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Using well-being, student input, and stewardship to design a WELL school

October 25, 2022

By Matthew Kavanaugh

America’s first WELL Building-certified high school showcases how simple, elegant design can shape education spaces

This blog first appeared as “Designing America’s first WELL Building-certified high school” in Design Quarterly, Issue 16.

Research shows a strong connection between healthy spaces and the potential for academic achievement. Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health links indoor air quality and cognitive function. In the study, cognitive scores were 61% higher in green building conditions and 101% higher in enhanced green building conditions compared to conventional building conditions

What tools are available to standardize and promote healthy spaces for students? The WELL Building Standard focuses on building occupants, putting people’s health and wellness at the center of design. In recent years, it has emerged as a leading tool for elevating human health in office design. But how does it apply to schools?

Here’s a few things we learned on our journey to successfully achieve certification for a WELL Education pilot project.

The Sandy Spring Friends School in Sandy Spring, Maryland. The school received its WELL Building Gold certification in 2022.

Introducing WELL Education

To date, most WELL Building certified projects have been workplace projects. When our education client Sandy Spring Friends School, a private Quaker school in Sandy Spring, Maryland, told us they were interested in a WELL Building, we viewed it as great opportunity to design a pilot project for WELL Education certification.

We designed the new Pen Y Bryn Upper School to WELL Building version one and the WELL Building Education pilot standards. The school received its WELL Building Gold certification in 2022.

WELL certification requires meeting preconditions and optimizations within categories such as air, water, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. The WELL system considers everything from the availability of natural light to olfactory comfort in spaces, the presence of toxic materials to water quality. Biophilic design, materiality, connectivity to nature, sustainable practices, and the organizational culture that a facility fosters all contribute to WELL Building certification. The education pilot includes additional categories such as nourishment (which includes the availability of fruits and vegetables), fitness, and provisions for educational space.

WELL relies heavily on on-site performance verification. For example, with WELL, when our engineers design an efficient HVAC system for a project, rather than requiring that they prove its efficiency on paper, the owner arranges for the WELL assessor to verify that it works as designed in a real-time field evaluation.

Client space needs

Sandy Spring Friends School needed the final piece for its comprehensive campus master plan—a singular upper school. The idea was to consolidate classes for high school students previously taught in various buildings around campus into a purpose-built facility. Naturally, this would also free up space in existing buildings for other activities.

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An outdoor deck for students at the Sandy Spring Friends School.

Values driven

Sandy Spring Friends School represents the core values that it fosters in the acronym SPICES: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equity, and stewardship.  We worked hard to design a school that achieves a holistic expression of these values.

A visionary client with ambitious goals

Early in the project, our client was broadly interested in sustainability but didn’t have specific goals. They knew they wanted a green building of some kind, so they researched various types of sustainable accreditations from Green Globes to LEED. They found WELL, which suited its culture.

The resulting energy-efficient building solution conserves resources and promotes wellness for the community and its occupants—supporting our client's values and goals for the project.

Choosing smart, healthy materials

Sandy Spring uses reclaimed ash from the school site itself that was milled, dried, and stored by one of its teachers for our interior wood wall systems. Not only does the exposed wood speak to occupants as a biophilic material, but it also connects to the institution’s values of simplicity and stewardship.

Students, noting that they would no longer walk outdoors between most classes, suggested the upper school needed additional outdoor space.

Connection to the outdoors

We know that connecting students to nature, even views of the outdoors can be beneficial. Sandy Spring Friends School is a campus, so it was important to integrate outdoor spaces with the upper school. The design provides occupants with access to a meditation garden, as well as an outdoor terrace on the third floor.

The upper school is just downhill from the Quaker meeting house on campus, which inspired various aspects of our design. For instance, historic meeting houses often have porches. The cantilever “back porch” we designed for the new school welcomes members of the school community and connects to outdoor gathering areas.

Many voices, including the students

In Quaker meeting houses, decisions are made by consensus and discussion continues until the group reaches an agreement. Conversations about the new school building project began a decade ago. Since then, the design team discussed project goals over dinner at teachers’ homes, conducted numerous collaborative design charrettes, and surveyed an array of stakeholders. The process was long but inclusive. It brought a wide range of perspectives into the mix: board members, administrators, educators, parents, and students.

Students and teachers alike had a voice in the design charettes for the upper school, even playing our planning game together. Students, noting that they would no longer walk outdoors between most classes, suggested the upper school needed additional outdoor space, feedback that inspired the design team to add an outdoor terrace on the third floor.

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A makerspace opens to provide access to the outdoors at Sandy Spring Friends School.

Today’s collaborative pedagogy

In addition to classrooms, we designed open, flexible spaces for collaboration to facilitate today’s style of instruction, group projects, and informal interaction. The new school building features a variety of educational environments—traditional classrooms, open and closed collaboration areas, and social spaces—equipped with dynamic lighting and ergonomic, adaptable furniture.

Net zero ready

Stewardship of the land is a Quaker value. Sandy Spring Friends School had already committed itself to renewables with a large solar array adjacent to the campus to offset campus energy use. They were already on the road to a sustainable, net zero campus. We engineered the upper school’s systems to connect to the solar array. We designed the school with systems that provide for human comfort efficiently including a geothermal well field for heat exchange and a variable refrigerant flow system. We located the dedicated outdoor air units for ventilation on discrete stair towers to leave the rest of the roof free and open for a future solar array. Using mineral wool and fluid applied air barrier (analogous to a sweater and skin for the building, respectively) as insulation, we gave the Pen Y Bryn Upper School a tight envelope (minimizing air leaks), which allows building occupants more control over their comfort while increasing energy efficiency.

While this pioneering WELL design effort was initially made possible by a client with ambitious goals for its new high school building, the fundamental lessons of Sandy Spring Friends School Pen Y Bryn Upper School are not unique. We can promote student wellness and human resiliency, low carbon, and long life with designs that are simple, elegant, and make use of natural and resilient materials while connecting to organizational culture and values. Sandy Spring shows that design for wellness is well within our reach.

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  • Matthew Kavanaugh

    Based in Charlottesville, Virginia, Matthew is a senior project architect. In addition to his skill for delivering a variety of successful projects, he’s known as a good team leader with a true passion for architecture.

    Contact Matthew
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