Designing Our New Home

By Leigh Toner, member of the SGS Board of Trustees and an SGS parent

Construction of the new SGS home is almost underway and we are excited to tell you more about how the building is coming together. We are working with a top-notch, women-led team at Mahlum Architects to create a space that matches the creativity and energy of our amazing students.

This is a two-part story. In part one below, you will read about the collaborative design process behind our new building. Part two will explain some of the building’s most interesting and innovative features. We’re eager to give the SGS community a fresh start with space to grow.

In search for a new home

The story of Seattle Girls’ School’s new home began in 2016. We were outgrowing our space and being on rented land meant that the future of SGS was not secure. Students are separated across two modular buildings that do not foster collaboration or creativity—their 20 year lifespans are nearing their end, and it’s time to bring the SGS mission to our built environment. Our curriculum, staff, and students are leading edge but our space is not.

It was time to start looking for a new home.

On the map

In 2017, we were presented with the opportunity to purchase an amazing parcel of land just blocks from our current location and knew it was exactly what we were looking for. Being in the same neighborhood means staying close to our community roots and owning the land our school resides on means knowing that SGS will be around for generations to come.

The future SGS will continue to be located in the Central District, with the new site across the street from the Northwest African American Museum, and near the soon-to-be Judkins Park Link light rail station.

The African American Museum presents not only an opportunity for our students to learn, but also spaces for staff and community to gather and collaborate. The in-progress Judkins Park Link light rail station, coming in 2023, will make our campus accessible to students in the southern neighborhoods of Seattle, removing transportation strains on families. This will redefine what is “near” our school and expand our idea of community.

The minds behind the design

The next challenge was to envision a building that would be as creative and dynamic as the SGS community itself. The search for an architecture firm was thorough and Mahlum Architects rose to the top of our list. The firm specializes in pre-K-12th schools as well has higher-ed and healthcare facilities, has a holistic approach, and has the same strong women leadership that SGS prides itself on fostering.

Mahlum Principal—and project manager on the project—Corrie Rosen explained, “When we design a school, we don’t think of it just as a place for learning. We believe that educational facilities must provide equal access to academic, social and community experiences. A school is also where students experiment, take risks, live, and heal, and the building needs to reflect that.” We knew the Mahlum team was on board with our mission, and after a road trip to explore and discuss other school buildings with them, it was clear that this was the partnership we needed.

The Mahlum team worked with us to overcome a number of challenges. Brandy Fox, the school’s project manager explained, “We’ve worked as a team to maximize everything. Keeping the design within our tight budget has been a monumental task. It’s a lean building. Every square foot will be usable and connected. It’s a very different space than where SGS is today.”

Our new space is truly built around our students and staff and their unique needs during each phase of learning.

Designing a school with students and educators

How can our space help inspire and develop courageous leaders? Work collaboratively? Learn joyfully? Champion change? In short: How can our new home advance SGS’s mission?

To make sure these questions were at the heart of our new space, we created the design committee consisting of SGS parents and supporters. It’s my honor to serve on this committee and we acted as the “keepers” of the SGS mission throughout the design and planning process.

The design work started work with Mahlum at the beginning of May 2018.

The Mahlum team came with no preconceived notions. They challenged us to think of the building as a holistic, collaborative space rather than a traditional school. The full SGS community—students, faculty, plus the design committee—was involved in the design process from beginning to end. Much like in our classrooms, this was a collaborative, lively, and messy-in-a-good-way process.

Mahlum started by guiding our design committee through a “this, not this” exercise, in which they quickly flipped through photos and had each member of the committee write words on post-it notes how each photo made them feel. Then everyone put their words on “this” or “not this” boards. This gave Mahlum a view into SGS priorities and desires—providing insight into how space should relate to the SGS mission and empower girls.

Collaborating with students

Next Mahlum hosted a student workshop. They broke the students into groups with images, asking them what resonates with them: What do you want to see in the new school? Then: What do you hope that you will feel in the new school? The girls reacted to the images and went through brainstorming activities.

Students were given disposable cameras and asked to capture pictures of places around the school and the neighborhood that bring joy, “spaces of joyful learning,” over a period of a week. The presence of art, a STEAM space, and windows to see and be near nature were just a few of the priorities that surfaced during this exercise. Images captured of their outdoor eating spaces made it clear that the new building must continue this SGS tradition of spending quality time outdoors. With Mahlum listening so intently, we knew that this design would be molded with and for our students.

After iterations of ideas and feedback loops, we finally nailed down our goals for what the building will embody: student ownership, collaboration at multiple scales, and a community space. These priorities put the SGS mission front and center as the driving force behind every subsequent decision.

With our ideas and a blank canvas of the newly purchased land, Mahlum began translating our guiding ideas into the physical space that will bring them to life.

To support SGS’s new home, visit the Rise Up campaign website.

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