A School in the Woods

Paul Hanlon Elementary School

Westwood, MA


The Tree Plan

The Design Team sought to take advantage of the natural setting for learning opportunities, and to physically position the project as “the school in the woods.” The result is a tree-inspired floor plan composed of four massing elements connected to a circulation spine with roots, trunk, and branches. Instructional spaces are positioned and designed to possess expansive views to nature through large openings oriented to allow for the harvesting of high-quality natural daylight. Extended learning spaces, positioned adjacent to classrooms, provide framed extended views into the natural landscape. 

Taking Cues From Nature

An earthy material palette was chosen to blend into the natural surroundings. A natural stone base was selected to match the many rock outcroppings that exist on the site. Terra cotta shakes help to appropriately scale the elementary school and allow it to be responsive to the neighborhood context.  

Education As Playful Learning

One of the main guiding design principles is to provide hands-on and experiential learning expressed similarly to that of a children’s museum environment. Similarly, the District desired educational opportunities to “spill out” beyond the classroom walls. To support these ideas, grade levels were organized into neighborhoods, each with an extended learning space full of flexible furniture, and low- and high-tech elements to support a variety of museum-like interactive stations, including a science discovery area, art area, manipulatives area, presentation area, and quiet reading area.

The Curiosity Commons

Further supporting a children’s museum-like environment, the building design positions the media center at the intersection of four grade level neighborhoods and adjacent to art and STEAM rooms to create a centralized, interdisciplinary “Curiosity Commons.” Art and STEAM classes have the ability to spill into the two-story media space to expand the interdisciplinary connections between literacy, arts, and sciences.