Creating Evocative Learning Spaces

A California school committed to upgrading the campus around student-centric learning. The result is a model for learning-happens-anywhere school design.

At Tarbut V’Torah (TVT) Community Day School, outdoor stairs and walkways connect the three levels of the K-12 campus. But the fastest—and most popular—way to travel from the top level of the school to a lower level is by sliding down a new 20-foot-tall metal slide.

“Everybody uses the slide,” says LPA Associate Ozzie Tapia, the project designer on the recent reimagining of the campus.

The slide lands at the newly expanded Discovery playground, which also serves as a K-5 classroom without walls—7,000 square feet for planting seeds, making art, regulating creek water, reading in a hut and acting in an amphitheater, among other early learning activities. The slide provides a way to navigate the topography and connect older students, who study on the two top levels, with the K-5 students on the lower level.

Tarbut V’Torah (Hebrew for Culture and the Torah), located in Irvine, California, went through a fundamental transformation in recent years, as administrators wrestled with how to expand the aging campus into a facility that would inspire students and invigorate the community. In the process, the school developed into a model for creating student-centric environments that keep evolving, indoors and out, so that learning happens everywhere.

In 2013, TVT adopted a strategic vision committing the school to focus on student-directed, hands-on learning. Head of School Dr. Jeffrey Davis and his staff wanted learning environments that help instill independence and collaboration, creativity and problem solving at every age level.

The commitment forced school administrators and LPA designers to reconsider how every element of the campus functioned and how each part supported the educators’ goals. A deep dive engagement process brought together school leaders, teachers and students for discussions and charrettes on the learning criteria and very specific details of the design, including colors, finishes and the form of the outdoor spaces. “Student input was sought on furniture—the items they’d be interacting with the most,” says LPA Interior Designer Emily Koch.

The designers absorbed comments and the information from patterns of sticky colored-paper shapes that the staff, teachers and students placed on large boards. The LPA team took the boards away for further study and returned to TVT with options that were modeled in 3D to help the client prioritize space allocation and site locations.

“Creativity and solutions flowed from this informed give-and-take,” says LPA Landscape Project Designer Lancelot Hunter.

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A New Focus

The design included refitting and merging several new buildings and amenities into a nearly built-out, 21.5-acre campus. The project expands on the original by using the outdoors as a seamless extension of the learning spaces. All aspects of the campus were reshaped around finding new ways to engage students, as well as turning the campus into a teaching tool for sustainability. New spaces were developed to help students find connections to real world issues and facilitate collaboration with other students.

TVT Director of Curriculum and Instruction John Cassie calls them “evocative” spaces, “in the sense that they evoke a different approach to learning.” They also allow “a learner who isn’t going to thrive in a typical 20th century classroom to do well,” he says.

The core facilities include makerspaces, tailored and equipped for different age groups to invent and craft things, and STEAM buildings for exploring and intermingling science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. In STEAM labs and studios, TVT students find 3D printers, laser-cutters and digital movie cameras, which allow imaginations to soar and students to use their hands to fashion ideas into reality.

“A STEAM building should be a haven of interactivity, discovery and reflection,” says Dr. Julie Zoellin Cramer, founder and vice president of Wayfind Education, an LPA consultant. “The flexible learning spaces allow teachers and students to collaborate, students to collaborate with other students and teachers to collaborate with their peers. Learning sparks fly with all three combinations.”

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To implement the innovative educational methods, TVT teachers participated in lengthy workshops to help learn how to best use the transparent, interconnected learning spaces. In many ways, the traditional classroom has melted away. Teachers were trained to help students use the spaces to tackle an activity or project. Students can break away to gather their own project materials from open shelves, move chairs into new formations in a lab or go outdoors to spread out on an 18-foot-long, concrete work table.

“Even the youngest children benefit from making choices in the learning space,” says Dr. Cramer. “From kindergarten through 12th grade, students are on a developmental journey, not just academically, but also cognitively, socially, emotionally and spiritually. Agency in the learning environment is key to this development.”

Special, nurturing places can be found throughout the campus. The renovated K-5 library includes snug nooks and a custom-designed, “secret” entrance hidden behind a floor-to-ceiling bookcase. The design of the entrance added square footage from underused storage bays, taking advantage of a space-saving swiveling door crafted by LPA engineers.

Several rooms focus on the perspective of students. In the new addition to the lower school, windows are designed and scaled for little people. The Huddle, a round, quiet room with a low ceiling, is perfect as a nook for students, not adults. “The Huddle’s quiet, non-rectilinear shape helps students think ‘outside the box’ and its curvilinear walls help to encourage collaboration,” says Koch.

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Future-Proofing the Campus

The designs are built around flexibility, anticipating changes in technology and education. School administrators wanted open ceilings for easy upgrades and power reels to accommodate moving furniture and equipment. Movable walls, column-free concrete floors and furniture on wheels allow for fast changes and different choices.

The school is “trying to prepare students for careers that don’t exist yet in buildings that need to last a half-century or more,” Koch says.

Every new element represents an invitation to students to explore, test ideas, collaborate, fabricate or simply take time to reflect. Wi-Fi is available everywhere, but so are white boards to sketch or write on; comfortable lounge furniture pre-tested by students; and hangout space for each age group, including a new rooftop deck for high schoolers with views stretching to Los Angeles.

“How the indoor and outdoor spaces talk to each other is important,” Hunter says. “Beyond seamless transitions, the spaces must complement each other in learning opportunities.”

Merging the interior and exterior has always been a priority on the campus, dating to the original buildings designed by LPA 20 years ago. One new lower campus building eliminates the distinction between building and nature entirely with floor-to-ceiling glass panels at one corner. They fold out of the way, allowing students freedom of movement between indoors and out.

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The designers didn’t want to predict how teachers would use each space. “We don’t want to assign space for every single situation,” Hunter says.

The fitness building, including a dance and yoga studio, developed into a living teaching tool of sustainable design. The building is nestled into a steep, hollowed out slope; the excavated soil was moved onto the facility’s 400-square-foot green roof, which insulates the rooms below. Rain water sustains the rooftop’s California poppies, succulents and other drought-tolerant plants.

“The green roof is also our design response to knowing the upper school students look down on it, so it has to be attractive as well as functional,” Tapia says. “We call this feature the building’s ‘fifth’ façade.”

In many ways, the school is a textbook of sustainability. Stormwater is collected and treated on-site through infiltration basins and engineered bio-infiltration units. Drought-tolerant plant material was selected with the goal of providing color, texture, and visual interest for students, while paying homage to the native Israeli environment.

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An Evolution

Since the renovations, the campus has been recognized as an example of leading-edge learning, earning a half-dozen architecture, landscape architecture and engineering awards. Irvine residents are holding more events on campus, integrating the school into the community. And there is a long waiting list for the Class of 2032 to enter the school’s kindergarten.

But the biggest impact has been on the learning experience. Educators have noticed changes in how students are using spaces, Cassie says. Science classrooms and makerspaces are also evolving as “social-emotional learning laboratories,” he says. A design lab is being used by history and anatomy teachers to spark collaboration and implement maker-informed methods to help students build physical representations of objects, he says.

Educators have seen the change in students. They are more engaged, more curious, and more than ever, the campus reflects TVT’s belief in “joyful learning.”

This story originally appeared in Catalyst Issue 2 2019. Subscribe today to receive Catalyst, a quarterly publication that takes a deep dive into design ideas, industry leaders and initiatives.