Sonoma Academy Janet Durgin Guild & Commons

Project Description

Since its inception, Sonoma Academy recognized the opportunity to connect resiliency, circular economy, resource efficiencies, and social justice. For their Janet Durgin Guild and Commons project, — a two-story, 19,500-sf learning facility with maker spaces, cooking lab, cafeteria, and indoor/outdoor classrooms — they employed a nature-and-human-centered design approach focused on fresh air, daylighting, sustainable systems, healthy material selection, and local resources.

Sited at the base of Taylor Mountain in Northern California, the Y-shaped building draws inspiration from the surrounding landscape. The upper floor stretches to the horizon while the lower one nestles into the hillside with arms open to the productive garden. At the project’s heart is a central courtyard that invites students to wander about. Visible from both levels, the quad is connected by meandering pathways, smaller gardens that flow into terraced learning environments, and a living roof with cascading planters that capture and filter stormwater for reuse.

Biophilic principles provided guidance for planning and material selection. Operable windows, coiling doors and deep overhangs, erase walls. Adjustable louvers, sliding screens and trellised roofs play with shadow, filtering in sunlight to control glare and temperature. Regional and reclaimed materials pair with locally-made furnishings.

Runoff is captured from new and existing hardscape and the building’s green roof, routed through a series of terraced rain gardens, which filter runoff through natural processes. Additional filtration is provided by a gravity-based filtration unit before flowing into a 5,000 gallon cistern, located at the front of the campus entrance. This serves as a pump station, sending water to three existing storage tanks near the school garden. Stored water is pumped back to the building where it is further treated before being used to supply water for toilet flushing, offsetting approximately 180,000 gallons of municipal water use per year, resulting in 88% of the total non-potable water demand for the building. By capturing and reusing stormwater for non-potable demands, we’re reducing the amount of space dedicated to stormwater mitigation, giving the school more flexibility with program, avoiding impacting a sensitive downstream stormwater system, protecting habitat, and avoiding complicated, costly redesign under the oversight of the regional water quality control board.

The project focuses on natural systems — fresh air, daylighting, biophlia — to right size systems and create for comfort and ultimately operational savings. Harnessing nature allowed for a ZNE approach that connects students to nature and to the broader community and proved good for ROI. The geoexchange system, when analyzed against additional PVs and campus constraints resulted in a 7.5 year payback, even with a small kBtu reduction.

Throughout, spaces blend the benefits of nature with the comforts of shelter with a design that strengthens the strong sense of place apparent in the school and tells the story of the region’s architecture, landscape, people, sustainability, and everyday life.

The project is LEED Platinum certified and is on track to earn LBC Energy and Material Petals, and WELL Building Education Pilot certifications. It’s the first project in Sonoma County and one few to simultaneously use these benchmarks.

Design Challenge

The main challenge the Sonoma Academy project presented was how to connect students to nature while providing a flexible, comfortable learning environment that meets current and future needs. Sustainability, water re-use, and passive design played a large role in the overall design outcome. The design invites movement, manipulation, interaction. Major spaces have movable walls that serve as writing space but also allow for adapting to new programs/ classes. North exterior sliding doors expand onto decks to take advantage of good weather, allow for more gathering, and change to the needs of the school. The philosophy is, all rooms should serve many functions and that no room should go dark. The Commons (cafeteria and gathering space) boasts an open floor plan with commercial kitchen and food prep area tucked at the back of the dining area – it serves as meeting space, teaching space, and a collaboration hub with distributed data and power and tables on wheels. The Guild, on the lower level, houses wood and metal shops, classrooms and mixed media labs, accessed through folding partitions. Equipped to handle high energy loads coupled with an adaptable floor plan zoned for commercial cooking, the building is attractive for other uses. In the next 50-100 years, the building could be used as an event space, community center, retreat center, mixed-use, offices, retail, restaurant, hospitality, cultural center. Connection to nature, daylight and natural ventilation dictated the building’s design – 80% of the project is naturally lit. A transparent performative skin dominates —operable windows, movable and writable surfaces, coiling doors open to gardens, and sliding wood louvers are manipulated to provide shade and intimate space. South exterior blinds tune for exposure and wind - managing sunlight and heat. The entire building has access to natural light and views, reinforcing the importance of connection to the site. Classrooms serve multipurpose and are organized around outdoor teaching, learning and garden areas. Material selection was guided by LBC Materials Petal focusing on health and transparency. Materials with low-VOC and in compliance with CDPH Standard Method v1.1-2010 were sourced. Materials were cross-referenced and none of the chemicals on ILFI’s Red List went into the building. The design promotes mobility and encourages walking. Meandering pathways connect to gardens and classrooms. Gardens are cultivated by students with vegetables being harvested for inclusion on the lunch menu. A teaching kitchen educates students, through-hands on application about food, nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices. Natural and approved material selection, flexibility, daylight, fresh air, and direct connections to nature combine to give students the environment needed to explore the world, interact with their surroundings, and learn in a comfortable, positive, safe, and adventurous way. Our design provides innovative solutions to what a 21st century learning environment could be.

Physical Context

A place to be loud and not heard, a nook to reflect, a place that explains, expresses and transforms. Sonoma Academy created guiding principles that spoke to equity, community and exploration. The building and site attempts to stretch out and reflect the site and community. Sited at the base of Taylor Mountains, the landscape rushes down the hill and over the building. It integrates into the land and contributes back in native plantings that invite pollinators. The dining rooms open to the hill and city, with deep overhangs providing shading and intimate in-between spaces. The dining room is for gathering and meeting and one-on-one connecting. Big farm tables made locally provide collaboration space while bar height counters provide an option for much needed focus. The teaching kitchen doubles as classroom, meeting room and event spaces – with views to the west. Maker spaces open out to the productive garden for extended classroom space. The garden acts as classroom, park and gallery. Making with tools, making with food, and making with technology blend at the garden. Diversity is abundant where two distinct plant communities collide. Nestled in a transitional zone between the garden landscape and the grassland / oak woodland plant communities, native pollinators find a host of plants that provide habitat and food sources year round. Using this planting analogy on the building’s green roof, a garden that respects the local ecology while enhancing the biodiversity of the school landscape and the effectiveness of the PV arrays. The planted roof helps keep the PVs cool, and the overlay of PV and landscape is experienced as you enter the school and view it from the upper campus. Energy and Ecology. Groupings of perennials that flower at different times throughout the year within the matrix of a grassland-meadow mix provide pollinators with shelter in close proximity to food sources. This approach also creates a visually dynamic garden throughout the seasons. By making nature part of the classroom experience, the school demonstrates a link between the buildings in which students learn, cook, celebrate and dine. The design is an extension of the foothills and community, and a reflection of the school’s core values of engagement, wellness and sustainability. The beauty of the site inspired the organization of two sweeping floors that stretch to views, grab onto the hillside and work to blend this campus with many levels. With the open sliding doors, students are encouraged to wander in and through, making this building a part of everyday pathways. Exposing the materials, the radiant manifolds, the structure and the systems, invites the user into the daily functions of the building. Biophilic principles providing guidance for planning and material selection – everything was thought of as a critical piece of the story. The resultant design strengthens the strong sense of place apparent in the school and tells the story of the region’s architecture, landscape, people, sustainability, and everyday life.