2013 President’s Award of Excellence
Lexington Elementary – Environmental Classroom
The Lexington Environmental Classroom, Wonder Lab, is an environmentally sustainable and engaging outdoor teaching site designed to reconnect students to their environment. Students experience firsthand the importance and impact of environmentally responsible principles through a series of playful rainwater harvesting elements and a wetland/bio retention garden.
The project began as a 60′ x 200′ unused and unattractive outdoor space described by many in the Monroe, Louisiana school as a maintenance nuisance. The rectangular site was defined by an existing school building on three sides and a covered breeze way on the fourth. Nine classrooms, a Library and the School Main Office had access to the space that was seldom used. Additionally, runoff from the building was directed into the area through a system of gutters and down spouts. This runoff then flowed across a lawn area that was heavily sprayed with herbicides and pesticides. Catch basins and subsurface drainage captured the contaminated water and deposited it into a nearby bayou.
In an effort to get students outside of the classroom, the school Parent Teacher Organization raised money to construct an outdoor pavilion and hired the landscape architect to help with locating the structure. During the initial meeting with the PTO president, School Principal and School Board members, the underlying theme of discussion was how necessary it was to expose students to the environment and make them aware of the impact they have, good or bad. These early planning discussions changed the direction of services from simply siting a building to creating a design that not only provided a place to teach but actually taught by example. The design’s positive impact on water quality and containment of runoff led to additional funding from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
The first step to transforming the space was the removal of the turf thus eliminating any future chemical applications and contamination. The high maintenance turf was replaced with decomposed granite to create a usable surface that would still allow for percolation. An existing four foot walk that framed the spaced was retained. The areas between the walk and the building became spaces for each classroom to take ownership of and practice organic gardening.
The next step was to address the poor management of runoff from the site. Thirteen gutter down spouts were removed and replaced with scuppers created from re-purposed I-beams from a local scrap yard. These structures capture the water and playfully carry it overhead. The water is then deposited into cisterns that have been fitted with hand pumps. Students are now able to collect the harvested water to nurture their organic gardens. Excess runoff from the cisterns is directed into river rock troughs that lead to a wetland garden. This sunken garden has the capacity to hold and naturally percolate the excess runoff while keeping it on site. Native wetland plantings including Rush, Iris, Palmetto, Cypress and other volunteer plants are featured in the bio retention garden.
The design elements were arranged to provided flexible and multi-use areas. Seating in these areas are simple log sections re-purposed by the student body from a fallen tree on campus. These areas are transformed into classrooms for science experiments, outdoor reading rooms and a backdrop for art classes.
The final element of the design was the placement of a 14′ x 28′ outdoor classroom structure situated in the middle of the bio retention garden. This structure and its location immerse students and visitors in an outdoor setting allowing them to experience first hand the natural processes around them.
Upon completion of the project the Landscape Architect and PTO president noticed the classroom windows looking into the site prior to construction were covered by paper and closed blinds. Just like the runoff and subsurface drainage, “out of site, out of mind” was the theme. However, since project completion, all classroom windows are now open to the garden. Every rain event excites the student body and becomes a teaching opportunity.