Bennett Elementary School

Project Overview

Letting Landscape Lead: A New Model for Today’s K-12 Schools

In a residential neighborhood of Bellevue, the design of Bennett Elementary stands in contrast to the stale suburban school typology, instead pairing outdoor exploration and learning with a contemporary educational facility. Preserving existing Douglas Firs grove at a scale of 12 times the required amount, the school is nestled between conifer stands which allow for calming views from within classrooms. Rudimentary exploration trails were improved without disturbing mature trees and to take advantage of views made possible by significant elevation gain on the site. Working with the grade rather than fighting it, the designers stacked and staggered the building masses up the slope, allowing mechanical equipment space to be buried under the learning spaces. This building siting resulted in an increase in the amount and variety of views to the west, shrunk the profile of the eastern façade so as to appear less massive to neighbors, and created multiple opportunities for outdoor and rooftop learning spaces. Outdoor learning spaces exist around every corner as a day-to-day curriculum resource, facilitating students’ embrace of their environment.


Bellevue, WA


Bellevue School District

Design Partner

NAC Architecture


2018 Washington Association of Landscape Architects Merit Award – Public Ownership; 2020 Citation of Excellence, Learning by Design; 2019 Pinnacle Project of Distinction, A4LE Pacific Northwest Region

Reducing Environmental Impacts and Increasing Opportunities for Nature Discovery

Bennett Elementary is located in a single-family, residential neighborhood in eastern Bellevue, WA. The site slopes to the east about 45’ with large wooded groves and rudimentary trails, and previously hosted a school and sports field on the open, western side of the site. As a client, Bellevue School District is increasingly committed to reducing environmental impacts of building projects and increasing opportunities for outdoor education. The building, serving a population of 550+ students, was designed with geothermal heating and cooling and photovoltaic roof panels. The siting of the 3-story building is a result of collaboration between designer teams which allow for a significant reduction in soil removal and slope disturbance, as the building is pulled apart and stacked up the slope. The project was bid and construction completed in 13 months, which is a notably rapid pace for a large and complex public bid project with challenging site conditions.

A multitude of recent studies have pointed to a correlation between physical exposure to or views of green space with increased cognition levels and reduced stress among students. The design of Bennett Elementary’s landscape and building reflects this approach to K-12 learning spaces, focusing on outdoor learning and natural play. Numerous courtyards and windows allow the building to maximize natural light, which can feel fleeting in Pacific Northwest winters. Large open interior gathering spaces are oriented near large windows while numerous child-sized nooks, reading corners and ledges are designed for students to feel as though the building is permeable to the outside, with caves and learning opportunities around every corner. Similarly, the designers took every opportunity to incorporate outdoor learning spaces (seven in total), serving as an extension of the building as a learning landscape. These spaces are significant for their siting and capacity, so that entire classes can easily spill out for a lesson, but also in their proximity to urban nature, mature trees and landscape infrastructure. They invite students to not only sit, but to explore and discover.

Designing for Play and Discovery

Elevation changes within an interior courtyard are addressed with monumental seat steps, lending itself to large group seating, for outdoor class sessions or special events. A more formal landscape aesthetic within the courtyard provides a different kind of visual inspiration to the students, apart from the native Northwest palette of the perimeter of the property. Multiple surfacing materials, more common to residential projects, such as pavers, wood decking and artificial turf allow the students to feel protected while having access to the outdoors. Large air intake and exhaust vent columns are veiled by an artful aluminum screen, and are lit up by multi-colored LED lights, bringing a sense of whimsy and unknown to a seemingly serene courtyard. By highlighting these stacks in a highly-trafficked area rather than concealing them, the designers are prompting students and others to ask questions about the infrastructure’s placement, purpose and function.

Two rooftop gathering spaces take advantage of the building’s stepped placement into the hill, and allow for access to the outdoors, views of the landscape and views of the building’s green roofs and vast solar photovoltaic panel systems, contributing to their understanding of green infrastructure and technology. While rooftop access is generally not desired by school districts, the client and designers agreed the opportunities and benefits allowed by these unique outdoor spaces were great.

Elsewhere on site, durable material such as cast-in-place concrete, precast concrete, galvanized steel and stainless steel are chosen for the areas that receive the most intensive use. Synthetic turf was selected for the sports field to reduce watering and maintenance needs. Nearby, a boulder-dotted natural adventure-ground emerges from the forest, easing children in the transition from natural elements to the artifice of traditional play structures beyond, yet proving just as popular. Here, natural play is normalized and located shoulder-to-shoulder with a more traditional playground, allowing for a spectrum of interaction and choice.

A driving component of the designer’s vision was to create a site that was welcoming to the community, not only serving students and teachers. As the campus is open to the public after school hours, the landscape and circulation was carefully considered to accommodate cross-flows, dog-walkers and curious neighbors. All of the outdoor learning spaces, seating and play areas, being open to the public after-hours were designed as versatile spaces that enrich the neighborhood. In addition, the green infrastructure and rain gardens serve as informal teaching opportunities.

Environmental Considerations

Bennett Elementary was also driven by a need for low water use and low-maintenance landscapes. This need pairs well with other environmental sensitive strategies such as using native plantings, designing for temporary irrigation and demarcating areas of undisturbed existing vegetation. Materials salvaged from the construction process were reused as a large boulder wall in an adventure playground.

Local code requires saving 15% of interior tree caliper inches; by creating landscape buffer areas which were left largely undisturbed beyond some selective removal of invasive trees and snagging of problem trees, the design and siting of the building allowed for 59% of interior tree caliper inches to be preserved on-site. This resulted in 18% of the entire site being left untouched as woodland. When possible, trees selected for removal were left as snags and/or stumps to provide habitat for birds, insects, fungi and plants. In total, 100% of perimeter trees were preserved to maintain a mature public-facing canopy and vibrant pedestrian experience for site visitors and neighbors.

The landscape design of Bennett Elementary School left lawns entirely out of the equation as a result of strong environmental ethic from both firm and client, and concerns over ongoing water and maintenance costs. The landscape is primarily planted with native plants featuring some drought-adapted ornamentals, all of which were carefully selected as non-toxic child-friendly species which encourage interaction and exploration. Rain gardens near the building capture pavement surface run-off and present teaching opportunities. Their dual placement, both in an intimate setting near the building’s classrooms doors on the east side of the building as well as in the south parking lot, serve to familiarize students and their families with functional rainwater detention in multiple landscape settings and scenarios.

The site-sensitive, outdoor-learning focused design of Bennett Elementary was truly the result of strong collaboration between design disciplines. The site itself presented challenges that were worked with rather than attempting to overcome them. As a result, Bennett Elementary stands as a significant example of contemporary school design, highlighting the landscape as a learning device in multiple ways while achieving reductions to the environmental disturbance of construction and performance. The school now serves both its student population as well as the surrounding neighborhood. Given the rapid timeline and strict budgets of publicly funded projects such as this, the completion of Bennett Elementary and the extent to which the design vision was brought to fruition is a testament to the efficiency of the design teams and to the potential of public school design.