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

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To help ensure the success of this space a plan of implementation, and recommendations for continued care are necessary. Due to the busy schedules, and difficulties of acquiring funding the site is broken up into phases of construction which offer different levels of function to the space. These phases should be introduced one year at a time. Unless otherwise stated prices for materials are estimated through Home Depot. These prices are listed in order to provide an idea of what to expect from the construction of the project. It should be acknowledged that none of these plans, are construction ready, and should be considered as a proposal, which would be reviewed and approved by district. Before any progress can be made, a blue stake needs to be performed to determine the location of electric, gas, and water lines which may be in the building. Speaking with maintenance crews at AHS, this is something that is handled in house since some utilities for AHS, like water, are on their own well, and not connected to public systems. The majority of cost estimations here do not include the labor needed to install these elements. In many cases specialized labor is not necessary, but there may prove to be situations where special labor is unavoidable. In total all three phases of construction will have an estimated of total $10066.

Phase I

The first phase of construction will revolve around the implementation of the garden infrastructure. This means completion of the tool shed, rain water harvesting barrel, garden beds, and greenhouse. Beginning with these features ensures that teachers will be able to begin integration of garden activities into curriculum. The maximum cost of this portion of the project is considerably increased if the cost of the greenhouse is included; without this expense the maximum estimated cost of this portion of the project would be $5069

Garden beds should be constructed first, and will require the least technical expertise for installation. The raised beds should be between 18 and 24 inches high, and constructed from recycled lumber. In meetings with students, a potential source of construction material was identified in through resurfacing wood reclaimed from shipping pallets. A key consideration for the use of this material is that only heat-treated pallets, and natural food safe finishes should be used during construction. Tucson local recommendations for sourcing fill soil for the beds include Tanks Green Stuff, Civano Nursery, and the Compost Cats program, of which AHS already has an established affiliation with. In the event that wood cannot be reclaimed, and that soil cannot be donated, the cost of beds remains within the reach of a small grant, at $348 for boards, nails, and finish. The soil needed to fill these beds amounts to 17 cubic yards, or $511 dollars at a rate of $30 for every cubic yard.

While elements like the raised beds require little construction experience, and could be handily crafted by a team of students and spare hours, other elements are better suited to prefabrication. The storage space needed for the garden does not need to be very large, and a suitably sized cedar wood shed, at 4’ by 8’ would be priced at $900. A call to Southern Arizona Rain Gutters, provided an estimated cost of $3400 for 1000 gallon corrugated steel tank, water pump, foundation, and other hardware. In order to bring water from the roof to the rainwater barrel gutters will also need to be installed. For the northern and western roof, 234 feet of 5-inch aluminum gutters are needed for a total cost of $450 in materials.

AHS is currently already in possession of a greenhouse. Due to a location which limits accessibility of the greenhouse it fell out of use. The greenhouse is currently owned by the Career and Technical Education program; however, discussion indicates that they there is good reason to believe that they are willing to relocate the greenhouse. The greenhouse as it appears in the plan is dimensioned such that it matches the dimensions of existing greenhouse. Relocation of the greenhouse has been indicated to be within the ability of maintenance crew, and would have only the cost associated with repair. In the event that the they are unable to use this greenhouse the cost of implementation of a similar sized, and functional greenhouse has been indicated to cost between $12,000 and $14,000, as determined by IGC Greenhouse Megastore. Regardless of the source of the greenhouse, before anything is put into the ground it should be noted that access to a water tap, and electrical will need to be laid into the ground.

Phase II

The next phase of construction should focus on the development of class meeting space, and working space for varies activities. Implementation of this phase of construction will add to the functionality of the space, and possibly encourage students to use the space on their own time. The addition of class seats, and work benches also increases the variety, and duration of activates which can take place in the garden. In total this phase of the project as an estimated maximum cost of $1715.

