Surgical design interventions with transformative consequences

Date: 03.21.19

Despite a tight budget and timeline, Pirie Associates’ incisive design interventions have transformed a small school in Connecticut.

(Check out the project here)

When representatives of Pirie Associates and Cold Spring School first met, it was love at first sight, according to firm principal Laura Pirie.  Arati Pandit (pronounced Arti), the school’s director, agrees.

Pirie Associates was one of five New Haven architecture firms invited in Spring, 2017 to submit proposals for a master plan and phased renovation of the private school, says Arati, and they had done their homework.

“They really got us, in terms of our mission and what we value,” she adds. “They worked hard to figure out what is important to the school. And what is unique about the school that we want to preserve.”

Cold Spring currently serves around 142 children from preschool to sixth grade. Their mission? To empower their students to “become self-reliant, curious, and resourceful problem solvers with the academic and social skills to engage constructively and ethically in our diverse, changing world.”

Their unique, progressive programming has been intact for over three decades, but structurally, they knew they needed help.

Brady Stone, Pirie’s senior associate on the project, says the Cold Spring School campus was lacking in several ways that stunted its full potential, but the administrators, teachers and students have “such a great attitude” they simply made do.

Rather than jump straight into installing a new roof and windows and air-conditioning, part of the school’s initial ask, the Pirie team characteristically took a step back to survey the bigger picture.

“A lot of what we do is to go into a space and observe,” says Pirie. “We watch how people move, how people interact, we watch their behaviors, and see how they cope with what they have. The biggest observation we made with the masterplan is that all of the pieces of the school, like a body’s organs, were brilliant and healthy, but the circulatory system was constricted.”

They found that the classrooms needed to be reorganized in order to improve the flow of student and staff circulation, both within and among the buildings. Although most of the classrooms are beautiful, spacious, and well-lit, the existing layout forced students to travel further than normal when moving from one class to the other—eating into valuable learning time. 

At the same time, the main brick building, an older structure, needed a few maintenance updates.

With this and other challenges that can only be confronted during the summer months, Stone says they created a multiyear phased plan with strategic interventions that complement the school’s stated intention to create a joyful learning environment and nurture a sense of community.

In addition to addressing the layout of certain classrooms, relocating “specials” classes like Art, Spanish and Tinkering to a separate building, the masterplan called for breaking open a formerly narrow main entryway so families could gather in a more generous place every morning before school.

The first phase was completed at the end of summer, 2018, just before the new classes began, so there’s been some time to try on Pirie’s changes. Mostly, the response has been one of extreme enthusiasm, if Arati is an indicator.

“The renovations that they’ve done so far reflects that Pirie really listened to us,” she says. “We want to strengthen relationships. Through space, they made that happen.”

Warm and friendly, Arati notes how simply expanding the entryway enriched the ritual meet n’ greet by giving children, teachers and parents more space to interact each morning. And new floor-to-ceiling glass brings in more natural lighting, brightening up the environment.

A few students did walk into the glass wall because they weren’t used to it. When Arati brought this to Pirie’s attention, she says they simply placed a bench in front of the wall, and nobody has walked into it since.

Mostly, Arati says she and everyone at the school is thrilled with the changes—noting how a few small interventions have made an enormous difference. And all this, she notes, they did within budget.

“They think the same way we do,” she says of the firm. “They have strong core values and we have the same—it’s a nice match.” 

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