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Founded in 2001 by a parent group, the LearningSpring School is a 108-student K through 8th grade private day
school for children diagnosed on the autism spectrum. The new eight-story building is situated on the northwest
corner of 20th Street and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan. It contains a full range of academic, athletic, and special
needs spaces arranged internally as a vertical campus, designed to support the special social, physical, and
educational needs of its students.
The LearningSpring School was the very first educational facility in New York State to receive a LEED Gold
certification under the rigorous LEED For Schools rating system. Higher-occupancy spaces, including the
gymnasium, library, and lunchroom, as well as administrative functions, are located on the bottom two floors
where the floor plates are the largest. Of the six upper stories, two are for lower school classrooms, two are
for shared therapy and special education spaces, and two are for the upper school classrooms. Classrooms
are paired as suites, sharing resource areas, quiet study rooms, and toilets. To provide ample opportunity for
informal socialization, seating alcoves off corridors are spread through the building.
To protect the faades of the building from the unobstructed southeast exposure to the sun, and to provide a
visual buffer from the busy intersection, the building is draped with an aluminum and stainless steel sunscreen
supported by an external steel armature. Behind is an aluminum, glass and zinc curtain wall. Flanking the
adjacent buildings to the north and west and extending along the base of the building is a terracotta rainscreen.
Between the two systems is a vertical band of tubular channel glass marking important circulation spaces
Circulation between the floors is through a glass-enclosed communicating stair. Classrooms and corridors are
finished with cork floors, bamboo casework, and natural wall fabrics, helping to produce a calm and intimate
learning environment. The resulting architecture provides a welcoming and dignified representation of a group of
children and their educators long underserved by the citys schools.

Exterior view from street


Engagement Process + Integrative Design

The LearningSpring School exclusively serves children diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Its highly specialized
curriculum is geared to address the academic, as well as the emotional, social, and physical needs of its
students and their families. For its first ten years, LSS occupied two floors of a commercial office building.
Fluorescent lights buzzed, colored paper was taped to the windows, and classrooms were cluttered. This was a
challenging learning environment for the students, all of whom suffer from sensory sensitivity and can become
agitated by negative environments. It was hard for the children to discover the joy of learning in a school that
didnt meet their needs.
We were hired to design a new larger facility that would accommodate their growing student population. From
the beginning, it was obvious to our firm that in addition to more space, the school needed better space.
The design team worked hand in hand with leading educators for special needs children, school faculty,
administrators, and board members to ensure that the design would best serve the student population.
Architectural solutions throughout were tailored to specifically address the needs of the students and their
families, and a sustainable building was virtually synonymous with those requirements.
Students at LSS now have a building that contributes to their positive learning experience. Not only are they
proud of their school, featuring it prominently in their artwork, but the building itself is contributing to their
educational success.

Left: Corner classroom

Right: Corner facade detail, and entrance


Local + Regional Site Response

The school is located in a mixed-use area containing retail, residential, and community facility uses. Public
elementary and middle schools and a public playground are all located across the street. Neighboring building
heights vary, ranging from four story townhouses, to twenty story apartment buildings. The schools mass is
composed of an eight-story portion occupying two-thirds of the site at the corner and a three-story portion on the
remainder of the property. The composition creates a strong presence at the corner, while easing the transition
to adjacent lower buildings along the avenue. Classrooms are located along the South and East perimeter of
the floor-plates. While this location affords them the most light and views, it also places them along the noisiest
areas in the building. A special environmental analysis was conducted to determine the most effective noise
mitigation for these spaces. Enhanced acoustic isolation between the interior and exterior spaces, keeps
students focused on their learning. Once inside, it is hard to tell that the school is located in the middle of New
York City.

