Innovative strategies support design best practices

By John R. Dale, FAIA, LEED AP

Evidence-based research suggests that students learn better in settings with balanced natural light. At various moments in the history of architecture, schools have been designed systematically as well-balanced machines for teaching and learning. The results have been elegant, and at times dramatic, but also factory-like.

In the case of Steven Wise Temple’s David Saperstein Middle School in Los Angeles, challenging site constraints required a more nuanced, varied response. By responding more specifically to exceptional conditions, the design team implemented strategies that resulted in balanced daylighting throughout the new school.

Site Challenges

The 240-student middle school sits on a rugged shelf, literally carved out of an unstable hillside above the Sepulveda Tunnel. Situated on the scenic Mulholland corridor, all the roofs of the building must sit below the street to protect views and adhere to strict sightline restrictions. Also challenging is the fact that the sloping site is extremely long and narrow, with a steep hillside to the east and a precipitous drop with maximum sun exposure to the west. All the classrooms essentially must face east and west rather than a more ideal north-south orientation.

The design solution takes the form of two parallel, single-loaded classroom buildings flanking a series of linear outdoor courtyards that act as a village street. Each classroom and most support spaces therefore have the potential for natural cross ventilation and daylight from at least two directions.

Architects handled natural light and fenestration in a variety of ways, dependin xt/javascript"> g on orientation, purpose, and scale of space. Each pair of classrooms shares a small study room with ample glazing interconnecting all three spaces. The study room is top lit with a shallow light scoop or clerestory. The classrooms have lower view windows with deep overhangs facing the inner street; the overhangs also act as light shelves to bounce light into sloping clerestories above. The opposite walls also have windows with views to the landscape beyond. As a result, each of the 11 main classrooms has at least three distinct sources for balanced, glare-free natural light.

Varied Solutions

With varying exposures, different spaces require different window solutions, resulting in a lively and varied environment. For example, the west-facing classrooms, with potentially harsh and hard-to-control exposures, have projecting, angled bay windows that orient the glazed areas to the north, away from the raking horizontal light.

Relying on exterior circulation, the school’s buildings are interconnected with a series of breezeways and projecting canopies, resulting in a highly modulated space with conditions ranging between bright sunlight and deep shadows. To avoid an overly abrupt transition and to add further animation to the architecture, the overhangs are punctuated with deep multiple north-south light wells capped with skylights. The skylights have been configured to bring controlled but animated natural light into the covered spaces below.

The resulting spaces, both functional and inviting during the day, have the added benefit of proving engaging and animated spaces at night as the varied patterns of windows and skylights add borrowed light to the outdoor plazas and courts.

John R. Dale, FAIA, LEED AP, is principal and education studio leader for Harley Ellis Devereaux, Los Angeles. Reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..



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