Free Union Country School, Free Union, Va., new Fine Arts Building

Free Union Country School has been the center of a community. It has been a place of porches, of open fields, and of intimate classrooms. It has been comprised of a wonderful collection of traditional log structures and historic buildings, with pathways around corners and across yards. But, for all of its sinuous connections, centering a community around its children’s education, Free Union Country School lacked its own center. To define a center, the space there needed to be better identified and the openness of this place needed to be celebrated. Most of all it needed to remain a place of porches and paths—of the outdoors – while fulfilling their needs for more classrooms, administrative, dedicated art, flexible assembly and play spaces. So we built porches and paths. The new Fine Arts Building entrance became a breezeway. It is a gateway to the open fields beyond, and connects the classrooms, offices, workroom and assembly spaces across the axis. The need for an indoor assembly space became the Community Hall. Its roof slants toward the rest of the school, maintaining the low profile with the original buildings, while rising toward the open fields to the west. Indoor air quality was an important focus of the interior finish selection and design. Materials, finishes, paints and sealants were all chosen for their lack of off-gassing. Between the play court and immediately adjacent the east wall of the new building is a biofilter planted by parents and volunteers with native species of plants. This wild place is visible from most of the spaces in the building. Altogether, Free Union Country School’s educational program pushed us to focus on some of their strengths in community based activities and connections to the natural environment.

Our hope is that we have kept the “wildness” of Free Union Country School, while meeting its program needs and giving it some semblance of “center.” Organization doesn’t mean having to give up experiencing the knowledge of what goes on around us, whether it is the movement of the sun, the flowering of a plant, or the temperature of the outside air. If there is “biophilic design,” it is maybe made most easily accessible by allowing the natural environment to touch us, as we are on the path from one planned activity to another. With the natural world in mind, Free Union Country School taught us to draw the circle just a little bit larger when we designed a center for their community.