Bottom left: Site plan

Below: Programmatic axonometric


Regional Resilience + Community Design

The planning process was fairly extensive as the needs of the students at LearningSpring are highly specialized.
The process included numerous faculty and administrative programming meetings in addition to lectures
given by experts on Autistic Spectrum Disorder. School administrators and board members, including parents
of current and former students, participated in every step of the design process, from plan review, to finish
and furniture selections, to signage design. The broader community was given the opportunity to review and
comment on the design at community board meetings required for a zoning variance.
The school was designed as a vertical campus, subdivided into zones for elementary and middle schools,
separated by two floors of shared specialized classrooms. Instead of shuttling children off-site for support
services, physical education, and recess, the school now offers a holistic approach to education within a single
The school chose a building site that affords the students an opportunity to interact with other students who
are part of the wider general education population. It is located across the street from public elementary and
middle schools, as well as a community playground. Administrators in all four schools take advantage of these
adjacencies by organizing inter-school activities, and sharing playground facilities.

First floor plan

Second floor plan


Third and fourth floor plan

Fifth floor plan

Sixth floor plan

Seventh and eighth floor plan


Passive Before Active

Due to the limiting zoning requirements of New York City, as well as the rigorous street grid, there was little
opportunity for flexibility in both the massing of the facility as well as the location within the building site.
However, program was distributed within the building to take advantage of light and views. Located on the
northeast corner of 2nd Avenue and 20th Street, classrooms are arranged along the south and east perimeters
of the building with the open views, while core spaces including restrooms and emergency stairs are located on
the back of the building.
Exterior sunshades were incorporated into the east and south facades to optimize solar heat gain in the winter,
while reducing it during the warmer months. This strategy, along with natural daylight and daylight sensors in
most spaces, reduced the size of the HVAC system.
The school was designed to maximize the various types of learning spaces for the children, within a limited
footprint. Classrooms for eight students and three teachers are paired in suites, sharing resource and study
areas. To promote socialization, hallways double as informal extensions of the classrooms. Furnished with the
same cork floors, bamboo millwork, and fabric wall coverings as the classrooms, they have seating alcoves
which are used for instructional as well as casual activities.

Above: Sunlight diagrams

Right: Occupational Therapy gym


Bottom left: Science Classroom

Right: Lower School Classroom

Comfort + Delight
The needs of the LearningSpring students are virtually synonymous with the requirements for a sustainable
building. They needed classrooms where the teachers could allow in daylight, but limit distracting views. They
needed therapy rooms where students did not have to expend energy tuning out background noise, but could
fully focus on the teacher. They needed natural materials that would not off-gas noxious chemicals.
Over 96% of all classroom and core learning spaces have direct access to daylight and views. Over 90% of all
offices and workstations have individual control of lighting. Multi-occupant spaces are designed with multiple
lighting zones and controls to tailor lighting levels to a variety of tasks. Occupancy sensors, solar, and blackout
shades are provided for an added level of control. 82% of the offices and workstations have individual thermal
controls. Multi-occupant spaces are designed with thermostats as well as operable windows for additional
thermal control.
A limited color palate and warm, natural materials, create a calm learning environment. Colors, textures, and
patterns of finishes were selected to limit distractions to students. All classrooms have the same color and style
of student desks and chairs, but are sized appropriately for the grade level. Storage is provided within every
classroom to minimize clutter.
Noise transfer is carefully controlled throughout the school. There is enhanced acoustical isolation between
classrooms as well as the exterior. Cork floors are used throughout the classrooms and hallways to help absorb
noise and limit sound transfer between the two spaces. The music room is fully isolated from the remainder of
the building so that sound is not transferred through the building structure to the surrounding classroom.


Bottom left: Stair, exterior view

Right: Garden

Water + Conservation
With the installation of low flow fixtures, dual flush water closets, and ultra-low flow lavatories the building
reduced its potable water use by over 47% from a baseline design using standard flow fixtures. Through the
installation of water efficient clothes washers, dishwashers, and kitchen sink faucets, the project has reduced
process water use by at least 20% below the industry standard. Although minimal, the landscaping installed
does not require permanent irrigation systems.
Energy Flow
Exterior mounted aluminum sunshades limit solar heat gain during warmer months, while allowing it during the
winter months. Large expanses of glass in all regularly occupied areas minimize the need for artificial light in
these rooms. Additionally, daylight and occupancy sensors help reduce the energy load on the building systems.
HVAC systems include energy recovery units, to minimize energy needed to heat outside air. High-efficiency
equipment further increase energy savings.


