For years, four miles separated the upper and lower schools of the Episcopal School of Dallas. When the decision was made to bring the entire pre-k through 12th grade community onto a single site, school leadership seized the moment to rethink elementary school as we know it. Collaborating with Overland’s passionate team of education designers, the Episcopal School of Dallas will soon realize a vision that is as innovative as it is holistic and beautiful.
On the one hand, bringing the lower school campus on site with the upper school campus solves a number of problems. Parents can pick up and drop off in one location, and school-wide programming is far more efficient. It also facilitates new levels of cultural cohesion; the school can now start a mentorship program between the upper and lower schools, a long-sought initiative with potential to enrich the lives of entire families.
At the same time, bringing little kids and big kids into the same space presents a host of challenges. One of Overland’s primary charges was to create spaces with the ideal amounts of exposure, security, autonomy, and individuality.
The heart and soul of the lower school campus is the entry plaza where a three-story play structure connects to the various “neighborhoods” on each floor. Play is central to learning for children and their kinetic, imaginative processes.
The Overland design team included several architects who specialize in educational design. They developed a synergistic relationship with the visionaries at the Episcopal School of Dallas that would eventually inspire both the design and the pedagogical practice that would fill it. Each space, with all its potential—from a mobile library collection that can reconstitute itself anywhere in the building, to the shared outdoor classrooms—challenged the educators to fill it with new ways of learning, new paths toward inspiration. The spaces are designed in anticipation as well, flexible enough to accommodate the inevitable changes in technology and teaching practice that will shape education in the 21st century and beyond.
The site, located in the heart of Dallas, yielded a unique set of parameters. The solution was to go vertical, uncommon in American elementary schools. The team looked to urban Japan and Europe, where multi-story elementary schools are far more common, as are play-based curriculum and progressive learning environments. Overland’s team was able to design a three-story structure to fit the site, with a series of wrapping walkways that lead to vital outdoor spaces. To ensure that the play structure at the heart of the campus was naturally lit, the team used advanced energy modeling software to closely analyze and study day-lighting in the core of the building. They carefully orchestrated rooftop light scoops and an undulating ceiling to capture the highest quality daylight.
While the idea was to create a space where students felt like they could run and play freely, the team also listened when students told them that safety was a big concern. “They live in a world that does not feel safe to them,” Overland principal Rick Archer said.
Not only did the students need to feel physically safe from the outside, the team also wanted to foster emotional and social safety. In a space that begs to be used creatively, students can feel free to try things…and fail a few times along the way. Because they are near the upper school but still distinctly separate, they can be kids, with all of the playful, unaffected joy of childhood.