Panther Lake Elementary School
Design Achievement - The Federal Way Public Schools community served by Panther Lake Elementary School comprises largely low-income, transient families. DLR Group's design for the school uses bold forms and colors to connect with young students and families spanning diverse backgrounds and languages. Designers collaborated with the District and school staff to strategically distill the educational program, and then use it to generate a modular program. Rooms of consistent size, infrastructures, and technologies allow spaces to easily flex and respond to curricular needs that might change daily, weekly, annually, or over a projected fifty years. For example, because every classroom-sized space features data and wireless infrastructures, has a sink, includes mobile furnishings and storage, and minimizes specific built-in amenities, the same room could potentially serve as a classroom, a staff lounge, or a computer lab. Formal learning spaces are collocated in bars which intersect with a network of social, performance, and large group spaces. The ways that these spaces intersect, and the forms and colors of the architecture create a school where kids can be focused and wild, learners and doers, scholars and explorers, and environmental stewards.
Scope Summary - This project encompasses the design of a 45,000 SF replacement elementary school on a 10.2 acre site serving 450 students in grades K-5. The unique scope of work included the development of a unique, flexible program and adaptable plan; sustainable design meeting Washington Sustainable Schools Program (WSSP) requirements; and archetypal design strategies for this and three subsequent schools. DLR Group provided architecture, engineering and planning services.
Unique Challenges & Design Solutions
The design of Panther Lake Elementary School necessitated that the team address three substantial challenges:
Diverse / united: The school’s suburban community boasts over 160 spoken languages, and consists in large part of a transient, low-income population. How could a new school unite such a diverse community?
Specific / adaptable: The District approached the design team with a specific educational program to meet current needs; but the District also wanted a flexible environment that could easily adapt to changes over time.
Prototypical / unique: This was the first of four new elementary schools in the District, which offered the an opportunity to explore prototypical elements that could be employed at each. While this would stretch the value of the investment made in the design process, it presented the challenge of how to give each school its own unique identity for its community.
The design team found the solution to these challenges through an integrated design approach that took already high standards of collaboration to another level; through rigorous investigation of community and site context; through a critical examination of student activity and the initial program, and innovative distillation of each; and through creative, integrated design response.
Process – An Integrated Approach
To address the initial project requirements, the design team worked with the client to develop expanded, visionary goals for this project. Anchored by the District’s existing guiding principles (Learning, Safety, Relationships and Flexibility), the goals evolved organically as a network of interrelated ideas and opportunities. But rather than respond to these goals solely with architectural exploration, per typical design approaches, the design team convened architecture, interiors, and engineering (mech, elec, struct) professionals together with the client to propose, discuss and develop design ideas and opportunities without prejudice.
On top of interdisciplinary design concepting, this integrated design approach was uncommon in revealing what are typically designer-only processes during predesign. It succeeded in opening everyone to possibilities that might not have been considered otherwise, with ideas (informed by multiple perspectives and expertise) building from goal setting, through eco-charettes and design workshops into the final design.
Site & Civic Place – Creating a Community Network
With the District’s design review committee engaged collaboratively in an integrated design process, the project team critically examined Panther Lake’s community context beyond simple site investigation. Looking past the city’s suburban building face, the team discovered a prevalent number of parks with intermittent pedestrian connections. Overlaying all school locations over park locations revealed the opportunity to have Panther Lake and the three subsequent new schools serve as critical connectors in a network of schools/parks. Although the scope of work would not include interurban trails beyond school boundaries, creating on-site connections would position the schools as central community assets: hubs of community pride, and catalysts for the work/play dualities that children need to grow and develop.
Panther Lake’s specific site slopes moderately down from west to east, and is bounded on the north by residences, with a public library at the northeast corner; on the west by Panther Lake Park and a commercial development; on the south by residences and mixed-commercial development; and on the east by wetlands. Site studies revealed opportunities to link park to library, and access road to wetlands on an east-west axis. A north-west building form would inhabit negative spaces on the site, while allowing the building to reach out into forested site parcels. The design response to site strikes a positive balance of building/nature, and creates connection between adjacent assets.
