Room to Grow: The Architecture and Design of School Spaces

By Laurence Jaquet and Kim Hopper

At San Francisco Waldorf School, the built environment — our buildings, classrooms, and outdoors spaces — is a reflection of our character, community, and curriculum. Each of these spaces, from the nursery through the high school, is designed to support students in their education and their growth, just like the subject material and the teaching approach. 

The interior classrooms of the early years are homelike and compact in scale. Active nursery and kindergarten children are surrounded by warm colors and natural materials like silk, wool, and wood. In the lower grades, individual classrooms are connected by an outdoor meeting space; the village-like feel gives children the chance for social interaction throughout the day.

Our grade school is a combination of a redesigned space (the lower grades were once another school) and new construction of the upper grades building. As classes advance, students move up through the building, and the indoor-outdoor, multi-level design connects the school community. Beautiful and simple classrooms support focused, concentrated study in the older grades. Dakin Hall is the heart of the grade school, used throughout the day and evening for movement, orchestra, plays, after-school circus, and pick-up basketball. 

Across the grades, the distinct and lively colors of the classroom walls are immediately felt; warmer colors welcome active younger students, getting cooler and more expansive through the years as students’ intellectual capacities emerge. The hand-painted, textured lazure-style adds depth and feeling. Perhaps less immediately perceptible is the careful interplay of space, light, and reflection; take a mid-day break in the library and you will experience the warmth and glow of winter sunlight through the picture window. 

Community Connections 
Of course, our inherited space and urban environment present challenges. Unlike some Waldorf schools, we didn’t start with acres of open space upon which to design new buildings, gardens, and play yards. We must use every inch wisely; thoughtful design and flexibility are essential. Yet as city dwellers we know that close proximity creates opportunity. Gardening, for example, is also public service and community-building; young Waldorf students explore and cultivate garden plots at nearby St. Anne’s Home, which serves needy elderly residents, while our high school gardening program has worked for many years at Laguna Honda Hospital, tending vegetables, greenhouses, and fruit trees alongside residents. We also share urban spaces at recess and restore natural habitat in the Presidio. Our grade school athletes walk together to team practices at vibrant community centers. Our Winter Fair has become a neighborhood street fair, and all ages gather at Stern Grove for the fall festival. 

Green Design – LEED Certified 
At the high school, the walls are white and the official school color is blue – yet green is all around. This building was once an AT&T call center: picture rows of cubicles and dark spaces. Architect and Waldorf parent David Bushnell of 450 Architects, transformed the building into the dynamic, split-level structure it is today, earning the coveted LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council – the first school in San Francisco to do so. In the front, Muni’s M line lets out students steps from the door. The view from back classrooms is an expanse of wooded green space, and windows let fresh air flow. Students are working to restore a spring, trails, and green spaces of the adjacent Ardenwood retirement community, discovering natural wonders buried for years by overgrowth. The design of the high school building itself has been used in the architecture, green building, and environmental studies classes. 

Planners paid careful attention to the writings of founder and architect Rudolph Steiner during the redesign of the 40-year-old structure for today’s high school students. Classrooms, communal areas, and transitional walkways are designed for beauty, utility, and flow; disparate spaces are visually connected in many parts of the building. Design flourishes common to some Waldorf schools were set aside; connectivity and creativity remain. The construction of the high school would not have been possible without tremendous support of our community. The school’s most recent capital campaign raised money for the purchase and remodeling of our high school campus. This collective dedication to our school’s space continues: our nursery school expansion is underway with new doors opening soon. Our generous Waldorf community has also consistently supported the school’s Fund-a-Need program. Most recently, the effort helped build a greenhouse and renewed reception areas at both campuses.At each of our three campuses, the spaces of San Francisco Waldorf School are thoughtful and dynamic — a reflection of the community that made them possible.