Laboratory Schools, Early Childhood Center | Valerio Dewalt Train Associates

• March 13, 2011

Valerio Dewalt Train Associates has designed the new Laboratory Schools, Early Childhood Center for University of Chicago.

Founded by John Dewey in 1886, the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools have been a successful and evolving experiment in an educational model that prioritizes the learning environment as teacher. In 2007, the Schools embarked on one of their most ambitious and far-reaching expansions to date. Comprising two new major buildings—an early childhood center and an arts wing—and extensive top-to-bottom renovations throughout the existing nine-building campus, the expansion will fundamentally enhance the Schools’ ability to realize a child-focused, educational vision.

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Laboratory Schools Early Childhood Center, render courtesy Valerio Dewalt Train Associates

The first project scheduled to begin construction is the Early Childhood Center (ECC). This 128,000-sf facility will include 34 classrooms on two levels as well as a third-level library, gymnasium, and enclosed outdoor play area. Originally planned for a vacant site on the Lab Schools’ existing campus, the ECC was moved to a superior off-campus site located across from Chicago’s Jackson Park and the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI). Though removing the ECC from the current campus was not unanimously supported at first, the new site offers irresistible advantages that quickly won over the entire community.

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Laboratory Schools Early Childhood Center, render courtesy Valerio Dewalt Train Associates

The first advantage is the location’s proximity to the lakefront, the park, and the MSI, a major cultural institution. As the first physical link between the University of Chicago and the MSI, the ECC establishes an important dialogue between two of Hyde Park’s most significant institutions.

The second advantage is more pragmatic. Traffic during drop-off and pick-up times has always been a major challenge at the Lab Schools, and expanding the ECC within the existing campus would have exacerbated the problem. Moving the ECC to a new site where traffic can be easily managed avoids this potentially hazardous situation. In addition, the original site, now a play area, will remain open for student recreation on the main campus.

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Laboratory Schools Early Childhood Center, render courtesy Valerio Dewalt Train Associates

Because of its off-campus location, the new ECC will have all of the programmatic elements of a freestanding school building. In addition to classrooms, art and music rooms, a library, and a gymnasium, the building will house full administrative and counseling offices, food service, and learning labs. One end of the glazed third-floor library cantilevers over the entry plaza, offering views to Lake Michigan and the MSI.

The facility embodies the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education, a 20th-century teaching philosophy founded on Dewey’s original principles that situate the child within a larger learning context. Among the building’s innovations in this regard is the incorporation of outdoor space and learning labs with classrooms, enabling students to move fluidly between academic and physical activities. The ground floor contains nursery school and kindergarten classrooms, each with easy access to its own outdoor play space as well as to a shared courtyard and learning lab at the building’s center. The second floor houses first and second grade classrooms and a green roof play area that blends live plantings and artificial turf. All classrooms throughout the building are designed to be flexible and to encourage interaction with adjacent classrooms and shared breakout rooms.

Scheduled for completion in 2013, the ECC is registered with the USGBC and is targeting a LEED Silver certification.

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Laboratory Schools Early Childhood Center - Level 1 floor plan, drawing courtesy Valerio Dewalt Train Associates

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Laboratory Schools Early Childhood Center - Level 2 floor plan, drawing courtesy Valerio Dewalt Train Associates

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Laboratory Schools Early Childhood Center - Level 3 floor plan, drawing courtesy Valerio Dewalt Train Associates

+ Project credits / data

Architect: Valerio Dewalt Train Associates
Project: University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, Early Childhood Center
Location: Chicago, IL, USA

+ All images and drawings courtesy Valerio Dewalt Train Associates
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Category: Architecture, Education

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