Planter boxes shown around the class meeting space should be similar in construction to the raised garden beds. They may also be constructed from the same material, which add variability to the cost. Though they cover less surface area, they are greater in height, so they will require roughly thirty percent more lumber, bring the cost as high as $450 for boards, $50 in hardware, and $50 finishes. The planters will require significantly less garden soil due to the plant materials, and will accordingly use nearly half the compost at $250. The bleachers require use of pressure treated wood. It is recommended to use lumber used for decking as they can withstand high traffic and use. Combined the bleachers accommodate 18 people, and the boards needed would cost around $300, and an additional $25 for the hardware. The plan calls for 18 moveable seats, that are 18”x16”x16” cubes. The cubes should be constructed from 4”x4” posts, which are bolted together. More or less could be made depending on the needs determined of the space at the time, but each seat would cost $11 each to be assembled. The work tables are very simple in terms of construction, they place seven 2”x8” boards, and two 36” sawhorses to make a working space that covers 37 square feet. Though deconstruction would require the use of a drill, they could be dissembled or reassembled as needed deepening on the needs of the site. Each set of sawhorses would run $56 a pair, and boards would cost $42 per table.

Phase III

The final phase of construction provides plant materials, pathways, and implements the passive rainwater systems. This part of the project is not the most essential to the curriculum aspect of the outdoor classroom, but it is the most important to the appreciation and enjoyment of the site. It is important to show students the offerings of the world immediately outside of the urban conditions of Tucson. In total this phase of construction has an estimated maximum cost of $2742.

Although one of the main goals of the native vegetation area is that they will be low water use it will be necessary to install drip irrigation for the first 2 to 5 years of the planting of the park. Measurements indicate that approximately 900 feet of poly line would need to be laid in. Though installing the drip ports is time intensive, it is easy to perform. The poly tubing, and ports would cost $50 for every 500 feet, totaling $100 for the project. Plant materials for the site were priced through Desert Survivors Nursery, for their specialization in Sonoran adapted plants. They have a fees structure which charges based on the size of the installation pot. Ground cover plantings should be installed at the two-gallon size, at $8 per plant. Shrubs should be installed at the five-gallon size, at a price of $22 per plant. Trees come from this nursery at a fifteen-gallon size, at the price of $55 per plant. In total the plan calls for an estimated 72 ground cover plantings, 48 shrubs, and 8 trees, for a grand total of $2072 in plant materials

There is 1500 square feet of pathways outlined. The recommended material for this is decomposed granite. According to Sonoran Landscaping Materials, one ton of decomposed granite at quarter inch depth covers 150 square feet. Every ton of decomposed granite costs $25, for a total of $250. The name of the medium sized rocks used for erosion control is called rip rap, and it covers 180 square feet for every ton used. The total area of passive rainwater harvesting areas comes out to 2170 square feet. At $25 per ton rip rap for all the areas will cost $300.


Continued success of the Outdoor Classroom requires consideration for the continued needs of operation. The cost of maintenance is entirely dependent on the degree to which the students are actively involved in the up keep of the space. Soil for garden beds needs to be actively managed, and has the potential to be supplemented by a rigorous composting program at the school. Good practice with respect to inventory, and cleaning of tools will ensure their longevity. The greenhouse requires clean panes, maintained seals, and seasonal repair of the cooler and fans. All wooden surfaces, should be repainted or refinished as necessary. It should also be noted that the native landscape should go as unmodified as possible. When needed, branches and brush which are obstructing pathways should be removed, but only under these circumstances. The intent of the native landscape is to demonstrate a wild area, which is lost where there is too much attention given pruning back plants that do not need that treatment.

Student clubs should be encouraged to manage the productive aspects of the classroom, where it does not interfere with the work being performed by classes. Seed libraries exist through both Native Seed Search, and the Pima County Library. These programs loan out seeds, under the promise of the return of seeds from the crops that are produced from them. Seed saving workshops could serve as an exercise in active management of the space by students who express interest. Students could potentially become involved in the sale of produce from the garden, to gain experience in participating in the community. It is these extracurricular pursuits which demonstrate the multi-faceted value of these projects beyond science curriculum.


