One of the school's "treehouses"
Robert Benson Photography One of the school's "treehouses"

Of all the memories the residents of Newtown, Conn., have about the former Sandy Hook Elementary School, one of the most popular and poignant ones concerns the ducks. “At the old school, we had a closed-in courtyard,” recalls the school’s head custodian, Kevin Anzellotti. “Every spring the mama duck used to come and lay her eggs and they would hatch in the courtyard. Then we would have to march them through the building when it was time for them to leave. We had to open up the doors and let them walk through the school to let them get out.”

“Over time it just became a tradition,” adds Baxter Hankin, a Newtown resident now entering his sophomore year at the School of Architecture at Syracuse University. “They had a celebration around it.”

It’s a sweet story, redolent of that childhood classic by Robert McCloskey, Make Way for Ducklings. The image of little kids escorting ducklings through the school’s hallways becomes unbearably sad, however, when you think about the memory most people have of Sandy Hook Elementary.

After the shooting in December 2012, which took the lives of 20 students and six adults, the old school, a simple, flat-roofed, brick square constructed in 1956 and configured around a grassy courtyard, was cordoned off. It was a crime scene. The surviving students were sent to a borrowed school building in the nearby town of Monroe. By May 2013, Newtown decided it was best to demolish the Sandy Hook school and erect a new building on the same property. The town organized a search to find an architect to design it on a tight 20-month schedule, using $50 million given to the town by the state of Connecticut.

A footbridge leads to an entrance of the new school
Robert Benson Photography A footbridge leads to an entrance of the new school
Robert Benson Photography

A Question of Process
The new school, which welcomes its first students on August 29, is unconventional in appearance. Its façade, a long, concave, curving wall—an “embrace” according to the architects—made of vertical wooden planks with a gently undulating roofline, has a look that is decidedly anti-institutional. “We didn’t believe in straight lines,” says Jay Brotman, AIA, a managing partner at Svigals + Partners, the New Haven, Conn.–based architecture firm that won the commission. Founded in 1983 by Yale graduate Barry Svigals, FAIA, now partner emeritus, the firm has a track record of designing exceptionally cheerful public schools, buildings typically filled with daylight and lots of artwork. The firm’s signature, though, is its process, which relies on forming a close relationship with teachers, children, parents, and members of a school’s larger community.

The workhorse of Svigals + Partners’ architectural tool kit is something called a School Based Building Advisory Committee (SBBAC). That’s a long title for the simple strategy of gathering as many interested parties as possible to talk about a school as it’s being designed—what it signifies to the community, how it should work, how it should look. The firm brings students directly into the process, by letting them create artwork for their own schools and through “KidsBuild!” workshops, in which the children learn, often from the contractors themselves, about different aspects of construction. More than the firm’s architectural style, this approach to making the community a collaborator is what gave Svigals an edge in Newtown.

The interior of the school, which exudes "good cheer"
Robert Benson Photography The interior of the school, which exudes "good cheer"
Robert Benson Photography

After an initial request for qualifications drew some 20 to 30 responses, Svigals was one of seven firms that were asked to submit a detailed proposal. “We didn’t know what was needed,” Svigals told me. “But we do know a lot about making schools.” What he presented to the Newtown officials was the idea that his firm would “create a process” in which the community’s needs could be “discovered.” (By contrast, says Svigals, the next firm to present came in with a model.)

“I needed a very special firm to take hold of this project,” recalls E. Patricia Llodra, the First Selectman of Newtown. “Every single firm that we interviewed was more than qualified and more than capable of taking on the design challenges, but what I was looking for was a firm that really spoke to my heart, that really understood the trauma that we had experienced.”

The collaborative philosophy proposed by Svigals “was very persuasive,” she says. “Because what I heard immediately was the extent to which they understood that this project had to be organic. It had to really engage the community. The community voice was the most compelling piece of the process.”

A meeting of the SBBAC
Courtesy Svigals + Partners A meeting of the SBBAC

An Absence of Stuffy Suits
As the architects tell it, the 50 or so members of the Newtown SBBAC, which convened seven times beginning in October 2013, less than a year after the shootings, are largely responsible for the design of the school. Brotman says, “We brought them along with all the steps. We tried not to be the experts but part of the team.” Svigals associate principal Julia McFadden, AIA, adds, “The beauty of having a group like this is we’re not pontificating. They’re coming to conclusions themselves.”

At first, the architects didn’t ask about the design of the school or even its programmatic requirements. “The questions we asked at the very beginning were crucial in setting context,” Brotman says. One of the first questions they asked was, “What do you love about your community?”

The SBBAC designs a courtyard
courtesy Svigals + Partners The SBBAC designs a courtyard

“I’m thinking all these architects are going to come in with stuffy suits and tell us how it’s going to be done,” remembers Anzellotti, who’s been a custodian with the school system in Newtown for 15 years. “At the very first meeting we sat there and they went to each person individually, in front of everybody, and said, ‘What did this school represent to you? What does this town represent to you?’ I thought that was pretty cool.”

“Everybody shouted out ideas,” Anzellotti continues. “They didn’t knock anything down, they just listened to everybody.”

