GreenSource profiled the Buckingham K-5 project in the July/August 2013 issue.

You can read the full publication online here. Below is an excerpt from the article:

Healthy Kids, Happy Students: Through a unique partnership with public-health researchers, VMDO Architects transforms an old high school into a prototype for the next generation of green schools.

At any given time of day at Buckingham County Primary and Elementary School in Dillwyn, Virginia, you might find students playing tag on the front lawn, exploring the frog bog, or planting vegetables in the edible garden. In this groundbreaking pilot project designed by Charlottesville, Virginia–based VMDO Architects, lunch and playtime are as important to the curriculum as any math or spelling lesson. In fact, the meticulously researched design of the dining commons was really at the heart of the entire renovation and expansion of the former Carter G. Woodson High School into the county’s primary and elementary school.

VMDO Architects has been a leader in designing green schools for years in terms of sustainable technology and teaching environmental stewardship—the Manassas Park Elementary School won a 2010 AIA COTE Top Ten project award. The firm wanted to take the idea of healthy green schools a step further when it was commissioned for this retrofit.

Steve Davis, director of sustainable design at VMDO, invited Dr. Matthew Trowbridge, an assistant professor in the department of emergency medicine at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, to make a presentation to the firm about the potential of design for childhood obesity prevention. These ideas were inspired by University of Nebraska professor Dr. Terry Huang’s 2007 paper “Designer Schools: The Role of School Space and Architecture in Obesity Prevention.” VMDO was motivated by these notions, and former superintendent Dr. Gary Blair shared its enthusiasm. The team decided to invite researchers, educators, and experts, including Huang and Trowbridge, to collaborate on the pilot project and craft healthy-eating design guidelines as a tool for other schools.

“Prioritizing health and well-being allowed us to bring every decision-making effort back to that point,” explains Dina Sorensen, project designer at VMDO. “This made it easier to talk about the benefits of different investments—the payoff is better learning.”

As the core of the complex and the central design inspiration, the dining commons is part of the new addition that binds the two existing buildings together. “The lower and upper schools act independently but have shared resources,” explains Davis. At the entry to the upper school, a prominent stair leads to the second floor and a community meeting space features tubular skylights that run through the second-floor media lab, bringing daylight into the meeting area.

Circular windows line the corner bakery as you enter the dining commons, offering students a glimpse of the baking process. They pick up trays and circulate through the open serving lines, where they can see their food being prepared in the commercial kitchen. Along with nutritional signage, the transparency increases their awareness about where their food comes from and how it is prepared.

Many of the design team’s strategies became the basis of the guidelines: facilitate the incorporation of fresh, healthy food choices; engage the school community in food production and preparation; apply behavioral science to “nudge” the students toward healthy eating; use building and landscape features to promote awareness of healthy, sustainable food practices; conceive of school spaces as community assets to multiply the benefits of school-based food initiatives. Some examples are the prominent water fountains, lack of vending machines, strategic placement of healthy food, and composting system.

Unique features such as the food lab, teaching kitchen, and edible gardens are also used by the public and several local organizations such as Master Gardeners and City Schoolyard Garden have offered expertise, labor, or in-kind donations. “Local partnerships are so important,” Davis says. “We can’t be here forever to help keep these ideas going.” Pennie Allen, the primary-school principal, started a food-education group for staff and is working to expand it to the greater community.

Several times a day, teachers take students out for 10 minutes of “active” play. “The physical-activity component of the design has led the staff to reinvent the pedagogy,” says Sorensen. “Movement is becoming a part of their daily routine, and not just relegated to PE time—that’s been a really powerful thing for us to witness.”

Color palettes throughout the school were meticulously chosen to reflect nearby habitats, such as the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Together with detailed graphic design and signage, the colors reinforce grade-level identity—warm colors and terrestrial species for the primary school; cool colors and aquatic species for the elementary school. Each grade has small group-learning labs located in unexpected places, changing a typical hallway into a breakout learning space with reading nooks and playing caves.

… The team is evaluating how to quantify the health impacts of the new school on both students and teachers. “This is a pilot test, and we’re in the experimental phase,” says Trowbridge. “The methodology is quite new, and we’re very proud of it.” Research is too preliminary for conclusive statements, but the plan includes ongoing study of the food environment and occupant attitudes toward healthy behaviors.

The multidisciplinary team of designers, researchers, and educators produced the Healthy Eating Design Guidelines for School Architecture in February 2013 as a tool for others and VMDO is utilizing them on subsequent projects. “The eventual goal is for the guidelines to be incorporated into green-building certification systems,” says Trowbridge. “That’s going to be really important so that architects and clients are recognized for this kind of project.”

by Alanna Malone