Building a Vision: The Architecture and Design of Slate School

At first glance, the landscape architect’s rendering of the Slate School campus looks like Christopher Robin’s map of the Hundred Acre Wood in Winnie-the-Pooh. Amid clumps of bright green trees and meandering paths are magically named places like the Wooded Grove, the Wildflower Meadow, and the Raingarden. The 24-acre site is filled with imagination and poetry—and endless learning opportunities. Slate School’s mission is to nurture lifelong learners who are deeply connected to nature; who seek beauty and art in the world around them; and who value wonder, curiosity, and collaboration. The design of the school is a tangible representation of that vision.

The buildings that constitute Slate School total only about 6,000 square feet, a fraction of the size of a typical elementary school. This humble footprint is very intentional. Slate is a nature-based school, so its buildings were designed to merge with the landscape—and to blur the lines between outdoors and indoors, play areas and classrooms, the natural world and the human world. Situated in the farthest corner of the heavily wooded site, at the end of a 1000-foot-long driveway that curves through a meadow of waving grasses, the low-profile buildings are hardly visible from the road. They are clad in cedar to blend with the natural landscape of mature trees that surrounds them.

Every architectural decision is informed by the richness of the site. “For 24 acres, the site has incredible diversity of ecology and different habitat zones,” says Paolo Campos, associate principal architect at Patriquin Architects in New Haven. “There’s a wetland wood, a forest (or dry wood), a wetland meadow, a wildflower grassland. How do we make all those micro-habitats part of the project? That’s something kids and teachers will partake in and explore—all the different opportunities to wonder and learn and discover.”

Jason Williams, lead landscape architect at Milone & MacBroom in Cheshire, agrees. “One ‘Aha’ moment I had was when I realized the site’s educational opportunities, when I realized that you don’t have to fake it. There are really these different kind of riches around the site,” says Jason. “And as part of our plan, the children can access all of it. We’ll have mulched paths for the teachers and students to walk along all around the site, from the stream bed to the upland area. It’s their outdoor classroom.”

Paolo and Jason are two of many members of the passionate and imaginative team of architects, landscape architects, civil engineers, construction managers, tradespeople, and educators who are working together to ensure that the idea of Slate School becomes the campus of Slate School. The process is an entirely collaborative one that has been unfolding since February of 2017, when Jennifer Staple Clark and Alexander Clark first met with Patriquin Architects to start making the school's idea a reality. “What sets this project apart is that we were able to get the collaboration together,” says Paolo. “It was never ‘us vs. them.’ It was always the ‘we.’ No one has all the ideas. We’re taking the journey together.”

That journey started with little foam blocks and giant ideas. “The site really informs how our ideas start,” says Karin Patriquin, principal architect at Patriquin Architects. “So we lay these foam blocks onto a map of the site and start moving them around. It’s a real collaboration. Everyone expresses their ideas. ‘What do you think of this?’ Here we are, preparing these foam rectangles that we thought were about the right size. But we are like, “What else can we think of?’ The blocks kept getting smaller and smaller.”

“It could have been a 40,000 square-foot very dense school building,” adds Paolo. “But how would that fit with the school’s goal of being outside, of being able to play?”

The team decided fairly early on in the process that Slate School would have no hallways, and that the center of the building would be no building at all, but a courtyard. “The idea of a courtyard is very much a school tradition, in the English or Yale model,” says Paolo. “But the formal Gothic tradition is very enclosed, cut off. Here we split it open at the corners so you can see beyond. So you can get a glimpse to the wetland and wooded areas, and experience all those ecologies and habitats that we have.”

Building is going on in earnest this summer at the Slate School site. The construction is intentionally confined to a small area of the property, so the crew is coexisting with other inhabitants such as red-tailed hawks. “They come out every day,” says Alex Aalberg, superintendent at Gilbane Building Company in Glastonbury, who manages the building site every day. “These beautiful red-tailed hawks, they’ll swoop right down and grab a field mouse right in front of you. It’s an amazing place.”

There are six equally sized structures on the Slate School campus: four freestanding classrooms, one multi-purpose space, and an administration building that also houses the library. Each of the buildings has one large wall of windows looking out onto a courtyard or grassy area. High clerestory windows on the outer wall of each building let light in and provide views from building to building and into the outdoor spaces. “You can see outdoors from every possible place in the buildings,” says Paolo. “You’re always one step from nature and from the world.” The placement of the windows was carefully chosen to embody Slate’s vision of a nature-based school. “One side of the classrooms looks out onto courtyard, which speaks to community,” explains Paolo. “On the other side, with the high windows, you see the trees, and you’re looking at sky.”

