Amphitheater High School’s Outdoor Classroom: a study in the Application of Design

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Data Collection

Case Studies

Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory

The Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory was an ASLA Honor Award Recipient completed in 2010, located at the University of Arizona. The project adapted an entryway to the University’s college of Architecture from a portion of parking lot, and transformed it into an outdoor classroom, a demonstration space for water harvesting, and even an urban “Safe Harbor” for an endangered species of fish. The Site makes use of both active and passive water harvesting systems, and through the implementation of vegetation is so effective that it changes improves the temperature of the space, creating a desirable microclimate. Furthermore, many of the materials on site are recycled materials, reducing the impact of the construction of the site. (College of Architecture, Planning & Landscape Architecture, 2016) The site demonstrates an ideal mixture of both human function, creating an inviting desirable climate, and ecological function. With respect to the site at AHS, the garden proves the feasibility of the creation of a space which both reflects the native ecological identity of Tucson, while creating an inviting experience. Caution should be used while drawing inspiration from this site because of the difference in the abilities to maintain a site at the University, where there is a dedicated landscaping crew with ample budged, as opposed to the limited maintenance which can be provided by the students and teachers at a small urban high school.

Mission Garden

Mission garden is located along the Santa Cruz River, in a flood plain that was historically home to the agriculture facilities of the Spanish Mission of Tucson. In more recent history Mission garden sat on top of a site which was part of a municipal dump. Initially a part of the Rio Nuevo redevelopment projects, the project was picked up by a nonprofit called Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace. Constructed in 2008, by EDAW, BWS Architecture, Sage Landscaping, Lloyd construction, Mission Garden seeks to develop a landscape which educates people through a living timeline of agriculture. Mission Garden has propagated a variety of heirloom, Tucson adapted fruits and vegetables, from different eras of cultural influence, and exposes people to the methods of cultivation accurate to their respective origins. (Friends of Tucson's Birthplace, 2016) Mission Garden demonstrates some of the simplest methods of the integration of sustainable practices, because many of the practices are those which have been tested by the trials of time. Furthermore, Mission Garden shines as an example of the possibilities of design which carefully implements storytelling to create sustained interest and care of a site.

Russell Elementary School

Started in 2006, and completed in 2010, Russell elementary is just one of the many successful projects take on by the Boston Schoolyard Initiative. Designed by Klopfer Martini Design Group, Russell was featured in Landscape Architecture Magazine, and touted as a shining example of the success of the application Boston Schoolyard Initiative’s design guidelines for outdoor classrooms. The site was specifically designed to remediate absence of dedicated science learning facilities at the school. Science specialist teachers at the school take materials between classes and bring students outdoors for instruction. The site features planting beds, an experiment lab with raised tables, and urban meadow, rain garden, storage shed and storm water feature, and integrates the use of recycled building materials. This site demonstrates the ability to program many different functions into a compact space. (Brown, 2015) Though it is oriented for use by an elementary school group, it shows the most direct applicability to the space to be designed for AHS.


We have now entered the design phase of this project which seeks to explore the benefits which a formalized process lends to the continued success of outdoor classrooms and school gardens. True to constructivist grounded theory this project acknowledges the personal investment of the researcher (designer) with the participants of the research (client). The selection of AHS as the site of the project is influenced by the established connection to the faculty and staff, and the personal opportunity to pay respect to the designer’s home community. This is not to say that AHS is without merit as a school to select. AHS is a Title I school, in a low income area of Tucson, with a high percentage of English Language learners, making the introduction of hands on learning experiences all the more in demand. Furthermore, the interest at AHS in this infrastructure is not limited to a solitary passionate teacher, as the case is to the detriment of many school gardens which fall into disrepair due to inadequate support. Instead the entirety of the science department has a vested stake in the project, with several teachers working towards the completion of grants for funding, and doubly more developing curriculum and support for the project.

Prior to the formal beginnings of this endeavor there had already been an attempt at a proposal for an outdoor classroom in at AHS. However, this process was not governed by a formalized design process, and as a result any work which was completed during that time has been discarded. This is further expanded in discussion.


