Spend a day at almost any school across the country, and you probably won’t see teachers encouraging students to congregate in the hallways, and passing notes in class will not earn children brownie points. But the LearningSpring School in Manhattan is not just any school. It’s the first LEED for Schools Gold-certified institution in the state, yes, but what really sets it apart is its students, who are all on the autism spectrum.
The LearningSpring School stands on the bustling corner of Twentieth Street and Second Avenue, where its eight floors make up Manhattan’s version of the “little red schoolhouse.” Clay-colored terra-cotta panels line the first floor and reach for the rooftop play yard on the north and west corners, replicating the look of red brick. Two silver circumscribed trees, the school’s logo, are emblazoned on the exterior walls. Cool-green glass and a steel canopy of strategically positioned shades climb from the second floor up, giving the building a distinctly modern feel.
But on the other side of those windows, the world is quieter. Kids ranging from kindergarteners to seventh-graders complete their lessons just as their peers across the city do, but they also study social interaction and relationship development. Having a conversation with another student is encouraged—in fact, it’s built into the design of the hallways with strategically placed benches in cozy alcoves. Although posters with fluorescent colors and designs may adorn the walls of the middle school across the street, clean, uncluttered spaces decorated with earth tones and horizontal patterns provide a calming effect at LearningSpring. These subtle touches contribute to a better learning environment for the unique needs of LearningSpring students, and in this way, the school has responded to the way they learn. However, it wasn’t always this way.
Location New York City
Size 34,500 ft²
Program Classrooms, meeting rooms, offices
Architect Platt Byard Dovell White Architects
Client LearningSpring School
Structural Engineer Leslie E. Robertson Associates
MEP Engineer AKF Group
Landscape Architect Billie Cohen
Lighting Designer One Lux Studio
Nearly eight years before the doors to the new school opened, a group of parents who were unsatisfied with the way their public schools were addressing the needs of their high-functioning children who have autism spectrum disorders took matters into their own hands by starting the first LearningSpring School in two floors of commercially zoned office space on Manhattan’s west side. “They made the best of a space that was not designed to house a school, let alone one for students with special needs,” says Erica Gaswirth, project architect for Platt Byard Dovell White Architects (PBDW), who designed the new school. “You walked through, and it was obvious how limiting the space was to their potential.”
In 2007, the decision was made to expand. LearningSpring’s board of directors began shopping for an architect that could deliver on a short timeline, had experience working on the school year schedule, and would be sensitive to the amenities necessary to create a uniquely responsive school for this population. Which is where Gaswirth and the team at PBDW came in. The firm fit the bill with a résumé stacked with private and special needs schools, and PBDW had a reputation for innovative, green design.
Once the partnership was finalized in November 2007, PBDW wasted no time breaking ground, or rather breaking down the existing 19th-century tenement buildings that stood in the school’s future plot. In order to meet the accelerated fall 2009 deadline, demolition and design had to be done simultaneously.
As always, the build was not without complications. Zoning laws conflicted with restrictions imposed by neighboring buildings, and although it is now a funny coincidence, the spring that excavators discovered beneath the building’s footprint was less charming when it threatened the integrity of the foundation and posed serious delays to the project schedule.
Certification LEED for Schools Gold
Facade Energy-saving exterior sunscreen
Materials Greenguard-certified furniture, cork for 95% of flooring, low-VOC materials
Water Low-flow fixtures
Once the logistics were handled, however, designing LearningSpring was something of a meeting of the minds. On the educational side, LearningSpring’s board brought in autism spectrum disorder expert Dr. Catherine Lord, and where the school was unclear on its sustainability goals, Gaswirth provided insight from PBDW. “We received general information on what things would cause distraction for students visually and acoustically,” Gaswirth says. “They came to us saying, ‘Green is a nice idea,’ but we pushed them to embrace sustainable opportunities. They haven’t just been receptive; they’re taking measures on their own.”
The cork floors aren’t just sustainable; they cut down on reverberation and help contain sound between the levels. The horizontal patterns that line the walls and fabrics—they’re preferred over their vertical equivalents because the human eye follows them more naturally, like reading a book. And you won’t see vibrant reds or striking yellows at the school because, as Gaswirth and her team learned, they can cause anxiety, but a natural palette can produce a more calming effect.
LearningSpring’s student accommodations are impressive, but the building didn’t achieve LEED for Schools Gold status without a comprehensive green design. Although the building still has the laundry list of usual energy efficiencies and eco-conscious efforts—low-flow fixtures, high recycled content, automated lighting, low- or no-VOC products—Gaswirth is particularly proud of the school’s biggest and most visible feature: the exterior sunscreen.
Constructed from aluminum and cold-formed, light-gauge stainless steel, the canopy extends from the second floor to the eighth and is composed of a series of fixed, shutter-like fins calibrated to maximize daylight, minimize solar flare, and, based on the sun’s angle throughout the year, optimize heat gain for indoor conditioning.
Two years into operation, LearningSpring is not yet at full capacity, but its inaugural eighth grade class will soon take its place on the top floor. Whether making strides in the therapy rooms or striking up conversation while walking down the hall, the students at LearningSpring have many things to be proud of. With a facility that accommodates them and gives them the conventions of a traditional school, students can learn and grow like every other kid in Manhattan, eventually achieving LearningSpring’s mission of independent, healthy, fulfilling lives.