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School design with kids in mind: Colorful architecture in Federal Way adds touch of feng shui

Panther Lake Elementary School principal Tom Capp in front of the
Panther Lake Elementary School principal Tom Capp in front of the 'feng shui' area.
— image credit: Neal McNamara, The Mirror

Standing in front of the offices at Panther Lake Elementary School, principal Tom Capp gestures to a mass of green plants and ornamental vases standing in a square space cut out of the bright orange wall. A spotlight illuminates the plants from above. Capp calls it the "feng shui area."

It’s a small detail in a school with 400 students and 23 classrooms. But it’s these small details, like the shelf and the bright walls, that added up to a recent first place award for public architecture from the regional chapter of the International Association of Interior Designers.

Panther Lake and Valhalla elementary schools were designed by Noah Greenberg of the Seattle-based DLR Group as well as a team of architects and engineers. Both Valhalla, 27847 42nd Ave. S., and Panther Lake, 34424 1st Ave. S., are a departure from typical public schools built in the past 50 years. They are painted colors ripped from the movies “Shrek” and “Toy Story,” and incorporate natural light and spaces scaled for the average height of an elementary school student. The schools are built for function, flexibility, sustainability and cost. But overall, they were built for kids.

“It’s what their world looks like, not what my world looks like,” said Capp, walking through the school's cafeteria, which doubles as a performance space and triples as an after-school learning center.

Designers chose the colors after studying toy stores and looking at research about how colors stimulate learning and development, Greenberg said. He relayed a story about how a young girl approached the architects and asked how they knew to paint the school using her favorite colors.

“At first it was a little startling,” he said of the colors. “But it wasn't very long before everyone understood that, yeah, it's for the kids to understand that this is their building.”

The exteriors of both Panther Lake and Valhalla are painted in purple, neon green and orange, highlighted by translucent paneling. Greenberg said the buildings were designed to look obviously like elementary schools. This was done partly for students from other cultures for whom the concept of a little red schoolhouse may be foreign.

“Education has changed, population has changed and architecture is doing a better job of recognizing that,” he said.

Inside, Panther Lake is awash in natural light that streams in from openings near the ceiling. The ends of the hallways are walls of windows and contain spaces for teaching. Overhead, ducts, pipes, Internet lines and thick wooden girders are exposed. The floor is all glossy concrete, beneath which is the heating system: A network of water-filled tubes, powered by solar panels, called radiant heat. The floors are easy to clean, and the warmth that radiates is for the benefit of the building’s majority peewee population.

The entrance to the school is through a long open-roofed portico across which “Panther Lake” is spelled out.

On a recent day, the cafeteria was occupied by students in the after-school “Champions” program, surrounded by portable shelves filled with learning materials. Capp showed off a bank of windows in a hallway, partly decorated by students’ renditions of Wassily Kandinsky’s “Color Study of Squares,” and partly covered in giant translucent close-up images of plant leaves. Outside, students played near a roofed basketball court in the shadow of the neon green wing of the school.

Capp said the students “love” the building, and only one parent has griped. From the large foyer, to a coaching room at its center — not so much a room as a desk and a group of shelves because the area was meant to be a library, but was unworkable — Capp said the design contributes to a “seen, be seen” feel.

“It would be a marvelous success if kids came out being comfortable with the unusual,” Greenberg said. “How are we supposed to raise global citizens if they’re afraid of the new and the different?”

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