Building Blueprints (Facilities in Focus)

Learning Landscape Benefits S.T.E.A.M. Education

Learning Landscape


The LEED-Gold-certified Children’s Center at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Calif., cultivates qualities of curiosity and inquiry through the integration of S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics) into the daily life of children. We designed the architecture, interiors and landscape as a microcosm of the surrounding ecology with the intent to illustrate natural processes and teach students about active and passive systems of environmental conservation. By promoting understanding of the site’s sustainable systems, the center — which hosts 128 students aged six months to six years — became a central part of the school’s curriculum.

Rather than create a single, large building that would have overwhelmed the surrounding area’s residential character, three smaller, residential-scaled buildings totaling 12,000 square feet were designed. Roof slopes that change direction further break down the scale of these forms, making them more welcoming for small children. Longspan construction allowed for column-free classrooms and maximum flexibility of space.

Learning Landscape


All of the buildings take advantage of the efficiencies offered by modular construction through the use of premanufactured wood trusses. Maintaining similar spans and slopes allowed for repetitive, cost-effective construction. And, by remaining exposed, the trusses, mechanical systems, and lighting also contribute to the project’s didactic nature by allowing students to observe many of the building’s inner workings.

At the heart of the 81,000-square-foot site lies the arroyo, a dry streambed carved into the site’s sloping contours. The arroyo is designed to support and expand the school’s educational mission of encouraging children to play, explore, discover and engage with the world. Filled with local granite, native grasses, bugs, birds and lizards, the arroyo acts as a bioswale, filtering and dispersing rainwater collected onsite and stored in large cisterns.

Also collected from rooftops, rainwater provides a natural irrigation source for gardening. This water also enables the kinds of experiments that teach children about their environment. Surface runoff and overflow from the cisterns are channeled into the arroyo, which naturally replenishes the water table. Any excess is diverted into a 20,000-gallon infiltration tank, which prevents it from entering the storm-water system. The plant selection, strategically limiting areas of turf, and the use of water-efficient drip irrigation, result in a greater than 50 percent water savings for the landscape. Through observation and play, the children learn about the preciousness of water in California’s arid climate.

Learning Landscape


The meandering arroyo divides the center into three distinct areas, each with classrooms and an outdoor play area specifically designed for children of a discrete age. Infant rooms are located in the quiet southern end of the site, far from the tennis courts and buffered from parking lots by administrative and service wings. Toddlers congregate in the center of campus between the youngest and oldest kids. Pre-schoolers occupy the highest point at the northern end of campus.

The role of the playground in most childcare centers is that of an outdoor classroom. It is a critically important aspect of the curriculum. In Southern California, the climate allows for year-round use of this space. Caltech pushed us to think deeply about the educational opportunities inherent in the landscape of the 19,700 square feet of play yards. Integrating the aspects of the macro ecology into this space sets the stage for children to find more variety than they would in a typical yard. Native and climateappropriate trees and plants throughout are hardy enough to handle the rigors of a rough-and-tumble playground, but diverse enough to provide a range of textures, shapes and colors in all seasons.

Learning Landscape


From the colorful furniture to the whimsical animal graphics to the low toilets in the bathrooms, everything about the facilities and landscape is appropriately scaled for the children. Dutch doors open at the top and the bottom. Benches in hallways are two heights to accommodate both children and adults. Windows set at a knee-high eye level allow children to look in, out and discover. Different animal graphics and color schemes provide distinct identities for each classroom, giving pre-readers an appropriate wayfinding system.

The Children’s Center at Caltech draws upon and extends both the natural and constructed conditions of the surrounding area, providing a learning environment that expresses the function of the design. In this fashion, the site itself takes on the role of classroom, laboratory and teaching tool.

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Jennifer Schab, AIA, LEED-AP, is a principal at Los Angeles-based Rios Clementi Hale Studios, a multi-discipline design firm.

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