Case Studies in Ecodesign: Mountain Oak School
May 8, 2007
The final project for my Ecosa program this semester was a comprehensive masterplan for Mountain Oak, a Waldorf-based charter school in Prescott. Currently run out of an old two-story motel and a couple of converted houses, the school is in desperate need of more and better space. Our task was to develop a vision plan for Mountain Oak, remaking the existing site into something safer, more spacious and ecologically stunning.
As in every design, we started the process with exhaustive research. In this case, we had to familiarize ourselves with everything from local building codes to native plants, although we spent most of our time researching the Waldorf educational philosophy. Founded by German renaissance man Rudolf Steiner in the 20s, Waldorf education emphasizes whole body learning, creativity and imagination, and a connection to natural cycles. Over the years, architects from Steiner onwards have developed a style for Waldorf schools that includes faceted angles, thick, solid details, and natural materials; one paper we found even specified the ideal classroom shape for each grade.
Once we understood what Waldorf was all about, the principles of ecodesign seemed to fit perfectly into the mix. Far from being hidden, we chose to make the green features of the vision plan highly visible, letting the landscape itself teach students about our connection with the earth.
Another recurring theme of the project was community-building. Through a series of community charettes, we incorporated the school’s stakeholders into the design process and got valuable feedback at each step of the process. For instance, we were told time and time again that the pickup and dropoff was chaotic, so we rearranged the flow of people to streamline the process and foster interaction among parents and teachers.
With all our information at hand, we were finally able to begin designing. After hundreds of feet of trace paper, dozens of iterations on CAD, and many a heated group discussion, we ended up with a 5-phase plan that satisfied the many requirements of the school community, city code, and environmental sterwardship. Here are some of the key aspects:
An undulating ferrocement wall winds its way from corner to corner of the campus, curving in response to the activities it encloses, and accented with railings and gates insipred by Steiner’s designs.
The Plaza is a central gathering area for students covered by a six-post shade structure. When it rains, water drains into the center of the structure and falls to the floor, where covered gutters lead the water to the surrounding planted area.
The Village Center is a Steineresque passive solar building with community space on the ground floor and new classrooms for 7th and 8th grade above.
The current motel building gets a facelift with Green Screen, a modular wire mesh filled with planted evergreen vines.
We presented our vision plan to the community last Thursday, and it received a much better response than we could have anticipated. It remains to be seen how much of the vision plan will get built: like our other clients, the Gutierrez family, Mountain Oak has no budget to speak of. But even if it never makes it past the paper, our design succeeded in inspiring the Mountain Oak community to imagine what could be – as well giving us some much-needed experience in putting our wild green ideas into practice.