Located in the city of Chicago and draped into the metropolitan area, the village of Lisle, Illinois is a small suburb with a bustling cultural scene, a picturesque arboretum and an annual hot air balloon festival, this is the sort of community that constantly makes annual “Best Places to Live” lists.
Architecture is about bringing visions to life and exploring creativity and innovation to the utmost possibility. Perkins has cleverly executed this and Will through the contemporary design intervention at Lisle Elementary School. How many schools have an architecture that qualifies them as an arboretum? Lisle Elementary School unites two distinct school communities under one roof. It celebrates learning and the surrounding context – the landscape with 26 species of trees and six kinds of plants panted at grade level, including a balcony garden.
The main design ideology and the purpose of the design of the school is to explore the idea of education through the lens of city and nature which gives an important precedence for the context of the design. An arboretum is a specialized type of botanical garden that focuses on the cultivation, study, and preservation of trees and woody plants. In architectural terms – they often serve as living museums, providing visitors with the opportunity to explore and appreciate the diversity and beauty of the green. Although initially, the idea of having an arboretum-infused school was to pay homage to the existing Morton Arboretum in the suburb, the peaceful and serene environment that the design can offer the students connects them to nature, unwind and engage with recreational activities and would also have therapeutic effects.
Previously, the town’s school system included two ageing elementary schools that required significant structural repairs and renovations. The district built a 105200 SF building to house the segregated primary schools, which is situated on a 7-acre plot – Lisle Elementary School. With over 750 children enrolled in prekindergarten through fifth grade, the school began operations in the fall of 2019.
Designing a location and building that encouraged a culture of learning for kids at all stages of their developmental and educational journeys was the main design intent for the design of Lisle Elementary School. By highlighting the town’s well-known Arboretum and bringing a similar beauty and greenery to the location, the architects at Perkins and Will hoped to generate a strong feeling of the place. This was carried over into the classrooms with outdoor learning spaces that let staff and students incorporate nature into their everyday lives.
Lisle Elementary School was built to specifications that would qualify it as an arboretum and embraces education and the surrounding environment. The landscaping at Lisle Elementary features 26 kinds of trees and six types of shrubs planted at grade, and it was inspired by the Morton Arboretum, a 1700–acre natural preserve and public garden that acts as the community’s focal point. A second-story outdoor deck with plants offers a further connection to nature.
The design considerations and layouts worked out for the school incorporate open floor layouts which help the teachers have a collaborative classroom session to meet the needs of their students. Furniture can be rearranged to suit the users’ needs, and interior windows bring in light while letting the students observe what their peers are working on. The school’s focal point is the two-storey library that connects all the classrooms through large hallways and a central staircase. These areas are light and welcoming due to the installation of large windows which surround the library.
The interiors and the material palette of the school heavily relied on biophilic design principles with warm, neutral tones and rich, textural brick and wood elements permeating the space. One of the most noticeable features is the expansive wood-look plank that welcomes the users. The natural aesthetic of this wood continues in the school’s corridors with rich textural and acoustic qualities. Clerestory and internal windows, which vary in size and position, provide daylighting and transparency. The east and the west facades’ electro-chromatic glass follows the sun’s path and self-shades to reduce heat input. The north façade’s transparency captures constant indirect light. Internal and external windows offer sightlines to the surrounding green spaces from every point in the structure, optimising daylighting indoors and reducing energy loads. Numerous native plants are on the terrace on the second level, reducing the structure’s bulk and giving the surrounding vegetation a more seamless appearance. The entire design ensures that the exteriors’ extensive and cultural details are also carried out in the interiors with clear passive design strategies.
The Lisle Elementary School project was about building a cohesive elementary school that represents its immediate neighbourhood and provides for children’s education in the most efficient way possible through its design principles. However, children in elementary school benefit from the design of their new learning environment in ways that will aid them for the remainder of their academic careers and beyond.
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