Double Duty: Designing a Canopy for Shelter & Learning

We believe that architects have the ability to enhance and accentuate a building’s relationship to the natural environment through large and small design features. When we design schools, we look for ways to leverage these design features to become learning opportunities to establish the “building as a teacher”. As the early childhood/elementary architect for the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) Easthampton PK-8 school, Studio G started immediately at the elementary school’s entry canopy.

Creating our wish list of things we’d like the canopy to do guides design ideas and choices.

The entrance canopy’s design began with inspiration from the school’s environs. It emulates a tree grove and provides a place for gathering and protection. The canopy’s tree-like form uses more standard steel sections creating an elegant feature that is both constructible and cost-effective.

Early concept sketch showing a canopy with a green roof, tree-like columns, wooden underside and lighting, and water falling into a rain garden below.

Design considerations for this canopy included studying how people will flow to and under the canopy and how water will flow above and around it, as well as making sure we keep water away from the building. This was a chance to put water on display through the design of the canopy roof. Our designers asked, “Why not expose its path of travel?”  Instead of guttering water the canopy design turns it into a moment of delight for students and families walking by to observe a waterfall cascading into the thirsty rain garden below.

LESSON: The Flow of Water

The Canopy Drain Plan shows how rainwater is directed across the canopy to the oculus and raingarden.

Students can observe from 2nd floor windows the flow of water over “peaks and folds” in the canopy roof design. Just simply guiding water over the roof and into the rain garden in a visible way helps to start the flow of questions about what happens to water when it rains. Instead of piping the water into hidden gutters and pipes, exposing its path, volume, and velocity makes it something of interest and curiosity. Pausing to watch the droplets splash and disappear catches an ephemeral moment mesmerized by the movement and beauty of a simple rain drop.

Did you know that 1” of rainwater on a 1,000 SF roof equals 625 gallons of water? It’s good to keep these numbers in mind when you think about water flow, where it’s going, reducing splashing, while keeping it visible. These sketches represent the thinking behind what the section of the roof can look like in order to funnel the water in fun ways. The sketches represent design thinking at different scales – from the edge detail (top right in the sketch) to what the overall shape of the roof should be like.

LESSON: The Raingarden

The “oculus” in the canopy roof directs the water into the rain garden below. A rain garden is a shallow landscaped depression planted with native plants and grasses that absorb and collect run off from roofs, sidewalks, and parking lots. There’s more happening than meets the eye in these beautiful gardens. They filter the water, reduce pollution, create habitat for birds and butterflies and other beneficial critters, reduce flooding, and allow the water to slowly soak into the ground, refilling ground water supplies. Rain gardens are a useful and important tool in a set of sustainable site design practices.

These sketches reflect the thinking of how the flow of people and the flow of water will interact at the entrance. We want people to be close to the water, but we don’t want to get them wet!

In these moments, we can use the building as a teaching tool to help inspire curiosity in the natural systems around us. We can use the building’s design to capture an otherwise unseen moment, creating new opportunities to see ordinary things in a new way, framed and better understood.

This sketched site plan shows thinking about the whole plaza, how the seating forms the edges, how seating can be combined into the canopy footings (which was changed for constructability reasons later), and how the water flows off the roof.

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