The Meaning of Making
Can architecture facilitate play AND learning? Students at 802LAB, Norwich University’s Design-Build Program, think so. They are nearing completion on an outdoor classroom for Union Elementary School (UES) in Montpelier, Vermont. For the Norwich students, the project is the result of a semester-long intensive design build architecture studio, taught by Assistant Professor Tolya Stonorov. Through the studio, students are gaining hands-on experience in all of the requirements of a real-world construction project. For the UES community, its installation will mark the culmination of several years of planning.
Creating a Plan
UES is a progressive, arts-focused public school serving 500 students in
Pre-Kindergarten through Grade 4. In 2015, UES initiated a multi-year project to rejuvenate its playground, which had not seen significant improvements in 20 years. A committee of parents, teachers, and administrators convened to envision how the playground could serve as a beneficial resource for UES students and for the broader community, which lacks sufficient access to parks and other outdoor recreation facilities.
Jay Ericson, UES parent and Playground project manager, says of the project, “Our vision for the new playground at UES is to create an outdoor space that not only provides students and our community with a place to play but also one that will ignite their creativity.” The resulting master plan emphasizes natural landscaping elements, and adds new play equipment and an outdoor classroom. In 2017, the UES Playground Project (UPP) committee invited 802LAB to develop a design proposal for the outdoor classroom portion of the project.
802LAB met with the UPP committee and UES students several times to learn about practical and aspirational goals for the classroom. At the initial meeting, 802LAB presented a number of built projects that represented spatial and aesthetic qualities the committee and students might seek in the final design. UES students spoke up eagerly at the meeting, excited to contribute their favorite colors, games, and activities.
802LAB attended art classes at UES to gain further insight from the students’ point of view. They participated in creative assignments alongside students, and engaged them in discussion about their experience at school and what they hoped for in the outdoor classroom.
“It was so useful to be able to interact with the kids,” said 802LAB student GianCarlo Greco. “So much of their play is imagination-based – we really wanted to provide them with opportunities to engage that creativity.”
Through individual and group design work, 802LAB sought to translate into a building the spirit of playfulness and curiosity they observed in UES students. They presented their final design, entitled “NEST: A Playhouse,” to the UPP committee and students in February, to an enthusiastic response. “The students in the 802LAB and Tolya have helped make our vision a reality,” says Ericson. “The NEST will be the cornerstone of the new playground and a place for students to learn, create, and experience an individualized connection to the outdoor environment.”
The Concept Takes Shape
After the design concept was approved, the 802LAB team faced another challenge: turning their fanciful project into a set of detailed construction documents that could actually be built. Students researched specifications and details, and exchanged countless emails with the project’s structural engineering consultants, DeWolfe Engineering Associates, who have donated all of their time, in a process of continual refinement that will continue throughout the project’s building phase.
Now well into construction, students have encountered many of the challenges that might be expected on a larger project. Assembling the classroom’s complex geometry has required extensive experimentation and planning. “I am so pleased by the amount of investigation I’ve seen,” says Stonorov. “Students have prototyped multiple iterations of all of the major details; it’s been a tremendous learning opportunity.”
Turning Idea Into Reality
Senior architecture student Whitney Bachelder notes, “What I love most about this project is the connection between architecture, art, and education. I am obtaining a dual masters in both Architecture and Art and Design Education, so the Nest is really the ideal first, full scale, built project. We are literally building an arts learning tool!”
With only weeks remaining in the semester, there is much yet to do. In the coming weeks, a group of UES students will visit the NEST at Norwich. “We’ve designed an activity for their visit: to help make the pegs for the Interactive Wall,” says Tyler Simone, senior architecture student and Project Manager for the Nest. “It’s exciting that we will be able to involve the community and children in the design and building of the project.”
NEST is grateful to the many partners who have donated and discounted their materials/labor: DeWolfe Engineering Associates, Montpelier; DMS Machining and Fabrication, Barre; Engelberth Construction Inc., Colchester; RK Miles, Morrisville; Big Heel Fasteners, Kansas; InCord, Connecticut; and Bellavance Trucking, Barre.
— Holly Woolf is a junior architecture major at Norwich University.