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Happiest School in America

Georgina Johnston
09 Dec 2019

Bluestone Elementary School Named “Most Livable Building” in the U.S.

A 2019 Association for Learning Environments Project of Distinction, Harrisonburg City Public Schools’ Bluestone Elementary School has received the top Livable Buildings Award from UC Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment (CBE). Now in its thirteenth year, the Livable Buildings Awards recognize projects that demonstrate high occupant satisfaction, excellent design, and innovative operation strategies. The CBE survey team worked with VMDO, the building’s architect, to develop a custom survey module related to the building’s promotion of happiness, health, and high performance, among other measurable elements. Results from the survey are outlined below. 

The Liveable Building Award recognises the success of Bluestone from the most important perspective - that of the building users! It reflects an inclusive planning and design process to create a transformative learning environment that embodies the school’s core mission: to build community and celebrate diversity.

K. Callahan, Principal, VMDO Architects

Soon to be known as the happiest school in America, 80% of building users say the building enhances connections with students. The design of Bluestone Elementary School was driven by several guiding principles. The first was serving a diverse student body with children from over 60 countries and speaking almost as many languages. The second was sensitivity to the local geography and ecology. Third and finally was creating a net-zero ready building that responds to global climate change concerns. The school emphasizes a variety of spaces and scales for differentiated learning opportunities while creating welcoming communal areas that embody the school’s commitment to learning in an inclusive environment. The award jury members commended the school for its attention to diversity and for its creative indoor and outdoor spaces that build community. Jurors described the school as an inspirational setting that is “laying the groundwork for the next generation of environmental warriors,” and noted that the design team “hit a home run on this one.” 

I see the difference in the kids in the building vs. other buildings. The building encourages kids to be happy. Everything in the building is designed with a purpose.

C. Mackail, Chief Operating Officer

As part of its mission to foster community with health at its priority, Bluestone makes deep connections to its watershed, its ecosystem, and its history. It was reported that 93% of those using the building felt more connected to nature and the outdoors. These connections within the building are spatial – maximizing views to the outdoors within teaching spaces and aligning common areas with key sightlines to the surrounding Shenandoah Valley. They are experiential – allowing students to experience and study the effects of daylighting, rainfall, and changes in weather on the environment. Connections are intellectual, through environmental graphics and wayfinding explaining Harrisonburg’s unique natural setting and drawing parallels around the world; and pedagogical, through a place-based learning landscape. 

86% of building users say the school is a community asset with its high performance and learning environment. The school’s three-story massing maximizes site area for play, outdoor learning, and public use. The compact form and high-performance building envelope are key to the school’s actual energy use intensity of 17 EUI, a 75% reduction from the national average. To deliver the best building performance possible, the building uses shading, roof overhangs, glass treatments, and careful placement of instructional spaces to mitigate less than ideal solar orientation. The building steps down towards the south to maximize the area available for roof-mounted photovoltaics. Boulders and trees harvested during construction are re-purposed in the landscape as natural play features and are paired with native grasses, trees, and wildflowers that support visible water conservation and stormwater management.

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