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2b. Climate and Sun Path

How does climate impact the design of a school building?

If you live in a climate with very cold winters, it may seem strange that the hallways and stairways at the Nueva School are not inside the building, but exposed to the weather. But the climate in San Francisco is rather mild all year round; it never gets very hot or very cold. Because the temperature during the year typically ranges from 55° F to 85° F, the architects could design separate buildings on the school's campus where students move from one activity or class to another.

This amphitheater provides the students and teachers with a flexible outdoor learning space. In warm weather, a large garage-like door in the middle of the cafeteria / student center rolls up to create additional space for outdoor seating. When the door is closed, and a small stage is installed, it creates a backdrop for plays or musical productions while the audience sits on the amphitheater steps and on the lawn.

How can a school be designed to take advantage of the path of the sun?

It's all about the sun. Because the sun and its path through the sky is one of the most important influences on the design of a building, architects spend time carefully thinking about the orientation, or position, of buildings on the site. They will consider how sunlight warms the buildings at various times of the day or year, impacting the comfort of the students and staff. The amount of heat generated by the sun will also impact how much energy must be spent in heating or cooling the buildings through the year.

Hand sketches by William Leddy, principal architect of Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, illustrate several possible solutions for arranging the three new buildings (classroom, library, and cafeteria) on the Nueva School campus. As Leddy explains, "At the very beginning of the project, as pencil hits paper, we have to fully understand the path of the sun and how the wind moves. Every building site is different."

The bottom left corner of each sketch shows a small sun symbol and an arrow. This indicates the sun shining from the south to the north, when the light and heat are most intense. While trying to figure out the best arrangement for the buildings Leddy's site diagram sketches also note the steepest hill, and the direction of the wind, shown by three "squiggles" and an arrow coming from the left or west.

Leddy has nicknamed this possible solution: "The Hook." In this scheme, only two buildings would be constructed around a central courtyard, which would be shaded from the hottest afternoon sun by the building at the bottom of the sketch.

The sun is not as intense in the early morning hours of the school day, and the courtyard provides a comfortable place for meeting. Shadows are long in this photograph, meaning that the sun is not so high in the eastern sky. But as the sun moves toward the south and the sunlight becomes most intense around noon, the wooden screens will help shade the classrooms windows behind them.

In the end, the architects at Leddy Maytum Stacy decided to design three buildings on the site around a central courtyard. North is to the upper right in this site analysis drawing, while the path of the sun in the sky - rising in the east in the morning, moving to the south around noon, and setting in the west in the evening - is shown in a large arc. The drawing also notes that the roof of the classroom building will be covered in photovoltaic (or solar) panels to take advantage of the southern sun when it is most intense and highest in the sky. Today, the photovoltaic panels provide 21% of the school's electricity needs. (This early idea also proposed a wind turbine and a water collection tower that were not built.)

How can a school be designed to take advantage of views and wind direction?

In addition to the path of sun, architects also think about how the buildings will be situated on the site to take advantage of the best views. This early sketch of the Nueva School shows a red arrow indicating the view seen by visitors approaching the school from the main entrance at the road and from the athletic field shown in the bottom left of the drawing. The San Francisco Bay can still be seen over the roof of the cafeteria / student center which sits on the lower part of the site.

Wind is also an important factor that architects consider when arranging the buildings on the site. In most locations throughout North America, the wind blows from the west to the east. But the Nueva School site has a slightly different situation. Because of the unique arrangement between the school's site, the nearby Pacific Ocean, the surrounding hills, and the San Francisco Bay, winds in the summer typically blow from the west, while winds in the winter typically blow from the east.

Outdoor balconies that function as hallways between classrooms allow the natural breezes to keep fresh air moving and also provide interesting views to other buildings. Here, a balcony on the classroom building overlooks the cafeteria / student center.

Engineers may also create digital models to study the effects of the wind on a building. This model illustrates the path and intensity of the wind as it moves around the Nueva School buildings.

The wooden slats screen the sun from the classroom windows while still allowing breezes to pass through and keep the rooms cool. The architects also provided interesting lookout spaces in the buildings to view the landscape. Project architect Jasen Bohlander of Leddy Maytum Stacy says, "This balcony is my favorite part of the whole school."