The Trees Tell the Story

On a California high school campus, the design of the new STEM lab used existing trees to create a dialogue between nature and the learning environments.

The proposed site of Menlo-Atherton High School’s new STEM lab presented an immediate opportunity: mature Valley Oak trees dot the grounds of the Atherton, California, campus, including two situated right where the school’s master plan called for the new STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) building.

Determined to keep the trees, LPA designers allowed the trunks and branches to dictate the design of the facility, creating learning environments that are a living lesson in sustainability. The design creates a dialogue between the building and the trees, weaving them together. Students, teachers and visitors pass under the trees as they approach the structure; when they climb to the second floor, they seemingly ascend into the treetops.

“It was a great opportunity to take a benefit of the site and let that inform not just the planning, but also how we articulated the building,” says Helen Pierce, Design Director in LPA’s San Jose office.

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The trees provide a variety of sustainability benefits, in addition to creating a direct link to nature. The 17,400-square-foot, two-story, steel-frame, L-shaped structure, which opened to students last fall, forms a courtyard under the canopy. The trees—to the south and west—shade the building where shade is most needed, and they filter the daylight that pours into classrooms.

The project was an important step in the growth of Menlo-Atherton, which is routinely ranked among the top public high schools in the country. Located in a suburban community between San Francisco and San Jose, California, the school is in close proximity to Stanford University in Silicon Valley.

The first floor houses the two environmental science labs and a “makerspace,” a laboratory for robotics and other design-build projects, which fall under the umbrella of Career Technical Education (CTE). The laboratory has an operable window wall that can be opened to allow the flow of fresh air and connect the rooms to the courtyard. The second floor houses two physics labs and a culinary arts lab.

The upper level’s exterior circulation faces the tree canopy and includes overlooks with views of the tennis courts and soccer field. One overlook includes an operable outrigger arm for physics students’ free-fall experiments. The interior spaces are designed for flexibility, including large rolling lab tables and collaborative workspace.

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The three-year design and construction project—located in the center of campus—posed a variety of challenges for the school. One key was creating a system to bring in construction materials and workers without impacting the students and the existing class schedule.

“We used a lot of sequencing and summer phasing,” says Denise Flatley, a project manager in LPA’s San Jose office.

Because of the trees, workers could not use a regular backhoe to prepare the site. Instead, “we used air and water spading,” Flatley says. “It takes longer, but it was necessary to preserve the trees.” Arborists supervised the construction throughout to ensure that the oaks remained healthy.

The trees provided the framework for the design concept. Leaves inspired LPA’s design for the building’s rainwater management system. Roof water flows to a central oversize gutter that, much like a folded leaf, directs water to a large downspout that spills into a permeable rain garden under the stairs. The building’s outer shell—the bark—is textured plaster. The building spreads out across the site like the roots of a tree. And 66 grooves are carved in the stucco finish—much like the rings of a tree trunk—marking the age of the high school in 2017, when construction began in earnest.

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The reaction on campus when the school opened last October was immediate. The process was “very, very worth it,” Menlo-Atherton Principal Simone Rick-Kennel said at the dedication ceremony. Teachers praised the flexibility and the different teaching tools available within the classrooms, from microphones to hooks for experiments. Students were naturally drawn to the courtyard and the circular teak benches encircling the trees, Flatley says. The canopy and the spaces under the trees, often used for class sessions, have become part of the student experience.

“The effort we took to preserve those trees made that building,” Flatley says. “It looks as if it had been there since the time the trees were planted.”

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Dances with the Trees

The new STEM academic building at Menlo-Atherton High School shares a site with large existing Valley Oak trees that define much of the campus. The STEM building embraces and weaves a visual connection with nature, allowing the building to have a dialogue with the trees.

1. Food Service
2. Soccer Field
3. Library
4. Rain Garden
5. STEM Building
6. Outdoor Classroom
7. Industrial Arts

This story originally appeared in Catalyst Issue 3 2019. Subscribe today to receive Catalyst, a quarterly publication that takes a deep dive into design ideas, industry leaders and initiatives.