An abandoned electric utility site is producing renewable energy in the form of a Pre-Kindergarten - Grade 5 magnet school devoted to literacy in STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and math. The CREC Discovery Academy opened in Wethersfield, CT in September 2015, in a facility that creates learning opportunities inside and out.
The site, adjacent to the Berlin Turnpike, was selected by the client, Capital Region Education Council, because of the abundant wooded landscape and its availability in a challenging urban environment. The property included three 1950’s-era buildings abandoned by a utility company in 2006 and left to deteriorate. Making the property appropriate for its new life included soil remediation and demolition of two buildings and part of a third, as well as abatement of hazardous materials in the renovated portion. A new addition was added as well, for a total of 72,000 square feet.
The architects recall the client wanted an indoor-outdoor connection. “Research shows that schools connected to natural light and nature are calm, yet stimulating and invigorating,” said one.
Designers created two front doors: a parent drop-off and a bus drop-off, with canopies connecting to interior walls. Canopies serve double duty collecting rain water into rain barrels. A spine of pavers draws students into an atrium with a signature water feature, creating a calming effect. A multipurpose gathering space, which can serve as cafeteria, gym or theater, is another first-floor highlight. Natural light, understood to enhance learning, transfuses the school.
The building program includes 24 core classrooms and additional spaces for science, literacy, art and music. There is computer lab, library and media center. Color is used for wayfinding, with each floor identified by a color. Designers who oversaw interiors noted that primary colors are used for younger students, with more subtle tones on floors dedicated to older students. Floors are grey to reduce glare. Teaching walls are in color to draw young eyes forward, while surrounding walls are neutral. Orange is used in the gymnasium to suggest energy. A glass bridge and transparent media center evoke an environment where education is always happening.
Designers utilized wood and natural materials, drawing on European references. And each double-loaded corridor has vanishing points that look out onto the wooded site. “There are no dead ends.”
The exterior shell and curtain wall are designed to reflect light, representing the motion of the turnpike. The east side utilizes oscillating vertical fins that cast shadows across the building throughout the day. A roof garden will be used to grow salad vegetables.
Outside learning spaces include an amphitheater enclosed by elevated berms that hide the bus drop-off and allow views of the natural areas, which have been planted with native wildflower species. There are labyrinths, a gathering circle under a signature oak tree, a rain garden, planting beds, nature trails, boardwalks and bridges. The property includes ball fields and playscapes, which are utilized by community residents as well as the school, creating a 24/7 environment.