NBBJ unveils nature campus in Los Angeles for neurodiverse students

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NBBJ, headquartered in Seattle, shared its design for the Lower School campus of Westmark Schoola private school located in the Encino neighborhood of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley that serves neurodiverse students with language-based learning differences such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia.

Westmark’s Lower School, which serves children from from the second to the fifth year, is currently housed in an antiquated group of modular classroom units dating back to the 1950s. The comprehensive reinvention led by NBBJ will transform the existing lower school into an inclusive and entirely new net-zero energy facility where indoor and outdoor spaces merge to create a campus integrated with nature – a learning environment covered in greenery that both stimulates the senses and provides a calming and concentration-friendly backdrop for Westmark’s youngest students to study and learn in individual contexts and collaborative.

In 2019-2020, 2.3 million college students in the United States were diagnosed with learning differences like dyslexia. While teaching methods have evolved and adapted to better meet the needs of neurodiverse children, however, most physical classrooms remain specifically tailored to neurotypical students at the expense of those who learn differently.

(Courtesy NBBJ)

“Embodying Westmark School’s highly specialized and individualized model of education, the Primary School offers a range of adaptable and choice-oriented areas to accommodate different types of learning, from independent and focused to more community-based and active,” the NBBJ explained in a design statement. “For example, the design prioritizes special acoustic strategies to promote quiet study. Designers selected a variety of sound-absorbing materials for different spaces, developed reading nooks and other niches for creative learning inside and outside the classroom, and directed views toward green spaces to enhance different educational modes.

NBBJ is serving as the Design Architect and Official Architect for the LEED Gold project, which is expected to begin construction in June. Two crucial aspects of the 15,500 square foot campus – acoustic design and landscaping – are led by Antonio Acoustics and SWA, respectively. The extended project team also includes Suffolk building (service provider), KPFF (civil engineer), tk1sc (MEP engineering), Fast + Epp (structural engineer) and Workshop Ten (environmental design consultant). NBBJ is also overseeing the lighting design and environmental graphics for the new facility.

“We are really excited about this project and the incredible impact it will have on students, teachers and staff,” said Jonathan Ward, design partner of NBBJ. A. “The design brings together the latest research in sustainability and neuroscience to create a truly neurodiversity-friendly experience. The indoor-outdoor environment literally puts nature at the heart, while the highly flexible classrooms support a range of diverse learning modes, from group work to individualized learning and everything in between. We are so fortunate to work with Westmark School, while adapting the design to support both their teaching model and positive learning outcomes.

rendering of students playing on an outdoor terrace
(Courtesy NBBJ)

Designed in partnership with a neuroscientist Dr. John Media and Westmark’s largest community, the campus design takes on a windmill shape in which individual classroom spaces – all with abundant natural light and oversized hangar doors opening onto the surrounding landscape – will flank a central courtyard anchored by a giant California sycamore tree. Additionally, all circulation lanes within the campus are located outdoors “not only to stimulate the senses and provide pleasure, but also to create regular moments of engagement with the powerful benefits of outdoor learning.” air beyond the traditional classroom space,” according to the company.

The building materials used in the project, including solid wood and stone, will provide an additional connection to the natural environment as part of the design team’s overall effort to promote cognitive, emotional well-being. and physical through exposure to nature. In addition to the central courtyard, the design incorporates several other outdoor gathering spaces, including a sensory garden and a sculpture play area.

Joining classroom space, the Lower School campus will directly benefit from an integrated network of programs currently spread across Westmark’s various divisions. These services include occupational and speech therapy, theater space, and school counselor space.

rendering of an open elementary school campus with a tree lined yard
(Courtesy NBBJ)

As mentioned, the project is aiming for LEED Gold certification as well as Zero Carbon Certification from the International Living Future Institute. The emphasis on sustainability will not only help minimize the environmental footprint of the facility, but also educate “future school leaders to be stewards of the world.” Planned sustainable features including solar panels, insulated rooftop gardens that double as outdoor learning spaces, a rainwater catchment basin at the anchored sycamore on campus, and the aforementioned use of natural building materials throughout, which will be left exposed so that curious students of architecture can better understand how a building fits together.

And given its emphasis on flexible, indoor-outdoor learning and a design that lends itself to natural lighting and ventilation, the Lower School is also “well suited to pandemic needs”.

As noted by NBBJ, the future lower school campus acts as an important benchmark in Westmark’s broader ambitions to be part of a “vital networked early intervention resource” that will positively impact neurodiverse children far beyond the school’s Encino campus. Future strategic plans include the creation of a “research and training institute” that will dispense ideas and knowledge to public and private school educators elsewhere in Los Angeles and across the country.

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