Pacific Primary, an accredited pre-school located in the bustling city of San Francisco, is close at heart for firm Tom Eliot Fisch. Two of the San Francisco-based firm’s three founding principals are preschool alumni parents. So when Pacific Primary approached the firm with a need to expand its facilities with a new building, due to increasing area enrollment, the firm knew upholding the school’s mission for meaningful learning in a diverse, accepting, and healthy environment was of utmost importance.
“We needed to design a building for a program that was commendable in every way and lived its mission,” says Amy Eliot, AIA, LEED AP, principal at Tom Eliot Fisch. The new school also needed to be a community-serving building, addressing the need for creative and dedicated child development and care, as well as the larger objectives of sustainability and program-centered design, she says.
The original Pacific Primary school building, named Yellow Sun School, opened in September 1974 in a former 1940s mental health clinic. While the school well served its residential Western Addition neighborhood for several decades, increasing populations and enrollment demands resulted in the need for expansion. In January 2006, Pacific Primary acquired the Hicks Temple property directly across the street and began plans for timely construction on the new, sister Orange Sun School.
Tom Eliot Fisch collaborated with the school to reconcile the program on the site within the allotted budget and was challenged with opening the doors for a new school year after a construction schedule of just 11 months, from start to finish, including childcare licensing approval, according to Eliot. In spite of the truncated timeframe, Pacific Primary’s Orange Sun School successfully opened on time on September 2, 2008.
The Orange Sun School occupies a fairly small footprint, consisting of a single, two-story building that faces the original Yellow Sun school on a small corner plot. The 7,500-sq.-ft. facility accommodates an additional 75 students (nearly doubling the school’s prior enrollment), with four new classrooms, music and art rooms, a kitchen, a sunroom, and a playground, as well as administrative offices.
The layout centers on the four classrooms that serve as educational focal points surrounding an exterior play courtyard. At the heart of the school is the first-floor Sun Room Lobby, which is a mirror of the same main feature in the Yellow building. This space was designed to lie directly opposite to its counterpart to create a daily dialogue between the students, parents, and teachers during drop-off and pick-up times. A communal second floor space at the top of the staircase also allows for interior circulation.
“Given the tight, corner site condition, the design team was challenged to balance the need for interior classrooms large enough to handle projected enrollment, as well as communal and staff space, with the required, minimum outdoor space needed to satisfy state licensing requirements,” explains Tom Eliot Fisch project designer Lara Kaufman. “The immersive culture of the school and relationships among teachers, students, and parents also played a role in how circulation spaces were created that double-function as impromptu play and meeting space.”
The new building presents a modern and light aesthetic yet still nods to the older Yellow building. The teaching staff and the Head of School desired the classrooms to reflect more neutral tones, as opposed to the traditional bold colors found in youth education, to better focus the design on the children’s work. Light cream-colored walls, pale woods, and turf-toned carpets create a calming base in the classrooms. Color was more freely used in the common areas as a means to give a sense of movement and play that were more collegial among children, parents, and staff. For example, stairways feature bright orange walls, while a deeper green accents social activity areas in the Sun Room Lobby.
“In all cases, the objective was to ensure the healthiest environment possible,” says Eliot, “and, additionally, to use the spaces to communicate the school’s values and attitude about being caretakers of the earth and its resources.” Low-VOC and rapidly renewable materials—such as linoleum, energy-efficient lighting, tectum acoustic ceiling panels, and FSC-certified maple storage cabinets—were used throughout the project’s interior. Natural ventilation and radiant floors ensure thermal comfort and connection to the outdoors, while a photovoltaic roofing system provides 70 percent of the building’s electrical energy. Natural light and ventilation drove the configuration of windows to reduce the need for artificial lighting as much as possible.
Perhaps most intriguing about the Pacific Primary Orange Sun School is how its inhabitants have made use of this eco-friendly and education-focused design—just as the children will change and grow, so too does their use of the building’s spaces and features. “Seeing the kids and teachers appropriate the features of the building in unexpected ways [such as using the concrete retaining wall in the courtyard as a chalk drawing canvas] and watching the culture of the school grow and change in a manner that enhances its core values is the project’s true success,” Eliot says. “The design reflects its purpose, taking into account the spirit of the school and our firm’s commitment to a modernist, design vocabulary.”
“On this second site, Pacific Primary realized a dream and built the future of the school – for our children and our grandchildren,” reads the Pacific Primary Web site. “Together, we have begun this new chapter in the school’s history.”