NBBJ has made public their design for a nature-imbued net-zero school in Encino, California called Westmark Lower School. The initiative is aimed at creating an inclusive learning atmosphere for neurodiverse students through nature-centric architecture. Between 2019 and 2020, 2.3 million American students were diagnosed with learning differences including dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia. Responding to the critical situation, the new school will foster an all-inclusive and engaging learning environment for students and teachers. 

What’s new about the School?

The existing education system caters only to the needs of neurotypical students, disregarding neurodiversity. The system in place does not allow those with different neurological needs to learn much from school. The new campus features a unique net-zero carbon architecture blended into nature, further promoting the creation of zero energy education facilities, which have more than doubled in the U.S. since 2014. The project will also feature an indoor-outdoor, community-focused approach to dynamic spaces. That means, no more 1950-style modular buildings.  The community was directly involved in the design process from the outset through workshops and models to ensure a community-driven school that answers every question. This NBBJ design will stand as a “restorative refuge”, focusing on acoustic design strategies to achieve more comfort and concentration in students with low attention spans. “Designers selected a variety of sound-absorbing materials for different spaces, developed reading nooks and other niches for creative learning both inside and outside the classroom, and oriented views to green space to enhance different educational modes,” said NBBJ. “Embodying Westmark School’s highly specialized education and individualized instruction model, the Lower School provides a range of adaptable, choice-driven zones to accommodate different types of learning, from independent and focused to more communal and active, for example, the design prioritizes special acoustical strategies to promote quiet study” they elaborated. 

Nature-Immersed Net Zero School in California for Neurodiverse Students to be designed by NBBJ  - Sheet1
The Design_©NBBJ
Nature-Immersed Net Zero School in California for Neurodiverse Students to be designed by NBBJ  - Sheet2
The Design_©NBBJ
Nature-Immersed Net Zero School in California for Neurodiverse Students to be designed by NBBJ  - Sheet3
The Design_©NBBJ

Nature-Centric and Neurodiverse Design

The indoor-outdoor environment puts nature at the heart, while highly flexible classrooms support a range of diverse learning modes—from group work to individualized learning and everything in between. “The school was designed with a high level of input from both educators and students, who were shown full-scale cardboard mockups of the classrooms during the design process” added NBBJ. “The design unites the latest in sustainability and neuroscience research to create an experience that is truly supportive of neurodiversity. We are so lucky to work with Westmark School while tailoring the design to support both their teaching model and positive learning outcomes” stated the firm.  Different learning zones will be built within each classroom, such as creative labs and reading nooks, to provide students with a range of customized and choice-driven study areas. 

Inclusive Learning Environments

A centralized network of learning programs, including occupational and speech therapy, theater space, and school counselor space, will foster a “continuum of care” throughout the school. Sustainability will be at the center of the project. The school will take the “learning outside” approach by using daylight-filled classrooms that are oriented along with a pinwheel formation and are directly connected to the outdoors “not only to stimulate the senses and provide delight but to create regular moments of engagement with the powerful benefits of outdoor learning beyond the traditional classroom space,” according to the firm. The courtyard and surrounding landscape will feature interactive gathering spaces, a sensory garden, and a sculpture play area. In terms of material selection, the designers chose to use calming natural materials, such as pre-fabricated mass timber and stone, to create a bright and engaging environment. The school’s structural elements are left exposed to represent how the building was put together.  There is also going to an institute of research and training dedicated to teachers and researchers, the aim is to emphasize the importance of inclusive learning environments. These new institutes will offer training and evaluation facilities that assess students with speech-based learning differences, by tying up with Los Angeles public and private schools, as well as establishing collaborations with universities across the United States, to further promote neuroscientific research in educational practices. 

All set to bag a LEED certificate

The project will also feature green elements including rooftop gardens that provide access to nature, a central sycamore tree housing a rainwater collection basin, several solar panels, the use of mass timber elements, and deep overhangs that shade openings while allowing soft natural light to brighten up the classrooms. NBBJ also noted that the design is “well-suited to pandemic needs”, with facilities for outdoor learning and greater importance for air quality and ventilation. The NBBJ-led project is targeting a LEED Gold certification and an International Living Future Institute Zero Carbon certification. The construction is set to begin in June 2022.


Sowmya is an architectural journalist and writer. In this column, Sowmya takes you through stories on eco-architecture, biophilic design, and green buildings from across the globe.