The first phase of a two-part, LEED Gold project in the heart of San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood, the Presidio Knolls School ‘U-Wing’ entry court is a playful yet sophisticated expression of the school’s identity. As students, parents, and faculty enter the K-8 Mandarin immersion school’s new ‘U-Wing’ they are greeted by a beautiful, new courtyard surrounded by classrooms, art and music rooms, a library and a lobby. The courtyard design is inspired by a tonal graph which represents the auditory qualities of the different pitch contours of the Mandarin language. Bold paving banding, versatile custom benches, and raised planters informed by the tonal graph come together to create a dynamic space for the Presidio Knolls Community.

Creo worked closely with the school faculty and design team to shape the idea of a flexible space that celebrated the school’s full immersion principles and gave them the capacity to teach outside of a traditional classroom environment. Programmatically, the courtyard needed to serve several important functions throughout the day. In the mornings and late afternoons, the courtyard serves as an entry lobby, accommodating the frenzied activity of daily pick up and drop off. During the school day the courtyard encourages group learning, gathering, physical activity, mindfulness, and inspires the children’s natural curiosity and experimentation.

After research and user group meetings, the concept of a ‘tonal garden’ won favor with the school and the Mandarin tonal graph became the design’s inspiration.  Bold angular bands representing the four tones of the Mandarin language criss cross through the ground plane and create the framework for the courtyard. Permeable pavers along the perimeter continue to other areas of the school and identify the main campus circulation.  The central bright green play surfacing, with contrasting bands of grey, shapes spaces for flexible learning. Physical education, stretching, and mindfulness time take place within the different zones formed by the tonal bands running through the play surface. The grey bands provide an intuitive location for students to line up and establish visual boundaries to stay within. 

Two custom benches and raised planters shaped by the angular bands frame the field of green safety surfacing. Crafted from sustainably harvested wood, the benches accentuate the tonal lines of the ground plane and elevate the tonal graph’s influence through vertical expression. The southern angular terraced bench and raised planter wraps around the ‘tree house’ stair. A strategic jog in the bench aligns with the paving angles to create a nook for outdoor classes.  Students of all ages sit on the staircase bench throughout the school day as teachers bring their curriculum outside.

Across the green safety surfacing, the north triangular planter bench adds a touch of whimsy to the project, rising up and down like the Mandarin tones to create playful tables and seats. The dynamic bench was a response to the faculty’s desire for more space for adults to congregate as they watch the children or gather for evening parent-faculty events. Parents are encouraged to linger during morning drop off for weekly ‘coffee and congee’ at the raised wood bench tables to discuss the school’s activities and socialize with friends and teachers.  Meanwhile, children climb up the formed insets of the concrete and hop along stepstones to cross the planter, giggling with their classmates among the billowing grasses and flowering santolina.  

The landscape design incorporates sustainable elements throughout which helped the project obtain LEED Gold status. All of the paving – including the linear pavers and play surfacing – is permeable and detains stormwater beneath the courtyard, reducing on-site peak flows into San Francisco’s Bay. The pavers’ high albedo color reduces the heat island effect on the urban campus and helps keep the campus cooler during the warm fall months in San Francisco. The planting palette includes Chinese Pistache trees, a variety of grasses, santolinas, lavenders, and agaves, all of which use little water and are pollinators for local insects and birds. The subsurface irrigation is designed with smart controllers to minimize water use and pinpoint the irrigation to where the plants need it.

The new ‘U-Wing’ landscape design provides a welcoming and engaging space for its students, parents, and faculty and has been embraced by the Presidio Knolls community. The unique design is grounded in the identity of the school, referencing the building blocks of spoken Mandarin through paving patterns and distinctive benches while promoting good stewardship of the environment through strategic sustainable design. The sophisticated and playful central courtyard is the new hub for the school as it continues to grow the campus and facilities for many generations of students to come. 

Name of the project: Presidio Knolls School
Project location: San Francisco, CA
Design year: 2017-2019
Year Built: 2019


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