By Meghan Hall
When Paul Michael Davis was initially hired to help design Whole Earth Montessori’s new school in Bothell, Wash., he was gifted one of the school’s main pedagogical tools: a 27 block trinomial cube typically used for teaching the children about proportions and math. The cube, with its modular design and bright primary colors became the basis for the building’s new design and provided a strong contrast to the school’s rural surroundings.
“Externally, the way the building relates to the environment, that’s where they were looking to us for design inspiration,” explained Davis, founder of Paul Michael Davis Architects (PMDA). “They have a beautiful site, which is unique for a Montessori school, or for any school, really. Montessori really wanted that connection to the natural environment, and I think they see it as a really critical part of learning.”
Called Whole Earth Montessori, the school is located on a five-acre property at 2930 228th St. The new building is situated in a Creekside meadow with an abundance of greenery and wildlife nearby. However, because the project site is classified as a critical habitat, no new development was allowed, and the development team had to build upon the foundation of a former house, constructed in the 1980s. According to Davis, maximizing the amount of space was key for Montessori, as it would provide a flexible environment that instructors could use in a variety of ways.
“They really wanted big open spaces,” said Davis. “A big part of their education is rotating the kids through different activities, and they’re constantly rearranging their furniture and layout.”
The resulting structure was rectangular in nature, in part to maximize the building’s floorplate. In all, the building totals 3,878 square feet. The building also makes use of a minimalistic, low sloping roof. The shape of the structure also built upon design themes pulled the trinomial cube and provided a sharp differentiation from the school’s environment.
“We’re letting the building be very minimal and simple and modern to distinguish h it from the natural landscape,” said Davis. “Montessori really wanted something that was like a landmark on the site. The front façade was pretty carefully designed to have a lot of presence so that it established itself as a Montessori of the 21st century.”
The school’s dark gray siding is contrasted by a bright yellow front door and primary-colored stained glass windows. Almost all of the building’s windows are placed at the corners in an effort to maximize natural light and views to the outside. The storefront windows are framed in black, and their sizes, shapes and configurations are based off of components of the trinomial cube. While most of the windows are clear, several are stained, providing an additional modern touch and pop of color.
“We knew we had a simple box, and we weren’t going to try to elevate the architecture of the box. And we also wanted to play directly with the curriculum,” said Davis. “We knew we wanted the windows to have this functional look, and we let the trinomial cube determine the way the windows were divided.”
Additionally, the design team placed the school’s staircases on the outside of the building, which provides not only more space inside for students and teachers to use, but also provides architectural interest on the outside of the building as well. The project team was able to move forward with the design, explained Davis, because per the wetlands code, the staircases did not count as additional building footprint.
“It was a chance for us to add a somewhat expressive element to that really basic mass,” said Davis. “The stairs are open and one staircase is angled off the back so that it spills down directly into the garden area. Our goal was just to open the building and the classrooms up to the outside as much as possible and design something that was sensitive to the environment, but not afraid to stand out.”
The building’s front staircase, on the other hand, allowed the project team to move forward with an exaggerated overhang for additional weather protection and architectural interest.
The project moved fairly quickly, taking just a year to complete and included around four months of construction. Inglewood Construction, Inc. was the contractor for the project. Smith Company Structural Engineers, Travis Fitzmaurice & Associates and Abossein Engineering LLC were also part of the project team.
“Construction was incredibly quick,” said Davis. “The contractor deserves major kudos for that.”
Overall, the end product was a modern, sleek building that embodies the type of hands-on learning environment Montessori strives to create for its students. Davis credits the trinomial cube as the project’s inspiration and was a challenge that was appreciated when thinking about the project.
“I think it forces the architect to be more rigorous,” said Davis. “You can perceive when the architect takes on a challenge to add to the design.”