Where Arts & Earth Collide: Rethinking School Structures

Learning, Learning Innovations / by

By Carrie Schmeck

Photo Courtesy of Steve Whittaker ©2011 at whittpho.com and Trilogy Architecture

For twelve years, Redding School of the Arts (RSA), a charter school in Redding, Calif., has been known for its fine arts and musical dramas. Today it has a new feather—a platinum LEED certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.

It’s not every day one finds arts education and eco – in the same sentence. But this K-8 school managed to attract funding from a philanthropic organization who believed in the school’s vision, where rural youth can explore global connections and metro-like cultural opportunities such as acting, stagecraft, fine arts and a burgeoning Mandarin program.

In initial conversations with the McConnell Foundation, an independent foundation in northern California whose mission is to “build better communities,” RSA directors, Margaret Johnson and Jean Hatch, presented their immediate building needs.

“We were thinking about what we needed to get by,” says Johnson, “but they asked what it would take to maximize our educational program.” They began to construct a vision of best-case scenarios, visiting other schools with green features— investigating what worked, what didn’t—and interviewing their clients, the students themselves and their parents.

While they developed an inventory of coveted educational components, designers from Trilogy Architecture researched green building options. There was never a question that the building would adhere to LEED standards, but the team discovered that it can be more difficult to obtain LEED certification on new buildings, as opposed to retrofitted structures. “You get points for removing inefficiencies,” explains Johnson. “We didn’t have that. Everything we did was new.”

Indeed, every step of every process was scrutinized for its carbon footprint—even waste products. “At one point, 80 percent of our construction waste was being reused,” says Johnson.

The 77,000 square foot campus, finished in 2011, looks every bit the part of eco-friendly—stunning design, copious natural lighting and welcoming learning spaces.

Fronted with glass and centrally located, mechanical rooms boast gauges that report energy and water efficiencies and computer screens in the lobby offer a dashboard view of the building’s impact at any given moment. “Kids see energy generated and consumed every day.”

Besides the obvious efficiencies, an open-air auditorium with three stages converts to music classrooms when the doors are closed and bathroom stalls are made of colorful, recycled plastic bottles. 100-year-old salvaged barn wood finishes a two-story wall and kids can draw or paint in the living art garden. Outside, choice parking spots are reserved for electric and hybrid cars and carpoolers.

Staff and students are encouraged to make functional eco-friendly choices as well. The school purchased green furniture, the staff makes use of newer technology to reduce paper waste and a local organization provides school lunches whose produce is grown locally.

Teaching on the cutting edge of green hasn’t been without its challenges. “Who knew ionized water would clean white boards so well?” asks Johnson, noting the staff tried several green cleaning products before finding one that performed to expectations. And with so much open air (even the cafeteria is outside), some parents worry about the exposure—“it doesn’t bother the kids,” says Johnson.

Asked about the marriage between earthy eco-friendliness and artistic learning objectives, Johnson says it makes perfect sense. “Our mission is to help our students become 21st century people. Our landfills are filling and even artists need to be thinking about where they are getting supplies and how they are using them.”

A complementary children’s theater is planned for an adjacent swatch of land as soon as the school and its collaborators can secure financial sponsorship.

Can an eco-friendly school impact a community beyond its walls? Does an eco-environment translate to greener choices at home? “I’ve had parents tell me their kids tell them to turn off the water when they brush their teeth,” says Johnson, “I can only think that if we’re modeling it here, it’s got to be going home, too.”

For information about RSA and its eco-building processes, contact Margaret Johnson at 530.247.6933 or James Thiemer, Trilogy Architecture at 530.243.3000.

Photo Courtesy of Steve Whittaker ©2011 at whittpho.com and Trilogy Architecture

Photo Courtesy of Steve Whittaker ©2011 at whittpho.com and Trilogy Architecture


Carrie Schmeck, a lifestyle and educational features writer, lives in Redding, Calif. Her three children attended RSA but graduated before this eco-campus was built. She can be reached through her website at bizziwriter.com. Follow Carrie on Twitter at @CSchmeckWriter.

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