The library
Robert Benson Photography The library

Of the design process, Svigals now insists, “We can’t remember who made any of the decisions. It was so collectivized.” Many of ideas discussed at the SBBAC meetings were conspicuously incorporated into the design of the school. For instance, Sandy Hook, which is a small village within the larger municipality of Newtown, is knit together by a series of footbridges across the Pootatuck River. The river and the bridges were one of the things many of the townspeople said they loved.

So the footbridge motif was adapted to the entrance of the school where a “rain garden,” a rippling array of plantings designed to absorb the stormwater runoff from the school’s roof, hugs the front façade. To enter the school you have to cross one of three footbridges, a device that also ensures that everyone is forced to approach the building along one of three well-watched pathways—typical of the inconspicuous ways that security concerns are factored into the building’s design. The approach to security, according to McFadden, was driven by a concept called Criminal Prevention Through Environmental Design, which stresses openness and clear sightlines over bunker-building. The classroom doors also lock, whole wings of the school can be isolated, and certain walls and windows have been hardened against gunfire.

One of the courtyards behind the school
Robert Benson Photography One of the courtyards behind the school

The Importance of Nature
In the meetings, participants frequently stressed the town’s strong connection to nature. So the design of the school emphasizes the surrounding environment in ways that are symbolic and literal. The undulating façade in front of the building represents the area’s woods and hills, with three gabled glass towers that stand taller than the main wall, alluding to the town’s church spires. Throughout the building, trees—stylized ones appear everywhere—are a dominant motif.

The old school building was, as Brotman puts it, “a square donut” with a grassy opening at the center. That courtyard was, of course, home to the duck family, and was much beloved, so one committee meeting was devoted to figuring out how courtyards could be incorporated into the new building, which is configured more like an airport. It has a long corridor parallel to the front façade—the school’s “Main Street”—linking major spaces, like the library and the cafeteria, and three classroom wings perpendicular to that primary corridor.

As Hankin, then a high school student, recalls: “The firm had a day where they brought in a lot of shapes that represented certain landscaping features, and they had the committee break up into teams, and each team was designing a courtyard.” The shapes, Hankin explains, were “little two-dimensional cutouts.”

A classroom
Robert Benson Photography A classroom

The school wound up with not one but three semi-enclosed courtyard areas. At the rear of the lobby, a two-story-high glass wall—decorated with tree sculptures—looks out onto the main courtyard, formed by the building’s pair of two-story classroom wings and planted with young shade trees. A couple of gently sloped amphitheaters, good for outdoor classes and performances, are incorporated into the landscape. There are also two smaller courtyards that have yet to be planted or programmed.

Mostly, the new Sandy Hook School is distinguished by an abundance of thoughtful touches, features that a child might appreciate. In the corridors, colorful rectangles of linoleum mark the entrance to each classroom, like welcome mats. In the lobby, there’s a sculpture on the ceiling composed of slowly moving metal “leaves.” And best of all, there are “treehouses.” At the end of each of the second-floor corridors is a snug room with a curvy bench where kids can work on projects in small groups or just look out the windows into the surrounding woods. From the outside these rooms appear to be sheds, separate from the main building, supported by the branches of steel trees.

The school prominently features a tree motif
Robert Benson Photography The school prominently features a tree motif

In the effort to make the school come in on budget, it was suggested that the treehouses be value-engineered out. “There was quite a bit of community discussion about that,” Llorda recalls. “Everybody in the community said, ‘No no no no.’ That it’s important to make sure we have those treehouses because those really were part of how the community saw the role of this school, being part of nature and the woods.”

And, of course, there are ducks. Whether the mama duck of legend returns to lay her eggs remains to be seen, but ducks in flight are depicted on bas relief panels made by Svigals himself that line the non-windowed walls of the lobby. More ducks in flight are depicted in a mural by a local painter, Robert Reynolds, which adorns the school’s main office. And one of the building’s three weather vanes is topped with a duck trailed by three ducklings.

A bas relief panel designed by Barry Svigals decorates the lobby
Robert Benson Photography A bas relief panel designed by Barry Svigals decorates the lobby

A Fresh Start
The circumstances in which the Svigals team worked were uncommonly fraught. As Llodra puts it, “This was a project that was born of a tragedy, so every time you brought people together to talk about it you couldn’t help but understand that you had one foot in this horrible thing that happened to us.” The building itself, however, exudes nothing but good cheer. Although the town is planning a memorial to those who died in the shooting, it won’t be in the school or on its grounds.“Those youngsters and those teachers and those parents who interact with that building need to be in a place that’s full of love and joy and happiness and that is forward-looking,” Llodra says.

Robert Benson Photography

I can recall only one other situation as emotionally charged, in which a large number of community members were invited to engage in a restorative rebuilding process. I can’t honestly say that the sentiments of New Yorkers are as well represented by the rebuilt World Trade Center as those of Newtowners are represented by the new Sandy Hook Elementary School. What the Svigals team produced is a deft amalgam of its practiced approach to school design and its long-term investment in community engagement. The end result is a fascinating study in what happens when an architecture firm eschews ego or, more accurately, when a firm invests its ego not in the formal attributes of its buildings but in the quality of its collaboration with the people who will use them. Or as Anzellotti puts it, “It’s almost like we worked for them. That’s how they made us feel. It was really comfortable.”