Even for a country far too accustomed to gun violence, this was a horrific event: a mass shooting inside an elementary school. The town of Newtown, Connecticut was shattered. It’s difficult to imagine how a small, tight knit community could move past such an atrocity. But, because life for the living continues, there was no other choice. So last month, as the school year began, a new Sandy Hook Elementary School opened on the same site where an insane gunman murdered 20 first graders and six adults.
The school, designed by architects Svigals + Partners, is quite deliberately not a memorial to the events of that dark day in December 2012 (that will happen later, at a different site in town). Instead it’s cheerful, optimistic place of learning. And that’s no surprise, since the firm has extensive experience designing schools (they’re responsible for rebuilding a good portion of the New Haven public system). But this was clearly a deeply charged project. Recently I spoke to Barry Svigals, the firm’s partner emeritus, and Jay Brotman, a managing partner, about the fraught public engagement process that helped design the school and heal a community.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
JB: Jay Brotman
BS: Barry Svigals
All this starts with a horrific event, which happened in virtually your backyard. What led to your firm’s involvement?
Obviously, having it occur so close to us, brought the impact of the event much closer to home. So I think we had a real sensitivity from the beginning.
At the same time, when our work started, we tried to focus as much as possible on what the charge was: creating an elementary school. And because of that, the tragedy itself was not part of our purview, except for the fact that we needed to be compassionate about what had happened, particularly with respect to the site of the event.
When the town sent out its Request For Proposals, did it take into account the unique circumstances? How was the job framed for the architects?
The RFP came out about six months after the event. In those six months, the town had done tremendous work, with the support of GE, who donated money to help the town handle the crush of donations, press coverage, all of the needed counseling for students, teachers, parents, families, neighborhood folks. During that time, they had already formed a committee to look at the question: What do we do? The building committee was chaired by an architect, who knew they had to determine, using the town’s input, what to do with the school: rebuild, tear down, or move to another site?
The decision to tear down the old school was decided before your firm got the job to design the replacement.
That’s correct. There was a meeting on May 13, 2013, when, after all of this study, they decided to build a new school on the same site.
And because they had decided the new school would not act as the memorial, the RFP was very pro forma and according to state regulations.
The process occurred during the summer, with selection in late summer. The first charge was to orchestrate the tearing down of the old school, which was a challenging process, in and of itself. For example, every part had to be discreetly disposed of and sent to undisclosed disposal sites in order to avoid having it fall into the hands of those who might try to profit from it in some way.
What was the next step?
They got responses from across the country. From there, they reviewed those responses and selected seven firms. All of them were from Connecticut.
I want to emphasize how professionally they handled this. They had individuals in the town with a great deal of experience, in particular the gentleman who led the building and space committee, Robert Mitchell. In his own quiet way, and sometimes not so quiet way, he was a wonderful influence in guiding the direction of the project, from the process side, all the way through to construction.
In Karrie Jacobs’ wonderful piece in Architect magazine, she mentions how a couple firms brought models to the presentation. You didn’t. What do you bring?
More than one firm brought models. We decided that we couldn’t possibly know what was needed yet. So we told them that flat out, and said that we didn’t think anyone else could tell them either, because we didn’t think the community knew themselves. Figuring this out, we said, would require a process of discovery. We offered them two things: extensive experience designing schools, which included a deep knowledge about the qualities an elementary school needed in order to care for and nourish children and their learning. We also proposed a process, one that would be broadly inclusive. There were some concerns about that voiced, even in the interview, about how open this process should be. I think the differentiating characteristic of what we presented was more of a promise, which was: to listen to what was needed.
In the interview, it was important that we stated that we didn’t have these preconceived notions, except for the preconceived notion that this was going to be a wonderful place for children. All of these security issues, we said, we would deal with as appropriately as they needed to be handled, but in the end we had to make sure that we were creating an inspiring learning environment. That was refreshing for them. My guess is a lot of the other firms talked about how they would make the school more secure.
You set up a whole series of engagements as part of the process. Who participated in these workshops?
We helped them create a School Board Advisory Committee, which was comprised of about 50 people. There were teachers, students, school board members, building committee members, parents, neighbors, first responders, and, one of the most important groups, the maintenance staff, because they know what works and what doesn’t in a building. We have exercises that are intended to loosen everybody up, so they’re more relaxed. Our goal is to make sure everyone has an opportunity to express their opinion, and everyone is prepared to listen. In this way we’re not acting as the experts in the room, and the School Board members aren’t acting as elected officials. We’re all here to participant in discovering, together, the best solutions.
What do you want from those encounters? You don’t specifically want design elements. What are you looking for?
