Building the New School

Lay of the Land: Designing a new school that looks like it's always been there

Written by Jay W. Schneider in 2001

If you don't know what you're looking for, it may be hard to spot the new San Pasqual Union School. This part of California is still very agricultural, and the rolling landscape is punctuated with a big red barn, a few silos, and other items you immediately associate with a working farm. Look closer and you'll notice the place is occupied by school children. You'll also see the word "Library" adorning one of the buildings. This 26-acre, not-so-wild-west compound is the new K-eight school, the only facility in the San Pasqual Elementary School District.

HMC Architects designed the school so it would blend with its surroundings, a still-rural community that's been annexed by the county of San Diego, an urban environment located only 45 minutes away. Completed in August 2001 for approximately $11.3 million, the school-nicknamed the "little school in the valley"-serves the needs of a growing community, but one whose growth is controlled by a large agricultural preserve that limits the amount of land available for new home construction. And, while the school reflects the area's history, its equipment and fittings are state of the art, including the use of Smart Boards in classrooms serving grades five through eight, laptop computers integrated into the curriculum, and a technology infrastructure that allows new equipment to be added as needs arise and funds allow.

The Design Mission

The silos, stone trim, and red-painted buildings anchor the school to its rural site, making the new facility look as if were always a part of the landscape. The district's original school was overcrowded and had no room to expand. The school sat on a cramped, 11-acre site; the district owned only two acres and leased an additional nine from San Diego County. No more land was available because the site bordered an Indian burial ground on one side and the San Diego Wild Animal Park on the other. The school also sat too close to dangerous, two-lane Highway 76; architect Randal Peterson, principal at HMC, said that during a visit to the school, he narrowly missed an accident that enveloped the car and truck behind him.

The library's interior is open, airy, and highly detailed, with exposed ductwork and wood trusses. The ceiling drops to a lower height in front of the fireplace, creating a comfortable story-telling area.

To accommodate a growing student population, modular units were added, and by the time the school closed, 10 such units dotted the landscape. Site acquisition for the new school began in earnest in March 1998, and while Peterson says that land acquisition is never easy, the district eventually purchased property owned by San Diego but leased to a farmer. The 26-acre site is bordered on two sides by seasonal creeks and a good portion of the land is a floodplain. Neighboring farmers raise ostrich and emus.

When the design phase began, the architectural team, district officials, and community members talked about creating a school that reflects the area's history. Considering some of California's earliest residents were Spanish settlers, the idea of creating a school modeled after a traditional Spanish Mission took form. However, as the idea evolved, the team realized that, while historically sensitive, a Mission-style school would standout against the landscape rather than blend in. Additionally, a Mission structure is internally focused, opening around a courtyard, whereas a farm or "old west" town is open to the views and land. Twenty months later, the school's final design turned out to be one that nicely complements the area's agricultural history.

Out Buildings

One of the courtyards is filled with antique farm equipment, representative of machinery used years ago by people who farmed this area. A campus environment, rather than one large building, allows individual structures to have their own variation on a theme, which the architects used to their advantage and created an identity for each grade level. The five kindergarten classes are clustered in a separate building with a private courtyard. The other neighborhoods, which have a total of 22 classrooms serving grades one through eight, are more flexible and can be set up to serve any grade as needed. The layout also is easy to expand and, at total build out, the school would have 12 neighborhoods and courtyards. The school now serves only 500 students but has a capacity of 960.

Other buildings opening to the "town square" include a multipurpose building-in the guise of a big red barn-that houses a gym and a theatre and there also are science labs, art classrooms, and a large library building. The library has a fireplace area that serves as a story-telling nook and silo room for quiet reading. A town hall building, reminiscent of the main building on which old western towns were centered, is used for student and staff meetings and by the school board staff. Adding to the imagery, says Peterson, is a fenced-in area with period farm equipment. This outside museum is a standalone feature and not representative of the school's other courtyards. Tumbleweed would not be out of place on these school grounds.

Well Equipped

An interactive whiteboard against the back wall works with the students' laptop computers and also serves as a projection screen. Once inside, it's clear the school is rooted in the 21st century. Fifth, sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade classrooms don't have traditional chalkboards, but instead have Smart Board whiteboards used in conjunction with laptop computers.

While all classrooms are designed to accept Smart Boards, they are found only in higher-grade classrooms where they are integrated with a computer curriculum. The classroom curriculum for students in lower grades does not utilize computers in the same fashion and therefore Smart Boards are not yet used. While it may seem unusual to have such a high level of equipment in a smaller school and even smaller school district, there was no special funding required. All equipment was purchased with regular state funds California provides to its school districts.

Aside from the Smart Boards, laptop computers, and other PC's located within the school-including 20 setup in the library-the San Pasqual School Elementary District is especially proud of its usual playground equipment. According to CeCe Bostrom, office manager for the district, their facility is the only public school she knows of with a climbing wall installed outside for use by elementary school children.

Responding to its Environment

Besides aesthetics, other important design considerations were efficiency and sustainability. Being sensitive to these needs was especially important for a school situated in an area where people still work the land.

The local utility provider, SDG&E, operates a "Savings by Design" program to promote energy efficient and environmentally-friendly construction. The little school in the valley exceeds the program's standards by 24 percent. The HVAC units exceed efficiency requirements, non-operable windows are installed to prevent the loss of cooled air, and some buildings, such as the multipurpose facility with its barn doors, feature natural ventilation; open the doors at both ends and you've created flow-through circulation. Buildings also are oriented to take advantage of natural daylighting while deep overhangs provide shade and prevent excess heat buildup.

Building materials consist of maintenance-free poured-in place concrete, stone, tile, and corrugated steel panels. Surprisingly, natural wood-painted barn red-is used as an exterior finishing material. However, Peterson says, the rough-sawn wood panels, which are attached with battens, are easy to care for and inexpensive to repair. The siding can be replaced section by section, panel by panel when needed and, once painted with battens back in place, the repair is indistinguishable from the rest of the material.

Almost Problem-Free Completion

Guided to completion by Kathy Lord, project director at HMC, the school project, while challenging in the traditional sense, had few unexpected problems until it came to finalizing state funding. The state funding process was in legal turmoil following a lawsuit by parents and students from Los Angeles Unified School District, who said the State Allocation Board's first-come, first-serve distribution method put urban districts at a disadvantage. Their complaint threatened every state-funded school project in California. While the state is still working out some legal issues, the situation did not create any delays-just a sense of uneasiness, says Peterson-and the San Pasqual Union School opened in time.


Construction Materials

Masonry: RCP Laminate

Millwork: Wilson Art

Cabinets: Murray Cabinets

Acoustical Ceiling: Armstrong

Ceramic Tile: Dal Tile

Door Hardware: Sargent

Wood Doors: AMS

Metal Doors: Curries-Essex

Insulation: Owens-Corning

Paint: Dunn-Edwards

Plumbing: Kohler

Roofing: GAF

Glass/Glazing: Fleetwood Glazing

Vinyl Wall Covering: TEK-

Wall Carpet and Flooring

Carpet: J&J

Vinyl Composition Tile: Azrock

Base: Burke

Ceramic Tile: Dal Tile

Physical Education Flooring: Marmolium


Emergency Lighting: Simplex

Security/Fire Safety

Fire/Life Safety Systems: Lifeguard Sprinkler; Simplex

Security Systems: Simplex


Drinking Fountains: Haws

Washroom Fixture: Kohler

Whiteboards: Smart Technologies


HVAC Units: Carrier

HVAC Control Devices: Honeywell


Acoustical Ceilings: Armstrong