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High-Impact, Low-Cost Design at Vistamar School 

How can a school use space making to facilitate learning? By providing learning spaces that promote thoughtful interaction between students and teachers throughout the school day.

A Gensler design team pursued that strategy when we converted an empty warehouse on the campus of Vistamar School in El Segundo, Calif., into a vibrant new wing full of classrooms and collaborative learning spaces. In addition to refreshing the campus, the new wing will support increased enrollment in future years.

At the onset of the project, administrators at Vistamar School made one thing clear: they wanted a design firm that could deliver tremendous value at a low cost. So our design team focused on leveraging surrounding natural elements to create a strong sense of place within the new wing. This kept expenses low without sacrificing quality.

Using the school’s location between the mountains and ocean as our design inspiration, we incorporated elements of the surrounding natural setting. Our first step was to bring daylight into the heart of the space, and to introduce colorful elements that appeal to the young student body. Students don’t want to sit in generic classrooms and stare at white walls—they prefer dynamic spaces with nice views where they can feel comfortable and interact with each other. So rather than spending our energy and construction budget on highly refined details, we emphasized a quality overall environment.

To take advantage of spaces in-between classrooms, where so much learning and interaction tends to take place, we clustered new classrooms around an open space in the middle of the warehouse. This open area is fitted with computers, books, and seating for informal collaboration or supervised learning. It is illuminated with natural light delivered via light tubes, and a collection of colorful, round acoustical tiles creates a playful ceiling landscape. By duplicating this arrangement in future phases of construction, we’ll create a network of classroom clusters, each with a commons that functions as a kind of distributed library.

These low-cost, high-impact strategies made a strong impression on Sam Lubell, who served as a juror in the Gensler Design Excellence Awards program. Lubell, who is California Editor of The Architect’s Newspaper, urged the other panelists to recognize this project with the Margo Grant Walsh Award, a special category of award for great design accomplished with an economy of means.

“I’m especially happy to see a school win this award because, arguably, learning spaces are the most important types of spaces,” Lubell said. “The design team used creative, low-cost elements to create beautiful, textured, naturally illuminated spaces. Hopefully we’ll see more schools like this.”

David Herjeczki is a design director for the buildings and campuses studio of Gensler Los Angeles. A design leader with a deep commitment to innovation and a passion for ideas-driven design, Herjeczki combines design investigation and technical integration to shape high-quality projects for clients that include developers, corporations, municipalities and universities. Contact him at david_herjeczki@gensler.com.

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