It is difficult to determine the value offered by a formalized design process for people driven projects like school and community gardens. Initially the extent of this project included construction of actual elements at AHS. Since the beginning of this process many goals have changed; teachers have become busy; administrators have shown disinterest, and even discouragement. The design which was produced here may very well be an excellent solution to the question of how they would go about the redevelopment of their space. The design may also prove to be ineffectual, but it will be difficult to determine without being able to review its operation over a few years have passed from the time of completion.

This version of the project is currently the second iteration. The previous version was generated without the benefit of the design knowledge and background provided by the literature review. This version did not use the generation of multiple concepts, and instead began with a napkin sketch was refined several times over, and modeled after repeat interaction with the teachers at AHS. Several problems became apparent from this approach. First, through conversations with project mentor Margaret Livingston, it was made clear that the absence of concept development would not only limit the scope of potential development, it would also be poorly received by other parties such as administration, because of the appearance of “completeness.” More specifically, the perception of proposals which appear complete, or finalized, are often off putting for the parties reviewing them because the appearance of completeness creates the impression that the design decisions are done, and no longer modifiable, which can deny clients sense of control or collaboration regarding the project. Unfortunately, this proved to be the case almost immediately. When the science teachers presented administrative officials from the school district with the project to get clearance, they were met with many critiques, concerns, and criticisms of the goals and implementation of the project. The project was sent back to the drawing board, and this is where the redesign began, this time informed by design literature, and a more inclusive collection of concerns and interests, of both administration and students, who had been left out of the discussion previously.

Production of the proposal was an excellent exercise in the exploration of the formalized design process. The analysis of the courtyard, and subsequent interviews ran through the rigorous checklist recommended by authors like LaGro, and the result was a comprehensive collection of data to inform the design. This information was refined through a series of graphic aids like the bubble diagrams, and suitability matrix. What remained was the production of ideas. The remaining work is what becomes difficult to evaluate. It is possible to categorize, and quantify the things that are needed of a space, but it becomes difficult to evaluate a qualitative product which stems from the production of concepts and preliminary proposals. The quality has only been able to be determined by the response generated by submission of the designs to all vested parties which has generally been positive.

The case studies showed that there are many approaches to an informed design process which produce a real world community garden and outdoor learning spaces. Furthermore, they showed that there are many solutions to the problem of creating a learning space, that accommodates many needs. To me this evidence is indicative of both the potential success of the space and it would be excellent to explore what results are yielded from the completion of this type of project, but there are limitations to the amount of work that can be produced by a single person, and the production of construction documents, acquire funding, and directing labor, are outside my personal bounds.


Many of the limitations inherent to this study are the lack of variety examined for the topic of outdoor classrooms. Within the profession of landscape architecture, there are a relatively small percentage of projects that have received recognition, which are related to the development of outdoor learning. This makes it difficult to find precedents for designed gardens. Conversely there is a wealth of information about landscape design process. Every aspect from analysis to implementation has a multitude of authors who discuss the process of developing projects from start to finish. This may highlight a potential weakness in the development of outdoor learning classroom, a lack of source material, with defined successes or failures, coupled with an abundance of material which has subjective components, like the design process.

For now, the construction of the outdoor learning classroom at AHS remains in limbo. Development on the project from here will depend on the commitment of teachers and students, and ultimately the approval of the district. It is my personal hope that construction is able to move forward. If they choose to move forward, then they do so on the foundation of a design vetted by the rigor of structured process. If constructed, the space created will meet educational goals, encourage active management and ownership by students, and most importantly a space which is interesting and engaging for all parties which enter. Moving forward may well prove the success of the design

Appendix I

Figure Underwood Garden

Figure Mission Garden

Figure Russel Elementary

Appendix II

Figure AHS Context and Circulation Map

Figure Site Assessment Map

Figure Shadow Study of Courtyard

Figure Preference Diagram

Figure Suitability Matrix

Figure Preliminary Proposal

Figure Perspectives A & B referencing the Preliminary Plan

Figure Perspectives C & D referencing the Preliminary Plan


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