With a reputation for liberal politics, picturesque landscapes, and a relaxed dress code, 28-square-mile Bainbridge Island in Washington's Puget Sound is viewed by many as an idyllic spot to raise a family. Once dominated by logging and ship building and, later, agriculture, the island has evolved into an affluent bedroom community of Seattle, just a 35-minute ferry ride away. Given its tight control on development and its promotion of green space, it is no surprise that the island—which prides itself on its small-town charm and progressive values—has high expectations for its schools, which reflect and promote the way of life here.

The original Wilkes Elementary School, dating to the mid-50s, had grown in an ad hoc manner into a cluster of four brick buildings with temporary trailers connected by covered walkways. Instruction often happened in its double-loaded corridors, and its heating and plumbing systems were failing. The municipality turned to Seattle-based architects Mahlum, which in 2005 developed its school district master plan. The first goal, say the architects, was to use the full 10-acre site, which was bifurcated by a 20-foot elevation change. But, more importantly, the team focused on creating a building that would embody the school's philosophy, which embraces a broad spectrum of learning styles (accommodating everything from multi-class gatherings to independent study), while underscoring collaboration and the educational value of play. “Teachers used to be like individual contractors, with their room as their domain,” notes principal Sheryl Belt. “But you are always stronger as a team. We wanted to be connected, we wanted a flow.”

Wilkes Elementary, which has 382 students, com-municates its open vibe from the moment parents drop off their children at the covered porch that serves as the entry. The welcoming space prompts casual interactions among parents, students, and staff by inviting them to linger, and announces the value placed here on community and family participation in the education process.

To break down the building's scale, the architects organized the plan as a series of bars separated by courtyards. Within each wing, classrooms are linked by a corridor that widens into a “shared learning space,” where activity can spill out and special programs are hosted. On a recent morning, these areas buzzed quietly: children read independently while a volunteer set up an art project. “We wanted to encourage collaboration by getting not only kids, but also teachers, out of the classroom,” says Mahlum managing partner Gerald (Butch) Reifert. “We thought of the classroom as a house, and the corridor and shared learning space as the porch.” Two long hallways, running north to south, create a circulation ring that fosters interaction among the grades. “The building knits into the land,” notes project designer JoAnn Wilcox, referring to the finger-like volumes that reach out into the site, which the team regraded into a gentle slope. “The overlay here is that teaching is about the whole child, and the idea of learning from play.” To blur the lines between educational and recreational spaces while creating ample sight lines, the architects used extensive glazing, providing views between interiors and out to rain gardens, courtyards, and play areas while filling the school with daylight, even on a gloomy fall afternoon. Some people fear transparency, notes Reifert. “But we believe the opposite: the more transparent, the safer.” The glass has other benefits, Belt adds. “Kids view the whole area as a classroom and know adults can see them every minute. They're more independent, because we can let them be.”

The project added a cafeteria that doubles as a performance space and an enlarged gymnasium, which meets standards for competitive use. These facilities, along with the library, occupy the building's east side, and are accessed by a public hallway with its own entry. Outside school hours, they can remain open and be used by the local basketball league or church groups. While creating a community amenity for the island's north end, which has no town center, these additions have surprising effects, too. For example, a separate cafeteria frees teachers from overseeing meals in their classrooms, points out Tamela J. Van Winkel, the district's director of facilities and capital projects. This buys 15 minutes a day, she says, “which adds up to eight days a year.”

Dignified materials, like dark-fired brick, concrete, and wood are complemented with splashes of color on flooring and textiles—hues inspired by a student project on Matisse cutouts. These choices lend the school a serious yet joyful air without resorting to the condescending primary palette so often employed. And sustainable features abound, from nontoxic finishes to 100 percent on-site stormwater infiltration and waste-water treatment, heat recovery, and a hybrid radiant heating system with 45 geothermal wells.

