The new Sunset Ridge School, a feeder school for the nationally acclaimed New Trier High School and a tangible symbol of the community’s commitment to education, is designed specifically to champion children’s evolving developmental needs as their world expands through education—from enhancing self-awareness to encouraging community connections to inspiring global citizenship. This “crescendo” of holistic learning, reinforced by the building’s organization and design, was conceived to launch students into successful futures while also encouraging life-long learning and community engagement.
Through an inclusive planning process, strong, pervasive visions and goals were collaboratively established and translated into actionable design parameters. Qualitative parameters were equally important as quantitative ones to the success of this project. Throughout the process, many ideas were solicited, and many opinions were heard, including the voices of students, staff, administrators, parents, and community members. Conversations began with an exploration of possibilities without regard for general physical constraints. Through this approach, the discussion was able to focus on what was best for the new school.
Designed as a “community,” grades are organized into three distinct, two-story “neighborhoods,” each based on the developmental needs of children at different grade levels. Students transition from the District’s PK-3rd grade building into Sunset Ridge School’s 4th-5th grade main floor neighborhood. As students’ progress, they transition upstairs to a middle school environment, with separate 6th grade and 7th-8th grade neighborhoods.
Noticeable neighborhood differences include:
• Cubbies inside 4th-5th grade homerooms, and lockers outside classrooms for 6th and 7th-8th graders
• Exterior windows which are smaller to focus views outdoors for younger students, and floor-to-ceiling in older students’ spaces
• Flexible furnishings that transition from single-student work surfaces to group work tables, as students move from “me” to “we”
• An operable wall for the 4th-5th grade neighborhood living room; living rooms in the 6th and 7th-8th grade neighborhoods are designed for more independent, spontaneous small group collaboration
• Distinct interior academic neighborhood color palettes, brought together in the village commons
The neighborhoods are self-contained but can be connected when collaboration among grades or subject matter is desired. Multi-age group projects, reading and math support sessions, ESL classes, and gifted programs all happen within the same neighborhood via folding glass partitions, open gathering spaces, and transparent group study rooms.
A unique “village commons” at the heart of the school blends library, dining, and performance spaces, to nurture the creative spirit of the child and provide opportunities to engage the local community. The public path extends from the main entry past the activity gym, through the village commons, and culminates at the two-story learning commons, vertically connecting academic neighborhoods.
To inspire and encourage lifelong student health and wellness, the school includes a climbing wall/yoga classroom, outdoor learning areas, and indoor/outdoor fine arts spaces. Outside the neighborhoods, the design extends learning beyond the traditional classroom into such spaces as a project-based maker lab, a visual arts studio with an outdoor activity terrace, and music rehearsal spaces which also serve as emergency safety shelters. The building was designed and built to capitalize on a wide range of sustainable elements, including rooftop photovoltaic arrays, a living wall supporting return air filtration, energy performance monitoring, and cisterns to capture rainwater for landscape irrigation. Many of the elements are visible to students and are linked via QR codes which allow the building to serve as a living textbook for sustainable strategies. The building also showcases a commitment to pursuing Net Zero Energy and LEED Platinum Certification.