The principals of VMDO Architects value education above all things, focusing their passion and talents on schools.
COUNTLESS ARCHITECTURE FIRMS set out to improve the aesthetics of their surroundings, one building at a time. The founders of VMDO Architects, however, had a grander plan in mind – improving the way young minds are molded through education, one school at a time.
“We have a passion for using our design talent to make the world a better place,” says Robert W. Moje, a founding principal of VMDO, who leads the company’s public K-12 projects. “We’re making sure pre-K through college students have places where they can reach their full potential.”
With headquarters in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VMDO has focused its practice on the education sector since its inception in 1976. Moje and fellow founders Robert Vickery, Lawson Drinkard and David Oakland believed so strongly in Jefferson’s philosophy regarding education’s beneficial influence on society as a whole, they based their careers on it.
“He understood that to be a free and self-governed society, we needed to be able to educate all people,” Moje says. “Hopefully, we’re best known for designing and figuring out creative learning environments from pre-K to post-graduate schools. As the world and technology evolves, the students themselves change.
“We keep up to date of advances in science and how learning and the brain work,” Moje adds.
VMDO is researching health and eating habits and how they impact students in a learning environment. Moje says the company has teamed with educators and public health researchers to produce the Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Design Guidelines to foster a culture of wellness for children. The need for these guidelines is especially crucial considering the way children eat and stay active has changed, but the same way of feeding them has been in place for decades.
“Since the 1940s, school cafeterias have been on a factory model where you herd children through and feed them like cattle,” Moje says. “We need to change the paradigm because of the increase in obesity and numerous other eating disorders. The whole process of eating that happens in school leads to that, and we’re trying to address that.”
The shift must start with better quality and fresher foods, of course, but Moje says it extends to giving children healthy choices, teaching portion control and the social dynamics of the timing of eating a meal. Children need time to slow down and enjoy the experience of a meal because there is a social as well as biological function that occurs.
“The process of it needs to be restructured in most environments, and we can do that by changing the environments,” Moje adds.
For example, Moje suggests getting children involved with cooking their own meals. Their eating areas should have views of the outdoors as well as a variety of seating, and they need the proper amount of time to eat to avoid overeating. Acoustic controls should allow children to talk with each other as well as faculty and staff as necessary.
“Right now, for most of the 13 years of their schooling, children have no choice in what they eat,” Moje says. “The biological process is very complex, so they need to have some knowledge of what it is to eat. The digestive system and the whole eating process is triggered by a mechanism that is short-circuited when food is stuck on a platter and you’re supposed to eat it in 15 minutes.”
A Place for Discovery
VMDO was responsible for the design of Discovery Elementary, a net-zero public school in Arlington, Virginia, that Moje says is proof children can learn in an environment that is inviting and encouraging.
“It was a public elementary school just like our other projects,” Moje says. “More importantly, the goal of it was to build a school defined as a place that would bring the children to experience joy in as many different ways in spaces and places throughout the day.”
Discovery Elementary – which opened in September 2015 after breaking ground in March 2013 – relies on a rooftop photovoltaic array that produces 496 kilowatts of power for the low-energy structure.
According to VMDO, the building also features a geothermal well field; solar preheat of domestic water; 100 percent LED
lighting; ideal solar orientation; shading, exterior walls with high thermal mass; and bioretention areas that clean and slowly release all water from the site. The company states that an equal-sized Arlington Public School has about $124,000 in annual energy costs, but Discovery’s annual energy cost of $72,000 will be fully offset by the power generated on-site.
The $34 million structure occupies 98,000 square feet across two levels and is designed to house approximately 630 pre-K through 5th-grade students. Pre-K and kindergarten “kinderhouses” are separated from the rest of the school by a large gallery known as “The Hedge.” Buzzing with activity before, during and after school, this space offers various cubby- style areas for reading, studying and collaborating, which teachers can monitor from their classrooms – spurring student creativity and choice. Moje also says the school features a yellow, curving slide that connects the two floors, innovation labs, art rooms with massive garage doors that support interdisciplinary collaboration, and rooftop experimentation labs for the solar panels.
The school has been deemed a success based on the children’s reaction to their new environment. Moje says students can’t get enough of Discovery Elementary.
“The demonstrated proof of that is, a child being picked up early at 2 to get to the dentist appointment and still wanting to return afterward,” he says.