New Sandy Hook School, centered on the healing properties of water, light, and ducks, opens for its first class

Newtown, CT

New Sandy Hook School, centered on the healing properties of water, light, and ducks, opens for its first class

(Courtesy Andrew Doba)

Three years ago, the community of Newtown, Connecticut selected New Haven–based Svigals + Partners to design a new elementary school to replace the facility at the center of a horrific tragedy. This month, the new Sandy Hook School is ready to welcome its first class of students.

In concert with local and state officials, the firm convened a wide cross-section of stakeholders—townspeople, parents, emergency personnel—for series of visioning meetings, the largest of which attracted 50 participants. The community was intent on preserving community traditions and ensuring continuity after the traumatic 2012 shooting in which gunman Adam Lanza killed 26 students and staff at the Sandy Hook School.

Main lobby. (Courtesy Svigals+Partners)

Svigals+Partners designed the new $50 million Sandy Hook School around the healing themes of light, land, and water, all adapted to local custom. The undulating form references Newtown’s rolling hills, explained Julia McFadden, associate principal at Svigals+Partners. The front facade is grounded by New England fieldstone and clad in contrasting Machiche and Brazilian Ash to accentuate the curving roofline of the partial two-story structure.

A sense of play, balanced with passive security measures, permeates the 86,800-square-foot school. At the old Sandy Hook School—which was demolished in 2013—a family of migrating ducks would make a pilgrimage each year to the school’s inner courtyard. In homage to Sandy Hook’s verdant setting and visiting fowl, “Hanging Leaf,” a leaf mobile by Tim Prentice, shares space with fiberglass duck sculptures by firm principal Barry Svigals in a light-filled central lobby. The lobby’s glass curtain wall, interspersed with colorful panes, faces onto an outdoor courtyard with an amphitheater where assemblies and classes can be held. Bright vertical sunshades cascade over two of the courtyard’s interior walls, while two treehouses overlook the main courtyard, providing an enviable and more intimate breakout classroom space.

Outdoor courtyard. (Courtesy Svigals+Partners)

Instead of securitizing the 12.5 acre site with barriers and metal detectors, “we utilized natural observation as primary driver throughout—you create real security when you have great sight lines,” managing partner Jay Brotman noted. The lobby’s see-though wall creates a seamless sightline to the school’s interior, while a “Main Street” orients shared spaces like the cafeteria and gym along a curved corridor that offers unobstructed views down the hall. Although the community debated design features that projected “security” overtly, stakeholders decided “it was essential to avoid features that signaled doom and gloom create a nurturing environment through passive measures,” McFadden elaborated (strategically placed hidden cameras observe what human eyes may miss). The design was guided by new state security guidelines which encourage such passive design.

(Courtesy Svigals+Partners)

The site is surrounded by woodlands, the architects noted, and the design sought to draw nature into the site. Referencing the bridges that crisscross the area’s many streams, bioswales swoop underneath the three entrance ramps, providing an ecology learning opportunity for the school’s 464 pre-kindergarten through fourth grade students that reference the “sandy hooks” for which the area is named. The river stones near the door transition to polished concrete flooring inside, offering cool calm material continuity.

The school is set to welcome its first class of students this month for the 2016-2017 school year.