The primary goal for Slate School has always been that the entire campus is as healthy and environmentally friendly as possible. The team is working toward LEED certification, and has incorporated into the design key principles from several other sustainability certifications, such as WELL, Passive House, the Collaboration for High Performance Schools, and the Living Building Challenge. Sustainability principles have been applied to choose the highest quality materials that are as close to nature as possible.

“Intentional,” “creative,” “thoughtful,” “magical,” and “poetic” are some of the words that members of the team use to describe Slate School’s design. “It’s about inspiring curiosity,” says Karin, “the curiosity of the children, the curiosity of the parents when they come. How does that reflect in the building? What can we do to reflect this love of learning and this respect for curiosity?” Even the names of the architectural elements evoke wonder: butterfly roof, rain chain, circadian lighting. They represent a conscious blending of purpose and aesthetics, leaving plenty of room for a child’s imagination and learning.

Here’s a little tour of some of Slate School’s most innovative architectural elements:

The Butterfly Roof on each Slate School building looks like a letter v or a traditional gable roof turned upside down. This modern roof style is given its poetic name because it looks like a butterfly that has just landed, with its wings unfolded but still tilted upward. This design allows for higher walls and more natural light, but still retains a low overall profile and creates a perfect receptacle for rain water. “A gable roof speaks of safety and security," says Karin. "The butterfly roof is whimsical. It speaks of flight.”

The Rain Chain is Slate’s version of a gutter. Once the rainwater is collected on the butterfly roof, it flows down the rain chain--a copper sculpture of intertwining leaves positioned on the side of the building. Then the water cascades over a stone garden and flows into an underground collection system, where it is used for landscaping and to maintain the wetlands. Unlike a traditional gutter, the copper rain chain is both useful and beautiful—and offers the children a chance to learn about rain and conservation of water. It even becomes an ice sculpture in the winter.

Circadian Lighting: The indoor lighting at Slate School mimics the natural light of the sun. In the morning, the light fixtures emit light that is warmer in tone, with reds and yellows, just like morning light. Around noon, the light turns to cooler tones of white and blue. As the afternoon goes on, it slowly shifts back to warmer tones. “You’re in rhythm with what your body over hundreds of thousands of years has come to expect,” says Paolo. “It fosters attentiveness when you need it and it fosters a proper night’s sleep too.”

Exposed Elements: Many structural and mechanical elements are purposely left out in the open at Slate School. Large exposed beams and their supports invite children to look at how the building is constructed. Mechanical systems, like the fabric ductwork for the heating and cooling processes, are also intentionally visible for the children to ponder. “One of the things we’ve found,” says Paolo, “is that people like to understand in some way what building they’re in, whether you’re an architect or a little kid.”

A Cedar Pergola surrounds Slate School’s courtyard. On a practical level, it provides shade from the sun, respite from the rain, and a connecting path for the school buildings. Aesthetically, its structure also creates dramatic and interesting shadows that are constantly changing depending on the time of day and the season. Partnered with the children’s observations and curiosity, the pergola offers many lessons in science, math, and art.

The learning opportunities are alive everywhere on the Slate site. There is an organic garden, a mud kitchen, cedar playscapes, maple trees that the children can tap, apple trees for picking and eating, many berry-producing shrubs to attract native song birds, small mammals—and children. “Everything is put in its location purposely, but it’s very whimsical,” says Jason. “The landscape says, ‘Have fun.’ The grasses are blowing in the breeze. The service berries have multiple branches and are strange and brambly. They say, ‘Let yourself be free.’ But sometimes you need to have composure. You can see that in the boxwoods and the formal hedges where the students get dropped off. Or you can see it in how we’ve pruned the apple trees.”

Even the driveway that leads up to Slate School creates a tone of wonder and magic. Since the school buildings are set at the back of the site, there is a long driveway from the road. The driveway is curved—for a reason. “When you have a straight road, you’re looking straight at a road,” says Jason. “When you have a curvy road, you’re looking at a little bit of road and little of what’s beyond the road. So your experience provides mystery in your life. It’s true.”

The design team can’t wait to come back in the fall to hear what kind of mystery the children have discovered in their school. “The students are going to find things that we never thought about. That’s the best part,” says Paolo. “We have tried to push the envelope to make this a really healthy environment for learning. But I hope there’s a sense of discovery, and that year after year, people find something new about it.”

The team members agree that the most important collaborators are the ones who will ride up that long, curvy driveway for the first time in September: the children. The mystery and poetry and beauty of Slate School will be waiting for them, as they all begin their journey together amid the Wooded Grove, the Wildflower Meadow, and the Rain Garden.

The construction of Slate School's campus is underway and will conclude in Summer 2018.