Student Volunteers: Robert Pogue, Lisa Chan, Sarah Parkins, Jennifer Imbro, Daniel Parrish, Sarah Raphael, Stephen Muir, John Hayden, Johnathan Alessi, Taihui Li, Josh Rubbelke, and additional volunteers from Syracuse University School of Architecture.
Fabricators: Aquacut Inc, BBD Coaters Inc, City Woods, Hiawatha Fasteners, FALSO Industries, Fastenal, Klein Steel
Principal Donors: The Denny Family, Syracuse University Office of the Chancellor, Jowonio School, Syracuse Lions Club, King and King Architects, Ashley Mc Graw Architects.
Text description provided by the architects. The client is the Jowonio preschool, a recognized world leader in innovative education for students with special needs. The Jowonio School serves children from 3 to 6 years old, guided by the philosophy that students with special needs and traditional needs should be educated in an inclusive setting. Up to 30% of Jowonio students have some physical or mental disability, including autism, impaired vision, and limited mobility. The school attempts to provide an environment where all students may take part in as many class activities as possible.
The preschool sits at the bottom of a low glacial drumlin and has a nature trail that makes a loop half way up the hill, along a ridge below the top of the hill, and back down the hill again. The wooded escarpment behind the school allows Jowonio to address “nature deficit disorder;” relatively new research in the area of early childhood development suggests that less time spent outside and restricted access to nature negatively impact both behavior and health, and that in particular students with ADD are greatly assisted when they have access to the calm and quiet of an outdoor environmental setting. Thus, the school makes heavy use of their nature trail with some classrooms venturing out every day unless the temperature falls below 20F.
Last year, the preschool approached the Syracuse University AIAS Freedom By Design group to design and build an accessible outdoor classroom on the nature trail. The design build project was established as a 3 credit independent study course as a way to experiment with the integration of student–led community service into the curriculum. The project team considered several locations on the trail, but advice from a geotechnical engineer helped eliminate potential sites on unstable slopes that would make foundation design and construction prohibitively complex. The final site had the advantage of a mature solid tree around which to build in a relatively open clearing with a nice slope to make it possible to have a horizontal ramp into the structure from the trail side while having an 8ft clearance between ground and the floor at the other end for dramatic impact. The site also has good views back to the school playground through the bare trees in winter.
From the outset, students developed and devised an identify for the project, Play Perch, with a design inspired by both the Eastern Blue Bird (the New York State bird) and the AT-AT Imperial Walker from Star Wars. The final design called for a level platform around the tree that stretches off the trail into the air above the slope. Six splayed pairs of columns in a v shape support the platform from below. These posts are connected to the undercarriage of the structure and to the foundations below using custom steel splines. The foundations are six 16 inch diameter, 4 feet deep concrete piers dyed with iron oxide and a strip foundation where the ramp meets the trail. The platform is approximately 12 feet by 20 feet and cantilevers past the column line. The design embeds environmental education in an outdoor pavilion, incorporating sun, wind, water management and the like to educate young children about natural forces. The Play Perch is weather resistant rather than weather proof and the walls consist of timber frames with perforated weathering steel panels. The perforations are patterned after the feathers of a bird with variations in the aperture size to create windows. The roof consists of polycarbonate panels with steel Unistrut supports. Gutters in the roof overhang considerably so the children can observe the water running off and falling on a splash rock below. The roof forms an oculus around the tree for the children to lie on the floor and peer up into the branches. At the entrance the roof peels up to mimic the tail feathers of the bird. The large copper clad cantilevered window, the beak, is a polycarbonate sheet that tilts out to maximize the children’s view from the highest point in the plan. A custom-ordered climbing net stretches across the opening between the floor and the tree both above and below the platform.
The students optimized the fabrication and building of Play Perch, deploying a combination of off-campus local artisans, on-campus modular panelization in the wood and metal shops, and on-site construction as needed. The students sourced producers and installers with expertise in the Rust Belt economy of Upstate New York, including laser-cut self-weathering steel sheeting, baked-on ceramic coatings for metal fittings, and digitally driven water-jet ceiling panels. A neighborhood artisan, who works with the city arborist, supplied the black locust timber framing, which is naturally weather- and termite-resistant. The project is meant to age naturally in the severe weather of the Syracuse woods: exterior rusted steel panels will be allowed to weather to orange before being waxed to minimize transfer of rust to users’ hands and copper sheets on the cantilevered overlook will gain a deep green patina.
The interior design consists of a blue tile floor suitable for playground use that continues over the top of the two seating-tunnel hybrid furniture pieces dubbed “the caterpillar” and “the slug.” The tunnel is lined with green HDPE panels etched with the footprints of local animals. A specimen table from the same material sits atop a yellow powder-coated mini tree-shaped steel base, similarly etched with local leaf varieties and inset with magnifying glasses for the children to closely examine their findings along the trail. Overhead, a translucent polycarbonate roof rests on galvanized steel purlins, softly illuminating the interiors. Along the inside face of the perforated exterior steel modules, linseed-rubbed locusts posts support a wood trellis, providing a cove for LED strip lighting. The brilliantly colored interior contrasts with the subtle hues of the exterior materials.
The design strategy continues to the larger site context. With an almost eight-foot drop at the highest end, the space underneath the Play Perch became a space of exploration and discovery in itself. To maximize the use of this space, the dropped ceiling of cementitious fiberboard was scribed with a constellation of openings that were backlit with outdoor lighting fixtures. Students cleared undergrowth and debris to construct a new switchback path, facilitating access by children using wheelchairs. Along the path, students wove a nest of fallen branches and twigs, forming a perimeter to the site that they then dotted with concrete eggs for the children to encounter amidst their outdoor play.