Tubman Elementary School | ISTUDIO Architects | World Design Awards 2021

ISTUDIO Architects: Winner of World Design Awards 2021. Tubman Elementary School’s existing courtyard was neglected; the rat-infested space also lacked accessibility. The school desired a 21st century space for DCPS’s pilot outdoor garden program. What they got was a place for students to ‘Eat Their Homework.’

The big idea behind Tubman’s renovation was to transform the mid-century modern school’s abandoned courtyard into a vibrant educational space for outdoor programming focusing on hands-on learning.  The courtyard seeks to combat public health issues associated with poor access to high quality and nutritious food.  By including food as a cornerstone of sustainable practices, we ensure the health, access, and security now and in the face of climate change.  Water is not only managed but celebrated through the canopy as it captures rainwater and feeds it to the gardens below.

Lack of access to healthy foods compounded with the lack of knowledge creates a cycle of barriers that outdoor garden classrooms seek to shatter. An unused and poorly maintained courtyard is transformed into a place where kids make their own meals, learn where their food comes from, and experience the cycles of nature.  Integrated design solutions resolve issues of ADA accessibility and create inclusive spaces for all students to learn.  The raised garden beds are high enough for someone in a wheelchair to plant and shallow enough for small arms to reach. 

Tubman’s courtyard promotes wellness.  The space and programming engage students on healthy habits for nutrition.  By growing their own foods and cooking them, they are eating their homework.  By getting outside, the children have a safe and secure space to be active.  They engage with seasonal changes and develop appreciation and respect for the environment by actively connecting with the cycles of nature.  The project provides a space for them to learn responsibility and to be stewards of their environment.  Outdoor education and play have been proven to assist gross and fine-motor development.  The raised garden beds teach resilience and patience as they watch plants bloom, produce and end their current cycles. Exposure to nature at young ages as been found to enhance concentration, self-discipline, and positive social interactions. Tubman is designed to engage students with nature, creating a lifelong connection to the outdoors.

The projects ethos was ‘light touch, big impact.’  In order to adhere to the project budget, most of the surrounding perimeter walls were kept intact.  Cost savings were also gained by reusing the existing brick pavers which were in good physical condition.  All new products brought in are made of durable materials, such as the outdoor rated stainless-steel kitchen and the steel structure for the pavilion.  By designing for long life cycle use, the project reduces the amount of resources needed to maintain the project.

Designed for outdoor programming, the courtyard has become so much more than the educators or designers expected. Teachers use it as a quiet testing place for special needs students. The community hosts the farmers markets and evening events there.  Learning to design flexibility for evolving uses has been carried through to other projects, including athletic fields. Good design provides a foundation for unforeseen added benefits.  The result is more than the sum of its parts.  Architecture that inspires us to do, teach and celebrate.

Project Details
ISTUDIO Architects

Project Name
Tubman Elementary School

Rick Schneider

World Design Awards Category
Landscape Design Built

Project Location
Washington DC

ISTUDIO Architects

United States

Photography ©Credit
©ISTUDIO Architects, Dan Snook Photography

For nearly 20 years, we at ISTUDIO have dedicated ourselves to the issues of design, architecture, and urbanism.  Ideas are our currency. We designed the first solar chimney for a public school in our nation’s capital. We transformed an “unusable hillside” at a park into a thriving community garden. We developed a salt storage facility into an award-winning design. We have collaborated with clients and communities around the globe to increase access to beautiful places and spaces — where we live, work, learn, play, and dream.