maximize students’ opportunities for learning.

By Julie Hagy, contributor

Amelia, a first-grader, navigates the lunchroom of Bluestone Elementary School. Through its floor-to-ceiling windows, the snow-covered valley is visible beyond the playground featuring local rocks for climbing and garden beds watered by cisterns. Inside, in the school lobby, a grand piano sits within listening distance of the open-walled cafeteria, gym, and classrooms. Natural sunlight filters into the building through solar tubes, while exposed geothermal pipes provide impromptu learning opportunities for Amelia and her peers.

“The windows are pretty big. I think it’s cool because the builders made them really big. I like watching birds, plants growing out there,” she says.

The school building, which opened for the 2017-18 school year, was designed by VMDO, a Charlottesville-based architecture firm that has won three awards for its design of this school.

In November, VMDO was recognized by the Virginia School Boards Association with the 2018 Platinum Design Award for its design of Bluestone Elementary.

That followed a 2018 Best Design Award from the Virginia Association for Learning Environments and the 2018 Outstanding Project recognition from Learning By Design, an education design publication.   

Bryce Powell, senior associate at VMDO, collaborated with city school board members, teachers, students, janitors and administrators to make spaces that might be overlooked in traditional school design became intentional places for learning at Bluestone.

“Having 25 kids in a room all the time isn’t necessarily a good thing. Having accessible spaces available to kids, whether that is small nooks for kids needing a spot to read by themselves, or places to deescalate, is something we focus on, especially at the younger ages, when they are just learning how to be in school,” says Powell.

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Bluestone Elementary’s window philosophy: go big or go home. Photo courtesy of HCPS.

Powell’s team designed the three floors of Bluestone to complement the geography of the students’ local surroundings: Floor one is cave-themed; Floor two, meadows; and floor three, mountains. Each one has displays connecting local geography to similar features elsewhere in the world––like the one comparing Massanutten to Mt. Everest.

“The cave is my favorite place. There is nobody there and there is silence,” says Jaday, a fifth-grader. “It helps me focus.”

Classroom furniture and flooring are made from eco-friendly materials, illuminated with natural and LED lighting. The rooftop was engineered to be solar-ready to facilitate the school potentially becoming a zero-energy building. Cisterns catch rainwater for watering plants, while sections of the ceiling inside are exposed, allowing students to learn about building systems.

Signposts modeled after those in Shenandoah National Park guide visitors and students through the three-story building. Classrooms are identified by wildlife names: Downy Woodpecker, Blue Ridge Springsnail, Cave Swallow.

Principal Anne Lintner pauses in front of a floor-to-ceiling window on the Mountain Floor. “They look out at pretty spectacular views,” she says of her students, “We find that those opportunities for students to see out, in ways that some might think distracting, are actually opportunities for mindfulness.”

Walking through the building, one can easily see and hear instruction taking place, another intention of VMDO’s design.

“We are making learning visible,” says Powell.

There are abundant windows. There are open classrooms and small-group instruction taking place in smaller, open spaces. Music, Art, PE and STEM classrooms are in highly visible settings for students.

“You might see something interesting that someone two years ahead of you is doing, and it might make you more interested in learning, continuing to learn, or in coming to school,” says Powell. “At the elementary level, we’re setting the tone for learning, and trying to make a nice space so coming to school is seen as a fun, positive experience.”

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