The new Dorothy Thomas Exceptional Center is a school dedicated to K-12 students with emotional and behavioral disorders. Their needs are challenging and increasingly complex. The goal is to design a school to meet the needs of students who learn best in a supportive and safe environment, free of auditory and visual distractions.
Nature is omnipresent within the site. Natural lighting, views of nature, and areas for outdoor learning help increase attention and retention of information and reduce disciplinary incidents. The building creates a dialogue between nature and the manufactured realm. On the west side, the new building contour follows the canopy of the existing trees. On the east side, the design is organized around a courtyard with a sensory garden embracing additional existing trees and creating a safe zone for students. The sensory garden creates a transitional space for students before entering primary school. The site also has a growing garden and an existing gymnasium. An east-west axis connects all the different components of the site through the new school.
Architecture is multi-sensory. The senses are a means of igniting the imagination and articulating sensory thought. Our eyes, ear, nose, skin, and tongue measure the qualities of space and scale. The new school has organized wings connected through 'sensorial hinges.' The 'sensorial hinges' become sensorial experiences to help students develop emotionally and cognitively. Materials texture in the 'sensorial hinges' help students improve balance, movement, and spatial orientation. They create a moment of respite for students. The "sensorial hinges" also help to avoid long double-loaded corridors, which would trigger students to elope. Muted shades of blue, green, yellow, and natural colors tend to appease students.