It was about creating a space, a context, where the most difficult questions can be approached communally. Some of the questions we asked them didn’t have anything to do with the school. We asked them what they loved about their community. We asked them to name their favorite places in their homes, their most memorable learning experiences. People brought in images that were meaningful to them. In a certain way, we all need to remember what it means to be part of a community. Two hundred years ago when we built schools, everyone was involved, sometimes constructing the school itself. And because of the fractured nature of our society and the way we live, the idea of bringing members of the community back together, we feel is the essential starting point. This was especially important here, where there was not wide agreement about many of the difficult issues.
What kind of difficult issues?
Questions like: where on the site the building should go? Some people didn’t think it should go on the same footprint of the old school. Some teachers felt that the building shouldn’t have any glass. Some were adamant that the school shouldn’t be two stories. How you entered the site was difficult to resolve. No one wanted to enter where they used to enter. They wanted a completely new experience. But that was not entirely possible, as it turns out. But we were able to augment it in such a way that it allowed for it to be a new experience. People also had different experiences with respect to the event itself, and that process of assimilating those experiences was ongoing. No one had gotten past anything at that point. But I think this kind of participation was helpful and healing.
How long did that process take?
The programming and discovery process was about three months. Our workshop was also set up so they remained part of the process as the conceptual design evolved. They didn’t have to be architectural experts to help us. They just had to be people who could experience buildings and remember what it was like to be a student.
Do you start investigating design ideas, as you were talking to the community?
They were integrated. We developed potential building footprints that we wanted them to study with us. So as an exercise, we had the committee move pieces around on the model, discovering the qualities of each of these various locations. How does one particular spot affect other elements? The open spaces? Connections to the neighborhood? Because they did that with us, they were also able to participate in the next step. Once we had decided where the building would be, we explored various internal configurations. The Main Street scheme was the one that was selected, but it wasn’t like we sat down and asked: do you like A, B, or C? They understood how scheme A or B integrated with the site. So they were able to work with us to make decisions and, where necessary, make compromises. One of the obvious benefits of that was, because they were involved in it, they were emissaries to the broader community.
That ambassadorship was key to the entire process, right to the end, and it helped the town. I also think it was important how we talked about these schemes. We kept bringing it back to the qualities they wanted the school have, and these were linked to the emotional and experiential examples that they had shared with us. I remember Jay asking at the beginning, “What do you love about your community?” He didn’t ask, “What did you like about your community?” We were connecting to real feelings about their community. And those feelings opened them up to participation. We talked about the architecture; they talked about the qualities that they wanted embedded in the architecture.
Obviously, security was a huge issue. Unfortunately, it’s not specific to this school, but it was clearly more fraught here. How did that play out?
We had exceptional security consultants, DVS. And as a team, we worked on a language to talk about security, as well as a rationale for what was possible. Because we can’t design a building that’s going to stop every imaginable event. They can’t even do that on Army bases. It was irrational to think that we had to create a fortress, and it wasn’t what anybody wanted. But we wanted a safe and secure building. So our consultant helped us to think about ways to do that.
It was built around what they called the four D’s: Detect, Deter, Delay, and Defend. There’s a lot of work out there on environmental design and protection that we were able to analyze in relation to our designs. It’s mostly about eyes-on-the-street, being able to see and know what’s happening on your school site before it arrives at your door. From the beginning, everybody understood that having the site observed in an appropriate manner was a powerful tool. We talked about where various elements of the building should be, where the most-observable parts should be. That was the detect element.
The deter idea is: if you can’t sneak up on a building, that deters you from trying to do anything inside it. The delay aspect is where we spent most of our efforts (and dollars, in terms of budget). Delay involves the hardening of various elements of the building. If you can delay entry, you can prevent possible damage, to the fullest extent possible, and allow for the first responders do their jobs. The security consultant talked about the history of these mass shootings; most of them are over in five minutes. So we focussed a lot on delay, and were able to design tactics so that they were not intrusive. Defend was the practice of looking at the classrooms, making sure there were places to be out of view, and then hardening those areas where we could prevent intrusion.
Before we got into any public situations, we had a number of discussions, among ourselves and with our security consultant, about the language around security. Bringing up the word “shooter” in a public forum would not be helpful. So how to talk about this was something we discussed a lot among ourselves. Most importantly, when Phil Santore, our security consultant, was asked about security at one of our first public meetings, he said the crucial thing was that we create a delightful school. So all of the conversations and decisions, with respect to security, were not in the foreground. They were there to support the design decisions that contributed to making the school a wonderful place. Indeed many security decisions were made downstream. People were of course interested in them, but we didn’t want that to become the lightning rod for the design of the school. We were careful to integrate those discussions into the overall conversation about the qualities that would make the place a wonderful place for kids to learn.
I would think even bringing up the subject of security would be difficult in this context.
It’s true, and yet, creating a sense of community provided a ballast, a gravitational center, that allowed for these decisions about security to happen without derailing our most important purpose—creating a great school. That process can’t be overstated: the importance of spending time to reinforce and enliven a communal purpose, which was at the very heart of a project like this.
All photos by Robert Benson, courtesy of Svigals + Partners.