The reimagining of Orange County’s oldest independent school weaves tradition with a modern mix of flexible learning environments, collaborative spaces and outdoor learning areas.
Harbor Day School, established in 1952, is a K-8 school known for a family-centered culture, balanced education and rich traditions. But the aging campus in Corona del Mar, California, was not keeping up with the independent school’s mission to challenge and nurture students. After many remodels, the 6-acre site had morphed into a campus Head of School Angi Evans called “quirky.”
“Classrooms had low ceilings and felt dark and cramped, which we euphemized as ‘cozy,’” Evans says.
In 2019, Harbor Day trustees approved an ambitious plan to start from scratch, replacing every building, surface and landscape on campus. School leaders envisioned a new home that would continue Harbor Day’s traditions, while introducing next-generation educational, athletic and social spaces and maintaining “an atmosphere where [students] are known and cherished.”
The design maximizes a compact site. The performing arts center and gymnasium are part of the second phase under construction.
LPA’s integrated team of architects, designers, engineers and landscape architects worked with school leaders to develop a campus reflecting Harbor Day’s core values, while maximizing the potential of the site and activating outdoor spaces. The new campus is designed to feel like an extension of home for students, parents and staff, says LPA Project Designer Stephanie Matsuda-Strand. “For a school community that calls itself a family, our design approach was based on creating an environment that felt like a home away from home,” she says. “Everything we did was to create a sense of comfort and belonging.”
The complete campus replacement was designed to be built in two phases, allowing the school to stay open during construction. The first phase, a two-story main school building completed in 2022, provides 66,000 square feet of classroom and administrative space, including a first-floor lower school, a second-floor middle school, a STEAM wing and a library. The second phase, now under construction, will complete the campus with a theater, gymnasium, athletic field, music classrooms, kitchen, playground and outdoor sports courts. The two buildings come together in a single point of entry, which doubles as a secure welcoming space.
The reimagined library includes a stone fireplace, a popular element of the old school preserved in the new design.
The classrooms and administration building were designed with human-scale spaces and opportunities for togetherness — two features the school’s community wanted to retain from the former campus. Classrooms are modestly proportioned to fit Harbor Day’s small class sizes, while providing needed space for collaborative learning. Corridors are wide, with areas where students can connect and form bonds.
“We like the opportunities for students of various grade levels to encounter each other throughout the day,” Evans says. “The LPA team made sure that we had places for those daily interactions to occur.”
A reimagined library anchors the new building and the campus, emphasizing literature as a center of learning. At its center, a fireplace revives a popular gathering spot on the campus, including the mantelpiece preserved from the original fireplace. Nooks throughout the library provide spaces for private and group learning, including soft seating under the stairs. The two-sided fireplace connects to three areas, each oriented toward a signature space carried over from the previous campus: the library interior, the quad and the outdoor eighth-grade deck.
Outdoor learning spaces are an integral element of the new campus.
Outdoor learning is an integral element of the new campus. “We programmed the outdoor spaces the same as the indoor spaces,” Matsuda-Strand says. Nearly any classroom activity can be moved outdoors with ease. Sliding glass doors connect classrooms to nature on both levels of the building. The eighth-grade-only knoll, a popular spot on the old campus, was moved to a second-floor outdoor deck, outfitted with beanbag-toss boards and turf. Generous canopies provide shade and keep spaces usable on hot days.
Several outdoor learning spaces are equipped with writable surfaces for teacher-led instruction or group project work. The central quad is flanked by a grand stair programmed with built-in seating, planting and shade to provide a space for large school gatherings and celebrations.
Classrooms were designed with human-scale spaces and modestly proportioned to fit Harbor Day’s small class sizes.
“The intent was to blur the lines between indoor and outdoor,” says LPA landscape architect Danielle Cleveland. “We were focused on the idea that learning happens everywhere, and every space is student owned.”
The building uses passive design strategies, including orientation, thoughtful window placement and envelope efficiency, to cut energy 70% from AIA’s 2030 Commitment benchmark. Irrigation needs are 60% lower than baseline, and 100% of stormwater is treated on site.
Students can find their own spaces to study and work together on projects.
The second phase of construction is scheduled to open later in 2023. When completed, the addition will blend the new theater and gymnasium into a campus designed to position students for long-term success. The new campus will be “transformational” in addressing the needs of the entire faculty and staff, Evans says.
Shaded outdoor spaces are equipped with writable surfaces to support teacher-led instruction or group project work.
“The campus is beautiful,” she says. More important, it will help support the school’s larger mission.
“Harbor Day is about community,” Evans says. “The students, faculty and families share a desire to elevate education to not only prepare students for future educational experiences, but to prepare students for a meaningful life.”