After gaining volunteer clearance at AHS I was able to visit the school and gather some information about the site, as well as perform some inquiries with relevant parties. Data concerning the physical site was simple in collection, but time consumptive in practice. Armed with a tape measure, and volunteer student, the courtyard was dimensioned to determine the size of the site, location of utility access points, walking paths, classroom doors, building heights, plant materials, and any other relevant infrastructure. This data was graphically interpreted, and scaled using AutoCAD, SketchUp, Google Earth Pro, and illustrator. This information is only foundational, as it provides the quantitative elements which inform the design process. Additionally, during this phase, there was time to take photos of the site. Some important notes visual notes indicate potential sources of water, and flow of rainwater runoff at the site. In general water on site runs from east to west, with a change of elevation somewhere between one and two feet as determined by the USGS topography maps available on the Pima County map guide (Pima County, 2016). Potential water sources are on all sides of the site. The roof of the buildings on the west and north side of the site, are sloped such that they are suitable for the collection of rainwater. To the East of the site, is the location of the chillers for the air-conditioning systems which provide for the 300 and 400 wing, and which produce water condensate as a byproduct. There are drain pipes for this system along both the East, and southern walls. 1 Through modeling the site, we are able to understand the availability of sunlight throughout the day, across different times of the year. Figure shows how the courtyard receives light, with important distinction that the orientation of the buildings places importance on using the exposure of the western half to keep garden infrastructure under maximum sunlight.

Through several meetings of the science department, and a series of informal interviews, some relevant information was gathered. By nature of how the project began there is established interest with the science teaching staff in the installation of outdoor learning infrastructure, but having that sort of activity does raise concerns for teachers. One of the key considerations for this was the visibility of the site. For the teachers who are a part of the three hundred wing, it was of critical importance there are clear lines of site from their doors, into the site, in order to be better able to monitor activity in the courtyard. Conversely, teachers in the 400 wing, on the South side of the site, have windows which face into the site, are concerned for the potential for disruption or noise from the site, and as a result screening is recommended.2

Students were spoken both during class time, and during their passing period. In general students congregate in just off of the sidewalk towards the center of the site3, likely due to the shade provided by the bottle tree (Brachychiton populneus) at the center of the site. The topic of shade is something that came up frequently in conversation with students. While a few students expressed interest in “green”, “grassy”, areas as good places to hang around, almost all students noted that places to sit, and the provision of shade were critical. Some students also expressed interest in the potential for sustainable aspects, such as water harvesting, or native vegetation, but nearly all were at least interested, in the prospect of having class outside away from desks and the white board.

Other staff which I had the opportunity to speak with included the lead security guard, who patrols that portion of campus, and some members of the landscape, and maintenance crew members. A former student, the head of security was excited to hear about investment in the future of AHS. AHS had apparently in recent years undergone changes in security policy, which changed the way students are allowed to move through campus, and they have since made it more restrictive during lunch hours, but they were open to the idea of students being allowed to use the space during that time. Concerns for misuse of the space were absent in our conversation. Some teachers had notified me in previous meetings that some accommodation would need to be made for maintenance crews to move through the space with a vehicle. This was clarified by maintenance crew that the alley to east of the courtyard needed clearance, and that none was necessary to the interior of the space. The landscape crew provided some information regarding the nature of the crew, and some of the conditions of the site. In the past, groundskeepers were responsible for the school they worked at, but have recently been changed to a format where they are dispatched by the district to maintain all of their campuses, meaning that the landscape crew could be any of a number of rotating members. This means that any changes to the landscape of the 300 wing would need to be mostly manageable by students and teachers. Furthermore, the landscape crew showed me where there were existing valves drip irrigation valves at the east end of the courtyard, and said that they could potentially move an existing greenhouse that had fallen out of use and accessibility on a now closed off portion of campus.

As mentioned above there was previous contact with the school, and some designs which were developed and since abandoned, in favor of a more informed design process. The initial proposal which was submitted to the district level administration was meant with many concerns. One of the key considerations for the development of this space was that it would have to be hypoallergenic, and make use of plant materials which did not pose harm to students. Additional concerns voiced by administration were with respect to the continued care, and cost of the space. This reinforces the need to create a space which is easy to care for and manageable by students. In the end, the needs of three different parties must be met through the outdoor classroom, that of the students, teachers, and administration. Figure provides and illustration of the nature of the needs of each of these parties, and how they relate to each other, and the project designer.

Conceptual Development


Figure Concepts Legend

The conceptual phase requires synthesis of site analysis and spatial placement of the elements needed to achieve the goals of a project. Before placing elements in the context of the site, it is helpful to examine how those elements relate to themselves. A helpful graphic for these relationships is known as a suitability matrix. All of the design elements are listed in a single column, and are connected to each other in a graph outward. Following the diagonal paths drawn from each element, relationships can be described between elements where the meet. If there is no relation the square where elements intersect is left blank, otherwise they are denoted as being strongly correlated, having some relation, or necessitating separation. The suitability matrix found in Figure was heavily informative for the placement of for these concepts.