Program & Plan – The Juncture of Generic/Unique
To plan Panther Lake on a flexible model, the design team re-examined existing assumptions about educational needs. Initial studies explored a child’s typical educational trajectory, recasting the typically linear definition as a series of interrelated events; this trajectory map suggests a building form that would align with daily needs.
The team then revisted the school’s existing program, and found the opportunity to simplify the list of spaces into groupings by type (size, basic function, systems needs); the team then distilled this simplified list into a program of generic learning spaces, where each space is defined by capacity rather than specific functions; the distilled program combined with the building form suggested by the trajectory map delivers a building plan of flexible learning spaces. Each space is wired and plumbed in the same way. This generic plan supports the school’s current, unique program needs, while giving them the ability to adapt to changes over time.
Building modeling confirmed the viability of this plan in the building’s relationship to the site, and revealed opportunities to provide a unique identity for each classroom wing as well as the school as a whole.
Spatial Experience – Connecting Order/Outburst
Panther Lake’s north-south extensions offer formal learning spaces, and are bisected by an east-west asymmetrical interstitial Network containing the school’s common spaces. At a glance the plan resembles a traditional double-loaded corridor, but the Network’s design and function is far more complex, derived from the rigorous re-examination of program and site context.
While all spaces engage users through bold color, natural daylight and view connections to the outdoors, the geometric formality of the learning spaces contrasts with the playful Network transept. The Network provides a clear connecting pathway (from the western public side of the school to the library/wetlands on the west) for student and community use of the school. Individual areas (group learning, display, library, lunchroom, etc.) are defined by structural accents and color, but remain largely open to one another, encouraging progression and connection through the school while still providing distinct spaces.
While the linearity of the learning wings encourages focus, the Network offers an indoor wilderness where kids and community members can interact and playfully explore.
Identity – School/Community as a Hub of Learning
The exciting interior experience of Panther Lake Elementary School translates to the building exterior. Bold geometry and colors leap out from the landscape even as the building footprint and form integrate with it. This school announces itself to the community as a means to connect and as a place to explore. A place that enriches the learning experience for students. A place where kids can be focused and wild, learners and doers, scholars and explorers…future environmental stewards, but right now just kids.
Sustainability – Being Urban/Wild
Panther Lake’s layout supports sustainability goals both by preserving and connecting to wetlands to the east, and forested areas and fields to the north and south, where outdoor learning areas offer children experiential connection to nature during focused learning exercises. The design further minimized site impact through compact layout. Whereas the school originally called for 46,000 SF, the design fulfills the program with 45,000 SF, which resulted in savings that were applied to cover the first-costs of other sustainable strategies.
Basing spaces on the distilled program extends the useful life of the building. To further enable adaptability, the design employs a flexible walls system, whereby all walls are rated by lifespan. All walls are categorized by intended lifespan (daily, 5 year, 20 year and 50 year), with building systems routed only through permanent walls, ceilings and floors, which will allow the school to make building modifications over time with minimal construction and associated waste.
The school’s classroom wings are configured in bars of column-free space, with raised areas of roof providing clerestory window “lanterns.” These lanterns provide direct and bounced light into classroom and hallway/common spaces. The lanterns, along with windows, provide natural daylight to every single classroom in the school, reducing the use of artificial lighting. Energy savings are further realized through the use of radiant-floor heating, operable windows with ventilation planned in the clerestory lanterns, minimal ductwork and air-handling units, and a high-performance building envelope.
The design employs an absolute minimum of sustainable finishes, favoring exposed concrete and wood accented by bold washes of bright paint colors. The result of these sustainable design strategies is a building that is not only efficient and healthy, but exciting to experience.
Special Jury Recognition
American Institute of Architects (AIA) Northwest & Pacific Region
American Institute of Architects (AIA) Washington Council
American Institute of Architects (AIA) Seattle
American Institute of Architects (AIA) Portland
Award of Merit
Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI), Washington
American Institute of Architects (AIA) Seattle "What Makes it Green?"
Best Design Overall, Silver Award
Winner in Class
International Interior Design Association (IIDA), Northern Pacific