Photographs are by Chris J. Roberts.
DLR Group was responsible for two recent elementary schools in Federal Way near Seattle: Panther Lake, adjacent to a library by Mithun, and Valhalla, at the northern edge of the community. Federal Way's school district asked for the architects to focus on their guiding principles: Learning, Safety, Relationships, and Flexibility. The examined by "re-examin[ing] existing assumptions about educational needs...recasting the typical linear definition as a series of interrelated events... [to] suggest spatial interrelationships." Both were completed in August 2009, and each are similar in size and cost, but Panther Lake is featured here.
The architects approached the programming of the school's spaces by looking at the population throughout the day and in terms of basic learning activities, rather than in terms of rooms defined by specific curriculum. At Panther Lake this led to a plan diagram that distributed the classrooms across "rows of formal learning spaces" that intersect with the diagonal circulation (the "connector") to create special areas: group learning, display cave, library, story corner, outdoor learning, lunchroom, performance, etc. The rows of classrooms
"Interior walls are designed for further spatial flexibilities, enabling for easy daily change, light construction changes in 5 years, and more significant construction changes in 20 years." -DLR GroupThis plan drives the outgoing formal nature of the school. Each row is as small or large as it needs to be, giving the perimeter a varied in-and-out that creates small patios. Visibility across these outdoor spaces also provides security and experiential interest. As well the exterior is activated by splashes of color that coincide with the special spaces along the diagonal transect. Translucent lanterns alternate with the different colors to create a silhouetted landscape that echoes the surrounding landscape but is wholly artificial in its manipulation of boxy volumes.
Inside the finishes are minimal and border on the industrial with concrete floors, exposed steel structure, and exposed ductwork. This effect is softened by the wood beams that can be found throughout the fairly open spaces. The exterior colors also find their way inside, mainly through their visibility through the windows, something afforded by the finger-like plan. The lanterns ensure that natural light bathes the interior, an important consideration in a location where gray days are common.