Sustainability and Student Performance Build a Modern School

Sustainability and Student Performance Build a Modern School

By Peter Brown, Global Head of Design

At Whittle School and Studios, we believe that schooling is the experience students have every moment during their time with us, and that lessons are learned in every one of those moments. In considering student experience, we also focus on the places that students will spend their moments with us—the where of our vision.

We’re a school for our students, a workplace for our team, and a center of community for our families—a collection of learning spaces and social places. Imagine…

  • Maker spaces where our youngest learners can discover, build and create
  • A performance theater where students can showcase their passion for the performing arts
  • Brightly lit classroom spaces with flexible furniture, allowing teachers to create unique environments for project-based learning to transpire
  • Yoga studios, gymnasiums and a basketball court for students to discover a personalized love for physical literacy
  • A cafeteria with delicious and nutritious food from all regions of the globe made from scratch
  • Dorm rooms with students from across the world connecting and developing diverse friendships

Often, schools are thought of as a series of nouns: classrooms, hallways, desks, chairs. At the Whittle School, we focus on verbs—action words that describe what our students will do while they learn: making, researching, collaborating, inventing, storytelling, presenting, and more. At the same time, we place high value on art and design. We believe that by learning in beautiful and sustainable places, students will sharpen their sensibilities as they navigate their lives and careers, bringing with them lessons they’ve learned from experiencing thoughtful design on our campuses.  

Building on the past

Currently, we have two campuses under construction in Washington, D.C. and Shenzhen, China, which represent well over a million square feet of space. Our D.C. campus, located in the embassy district along Connecticut Avenue, is an adaptive reuse of the former headquarters of Intelsat.

Founded in 1964, the international telecommunications satellite organization ensured satellite communication capabilities were equitably available to all countries. The public-private consortium included telecommunications agencies from 150 countries.

Australian modernist architect John Andrews designed the late-modern building, which was completed in the mid-1980s. When Andrews’ design was released in 1980, Washington Post architecture critic Wolf Von Eckardt wrote, “Human comfort, energy efficiency and respect for the site and the cityscape are not separate features of this building, but the elements and functions that form the design.”

He also quoted John Andrews as saying, “This building was designed in a spirit of openness, of optimism, of faith in cooperation between people and groups of people, and the use of modern technology.” More than 30 years later, the Intelsat building will support Whittle School and Studios with similar ideals.  

Sustainability at school

Energy conservation ideas pioneered at the Intelsat building are now foundational to sustainable design strategies in our new, sustainable building. The building is organized by 13 octagonal towers, ranging from five to seven stories in height, that form six atrium courtyards. Planned to achieve an energy consumption level of 40 percent less than comparable buildings at the time of construction, the project was the first major sustainable building in Washington, D.C.

Original sustainable features include:

  • Exterior sunscreens to shade the façade and increase airflow around the building
  • A heat recovery system that utilizes heat generated by computer systems
  • Distributed chiller systems (located on top of the stair towers) that are more economical than centralized systems
  • Passive controls to naturally ventilate and circulate air through the atria
  • Floorplates designed to maximize daylight and views throughout the building

Design for performance

Our adaptive reuse of the campus in Washington D.C. maintains and improves sustainable features in areas that connect building performance with student performance, primarily through daylighting systems, acoustical control, temperature control, and indoor air quality. Through a growing body of research, we know that these building elements are linked to improvements in student performance in the areas of test scores, memory, concentration, missed days, and overall health.

At the core of our design team are architects at Renzo Piano Building Workshop and engineers at Arup. Working within the framework established by John Andrews, the adaptive reuse for Whittle School and Studios brings to life key attributes of our campus design, including:

  • A school situated in a park setting surrounded by mature, old-growth trees
  • An open and inviting design that allows the school community to see learning in action
  • Courtyards and piazzas that utilize almost 50,000 square feet in the atria as social centers for our students
  • Color that adds warmth and assists with wayfinding
  • Light and transparency that reinforce a campus designed with daylighting and views

We don’t know if it’s a coincidence that the early learning philosopher with whom we most closely align and the architect of our schools are both Italian. But just as the educational model of Reggio Emilia locates learning in the community and family, so too has Renzo Piano chosen to model our campuses on the idea of piazza: a central component of Italian villages and towns.

In other words, human places for people to experience life.