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Figure Sectional

“Sectional” (Figure ) promotes movement across the space by locating gathering space and work tables at the center of the courtyard. During class time this means that instructions or lecture can be provided in the gathering space, and students can break off to stations or assignments located amongst the greenhouse, garden beds, or the native vegetation area. Several small reflective spaces are provided along a path which bisects the native vegetation patch, to contrast the gathering of small groups which would be expected to congregate in the recreation space at tables or benches. The gathering space, and work tables are located where they will be able to capture the most shade. Shown in the jagged green lines, vegetative screening is suggested along the north and south, as well as bordering the gathering space, to create a soft visual barrier between spaces. Both the plantings along the north and south make use of passive water capture due to the drainage of the site. A water tank sits between the raised beds and the storage shed on the west wall.

“Native Embrace” (Figure ) places an emphasis on the native vegetation by placing it in several locations across the site. Along the eastern wall where there are curbs around the former foundation of a greenhouse, a planter is recommended. This large planter would serve as a sort of raised demonstration site for natural succession of plants into the area. It would be adjacent to a high water use or microclimate, and could potentially hold a demonstration pond fed by the runoff from the North building roof. The planter would also serve as a seat wall, and be mirrored by a seat wall across the way bordering another natively vegetated area, dotted with reflective spaces for students, opposite a series of work tables. In this concept the greenhouse and raised beds are located such that they would receive better sunlight in the morning, and less of the oppressive afternoon heat.

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Figure Native Embrace

“Work Station Nooks” (Figure ) retains the location of the raised beds and greenhouse as concept. Student recreational space is moved over to the west side of the courtyard between the walkway and the greenhouse for high visibility. Classrooms to the south are buffered by the southern plantings. Delineation of spaces are more rigid, dividing the court yard roughly into two halves for more distinct use of space. Worktables are spread apart from each other by a walking path, and the native vegetation that enclose them. The gathering space has been put against the East wall, removing it as far as possible from the earshot of other classrooms. This configuration attempts to make use of several different locations for water collection including the storage shed combined with the North building roof, the runoff from the green house, and the run off from the air-condition systems.


Figure Work Station Nooks

Design Proposal

Through review by teachers, students it was determined that “Sectional” provided the best spatial configuration of elements, to suit both educational goals and the physical context of the site. All of the actively managed garden infrastructure is placed on the West end of the site. Placing the greenhouse, and raised beds here provides the most exposure to the sun. Situating the bleachers, class moveable seats, and work tables in the middle of the courtyard provides shade for prolonged exposure. Native vegetation fills the remainder of the space with a few benches, and are amended with prominent shade cover. A plan view of the proposal is visible in Figure Storage is provided in a simple wooden shed that should accommodate the needs of garden tools, and various supplies as deemed appropriate. The four raised garden beds sit at 24 inches high, five feet wide, and 12 feet long. Soil depth offers complete control over the growing conditions of anything produced there. While the width of the beds allows for the entirety of the bed to be within an arm’s reach from either side. The greenhouse shown in the design proposal is sized such that it fits the footprint of an existing greenhouse which will, likely be used for the purposes of this project. 750 square feet of floor space will lend very well to multiple uses, one of which will likely be future home of the aquaponics tank and growing beds which currently resides in a classroom. The increased temperature of the greenhouse will improve growing conditions of the tilapia, and is much needed for their success.

The design of the outdoor meeting space is intended to create spatial enclosure which directs attention to a focal point where a teacher might deliver instruction. The enclosure is created by the four planters is made permeable by wide their wide spacing, facilitating movement from the meeting space into other activity stations. Two types of seats are provided; fixed bleacher seats provide 18 seats, while wooden blocks provide an additional 18 seats, and can be moved to wherever they are needed. Work tables just South of the meeting space are four feet across, and 8 feet long, they are conveniently assembled from simple boards and a pair of sawhorses, and have the potential to be disassembled if needed.

The native vegetation area is primarily east of the meeting space, but as part of the passive water harvesting system, it encloses the space. The existing native mesquites are complemented by palo verde, Net leaf hackberry, and desert willow. Shrubs include chuparosa, snow plumbago, fairy duster, turpentine bush, and creosote. Ground cover can be found in wildflower seed mixes are recommended as well to incorporate Mexican poppies, desert globemallow, yellow dot, and more.

The path which passes through the native plantings feature a few curved wooden benches, placed beneath the shade of proposed trees. The Path circumscribes the court yard, and provides access to all activity stations, without disturbing each other. Ramps visible in the perspectives4 provide ease of access into the spaces for people of all abilities. The path is defined by decomposed granite, retained by simple metal edging material.

Water harvesting happens in two places. The 1000-gallon water tank should be fed by a gutter constructed along the edge of the roof of the North building of the site. Its location at this corner allows for the use of collected water in the raised garden beds. The remainder of water is collected through passive harvesting. Large stones, called rip rap, are laid along both swales, and the crossing underneath native garden path. Portions of the swale are raised to create check dams. These dams create basins where water is detained and allowed to percolate into the soil, to the benefit of the surrounding plantings.

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