Since it was founded in 1938, Mahlum has designed dozens of schools. “We look at each project as a template,” says Reifert. “There are always lessons learned. We take many ideas and move them forward.” But rather than applying a cookie-cutter approach whereby design elements are merely recycled, Wilcox notes, “We bring values. For example, we ask, 'How do we create connectivity?' Or quiet—how do we create the building as a backdrop for the life, the color, and the activity that students bring?” In the end, it's about place-making. “You layer on educational design principles, but the goal is to create a place that is whole—bigger than the sum of its parts.”


Formal name of building:
Wilkes Elementary School

12781 Madison Ave NE, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110

Completion Date:
September 2012

Gross square footage:
64,450 sf

Total project cost:
$29 million

Total construction cost:
$21.7 million

Tamela VanWinkle, Director of Capital Projects

Bainbridge Island School District

71 Columbia, Floor 4
Seattle, WA 98104
206 441 4151

Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Butch Reifert AIA, Principal-in-Charge
David Mount AIA, Managing Principal
JoAnn Wilcox AIA, Project Designer
Jesse Walton AIA, Project Architect
Dwayne Epp AIA
James Steel AIA
Cristine Ross Traber AIA
Amy Noe IIDA NCIDQ, Interior Designer
Masako Wada IIDA, Interior Designer

Interior designer:

Civil: 2020 Engineering
Structural: PCS Structural Solutions
Mechanical, Electrical & Plumbing: ARUP

Landscape: Cascade Design Collaborative
Acoustical and AV: SSA Acoustics
Food Service: Bundy & Associates
Cost Estimator: Rider Levett Bucknell
Hazmat: NOVO Laboratory & Consulting Services, Inc.
Commissioning: McKinstry
Geotechnical: Associated Earth Sciences

General contractor:
Spee West Construction

Benjamin Benschneider and Jeremy Bittermann


64,450 square feet

Construction cost:

$21.7 million

Completion date:

September 2012



Exterior cladding
Masonry: Mutual Materials , Ebony Smooth, Norman Size, 1/3 running bond
Metal Panels: Ballard Sheet Metal Works
Metal/glass curtain wall: EFCO Curtainwall
Wood: Issaquah Cedar & Lumber ' cedar siding
Moisture barrier: StoGuard

Thermoplastic Membrane Roofing: 60mil FiberTite-SM

Aluminum Clad Wood Windows: Eagle Windows and Doors

Glass: Hartung Glass Industries
Skylights: Sunoptics Prismatic Skylights

Entrances: EFCO
Metal doors: Ceco Door Products
Wood doors: Eagle Windows and Doors
Security grilles: MobilFlex
Operable partitions: Modernfold
Coiling Doors: The Cookson Company

Interior finishes
Acoustical ceilings: USG
Suspension grid: USG
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: Genothen
Paints and stains: Sherwin-Williams
Wall coverings: Forbo; Kinetics Noise Control; Camira
Plastic laminate: Nevamar; Formica
Floor and wall tile: Daltile (bathrooms and kitchen)
Resilient flooring: Nora Systems Inc.
Area Rugs: Karastan

Office furniture: VPI
Reception furniture: Harter, Custom Casework
Chairs: VS Furniture; Fixtures Furniture; RT London
Student Tables: VS Furniture; VPI
Cafeteria Tables: Sico
Upholstery: Maharam; Designtex
Bean Bags: Fatboy

Downlights: Pathway Lighting; GE, Vantage; Elcast; Ligman; Kurtzon
Task lighting: GE; Alera; Litecontrol; Hubbell; Light Edge; Airey-Thompson; Ligman
Exterior: Kim; GE; Spaulding

Elevator: Otis

(include water fountains and water-saving fixtures as applicable)
Elkay; Kohler; Chicago Faucets; Sloan

Energy management or building automation system: ATS Automation; Lutron

Other unique products that contribute to sustainability:
AdvanTex Treatment System; LOSS (Large On-site Sewage Systems); H2OG Rainwater Hogs