Bottom left: Rainscreen wall and

spandrel assembly (left) and curtain
wall assembly (right)
Right: Facade detail

Materials + Construction
The building facades are composed of a terracotta rainscreen system, insulated zinc panels, and insulated
low-e glazing. The cladding system is highly efficient and minimizes heat transfer between interior and exterior
environments. Focus was placed on selecting materials that were natural, low-emitting, regional, and contained
recycled content. Over 32% of the total building content have been manufactured using recycled materials. Over
22% of the total building materials includes materials or products that have been extracted and manufactured
within 500 miles of the project site. Over 3% of the total materials used in the school are from rapidly renewable
sources. Over 88% of the total wood based building materials were harvested from FSC certified forests. All
indoor paints and coatings, adhesives and sealants, and installed flooring systems are low emitting materials
and comply with California state standards for the testing of VOC emissions from indoor sources. All classroom
furniture and seating is GREENGUARD or GREENGUARD Children & Schools certified.
Material waste was limited during the construction process. Over 64% of the construction waste generated
on-site was diverted from landfills. This practice continues with recycling collection continuing as part of daily
school routines.


Right: Faculty office

Long Life + Loose Fit

Programming meetings revealed complex and varied program requirements that would require a building
much larger than the site footprint would allow. While many learning spaces are fit-out to meet the specific
requirements of various activities, including an occupational therapy gym, and teaching kitchen, others were
designed with flexibility in mind. Smaller gym spaces are provided with ample closets so student seating is
readily available, but can be cleared out when not needed. Folding cafeteria tables have a dedicated storage
room, enabling the faculty to easily move them out, converting the room into a large indoor play area. The
gymnasium is easily subdivided to accommodate two smaller groups simultaneously, as well as large all school
Finishes and systems were selected with durability in mind. The school understands that not only is the upfront cost important, but the total cost of ownership is critical to the environmental stewardship of the school.
Exterior sunshades, ample daylight, and daylight and occupancy sensors reduce the energy load on the building
systems. HVAC systems were designed for operational efficiencies, including energy recovery units, to minimize
energy needed to heat outside air. A BMS system has been integrated to ensure that the system, as a whole, is
operating at optimal performance. All systems were commissioned, at both the design and post-construction
phases to ensure that they are operating as intended.


Bottom left: Library

Right: Interior view of stair

Collective Wisdom + Feedback Loops

A post occupancy survey was generated based on the Dillon and Vischer model and included questions on a
number of topics including and related to thermal comfort and general user satisfaction. The survey was given
to the faculty and staff as part of staff meetings. Teachers of the upper school classes, grades 6-8, were asked
to poll their students in a simplified manner to gain some insight from the children as well.
The school worked with a third-party commissioning agent to ensure that all systems were performing, postconstruction, as they were intended. A systems manual was created that provides all future operating staff the
information needed to understand and optimally operate the commissioned systems. The operating personnel
were trained in the operations and maintenance of the various building systems. The commissioning agent
provided a follow up visit within the first year of operations to review with the facilities team the current building
operation and resolution of any outstanding issues.
Post-construction, we have maintained close contact with the Head of School, Margaret Poggi. She has shared
feedback, both positive and negative, with the firm. Despite best efforts, the school is still facing the ongoing
challenge of insufficient storage. The building management systems were complicated for a facilities team that
was used to a more simplified HVAC system. But more often, her stories are ones of success. Absenteeism is
down for both students and faculty. Classes are more productive since students can focus more on their studies.
Teachers feel less tired after long days on their feet. Happiness permeates the school.