Aiming to transform the learning experience for neurodiverse students through a nature-centric environment, NBBJ has unveiled a net-zero school in Encino, California. Titled "Westmark Lower School", the new campus will foster an inclusive and engaging learning experience for students and teachers, responding to the critical condition of U.S students, where 2.3 million were diagnosed with learning differences between 2019 - 2020.
The existing education system caters to neurotypical students only, disregarding neurodiversity, which can affect the amount of knowledge absorbed by those with different needs. The new campus will feature a unique net zero carbon design integrated into nature, further promoting the creation of zero energy education facilities, which have more than doubled in the U.S. since 2014. It will also include an indoor-outdoor, community-focused approach by replacing the existing 1950's modular buildings with new dynamic spaces.
The community was directly engaged in the design process from the outset through workshops and models to ensure a community-driven school that answers to their needs. The campus will stand as a "restorative refuge", focusing on acoustical design strategies to create a more comfortable atmosphere for young students with concentration difficulties. Different learning zones are integrated within each classroom, such as creative labs and reading nooks, to provide students with a range of customizable and choice-driven learning spaces. A centralized network of programs, such as occupational and speech therapy, theater space, and school counselor space, will foster a “continuum of care” throughout the campus.
Nature will be at the center of the project. The school will extend the "learning outside" approach by integrating daylight-filled classrooms that are oriented along a pinwheel formation and are directly connected to the outdoors. The courtyard and surrounding landscape feature interactive gathering spaces, a sensory garden, and a sculpture play area. In terms of material selection, the architects chose to employ calming natural materials, such as pre-fabricated mass timber and stone, to create a bright and engaging environment. The school’s structural elements are left exposed to showcase how the building was put together.
Future strategic plans include establishing an institute of research and training dedicated to teachers, with the aims of shedding the light on the importance of creating an inclusive environment. These new institutes will include training and evaluation techniques that assess students with language-based learning differences, collaborating with Los Angeles public and private schools, as well as establishing relationships with universities across the United States, to further promote neuroscientific research in educational practices.
The project will also feature sustainable elements such as rooftop gardens that provide access to nature, a central sycamore tree with a rainwater collection basin, solar panels, the use of mass timber elements, and deep roof overhangs that shade openings while creating a soft natural light to enhance learning.
Construction is set to begin in June 2022.