HMFH Architect's design of Thompson Elementary School: Designer Forum

By Lori Cowles and Melissa Greene


When students, staff and visitors enter the Thompson Elementary School, they are greeted by a colorful, open and welcoming space that carries the building’s playful exterior design through to the school’s interior. Stepping into the main lobby and reception area, they encounter bold color patterns, curving forms and a variety of sight lines into the school. Each element of the experience is designed to welcome, surprise and delight.

HMFH Architects recently partnered with the town of Arlington, Massachusetts to design the new elementary school, and the striking results are noteworthy in both what is seen and unseen. A clear departure from institutional sameness, the school’s interior visually inspires its young kindergarten through fifth grade students and is a source of pride for teachers, staff and the community.

Unseen is the efficiency and innovation required to overcome a major challenge the design team faced. Because it was the sixth in a series of school construction projects in the town, its feasibility was on the line from the outset. It was a school that many thought would never happen.

Consequently, the town of Arlington and the HMFH team were constrained by an unusually tight budget. The challenge was to produce a highly efficient school design with no margin for surprises or overruns. This budget challenge influenced the choice of flooring and interior finishes. It also liberated the design team to seek out more innovative options that could stretch the project possibilities.

Another major design influence was sustainability. The goal was to achieve Verified Leader School status for sustainability performance from the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS). CHPS is a national standards and verification organization with the goal of fundamentally changing the design, construction and operation of schools to protect student health, conserve energy and other natural resources, and reduce waste. To date, more than 200 CHPS-verified schools have been built in the U.S., including the Thompson School.

Environmental performance goals and the CHPS objective led to selecting flooring that contributed to a sustainable school and reduced long-term cost. Every material choice was weighed to determine first-cost implication versus lifecycle cost and energy impact. To fit the more expensive yet more sustainable items into the budget, the team found innovative methods for savings in other places.

Setting the stage for the student experience throughout the school, the main lobby and reception area welcomes visitors approaching from two sides of the building. The colorful flooring chosen for this wide space is sheet linoleum by Forbo called Real. It is a resilient floor, perfect for high traffic use, with a hard surface that has more give than concrete, wood or terrazzo. The floor in this space is intentionally bright and lively, with curving lines that match the design of the lobby interior features. One of the most environmentally friendly flooring materials, Forbo’s linoleum, made of natural and renewable materials, helped the design team meet sustainability goals. Linoleum is also biodegradable and can be recycled for future construction and flooring projects. Maintenance costs will be lower as well, since the linoleum does not need the labor intensive stripping and waxing of traditional vinyl products. Soap and water is all that is needed for cleaning.

The lobby has clear sightlines to other common-use areas in the school, including the popular gathering space outside the library on the second floor, so the same linoleum flooring is used in this area, where abundant daylight changes the lighting conditions throughout the day and welcomes readers to the bench seating. 

Because the Thompson School is a three-story building, the design team decided to differentiate each floor with its own distinct color combination to aid wayfinding for young students. The first floor has a green and orange combination, the second is yellow and purple, and the third is red and blue. These color schemes are clearly visible in the wall tiles and flooring encountered by students as they visit each floor. On each of the three levels, the identifying colors and unique shapes are embedded in the linoleum sheet using a water-jet process.

Bright color themes carry from the school’s common spaces into the classrooms. Colors are used to differentiate the homerooms and establish an identity for each. As children progress and move up a grade each year, they experience a new homeroom with its own unique color identity.

Each classroom features an accent wall with warm colors that are different from the other walls and relate to the floor colors. The paint, floor and tile colors belong to related color families. Another Forbo product, Marmoleum Modular, was selected in the classrooms for its durability and sustainability characteristics. 

In the school library, the Milliken Eureka 2.0 modular carpeting features a lively pattern with alphabetical and geometric characters, providing a whimsical look and feel. This choice of a softer surface carpet for the library rather than a hard surface material was based on the desire to soften the acoustics in the library space. The Milliken tiles also offered a perfect complementary color that works well with the rest of the room’s design and layout. The tiles provide a low-cost maintenance solution in a high-traffic space, and a single tile can quickly be swapped out for a new one if needed.

The Thompson School gymnasium serves a variety of uses throughout the school day—assembly, athletics and performances among them. The size of the multipurpose room, smaller than a conventional gymnasium, and its range of functions led the design team to seek out a creative and practical flooring solution. Rather than select a traditional wood floor, the final choice was a poured recycled rubber surface.

Compared to wood surfaces, this material is more adaptable for a variety of uses. It also reduces the risk of injury. Atop the rubber flooring is a low VOC polyurethane topcoat, Qualipur 6510. This topcoat provides a semi-matte finish over the rubber, with excellent wear and abrasion resistance.

The visual delight of the multipurpose space is found in the painted letters, numbers and shapes that appear as cutouts on the surface of the gym floor. An inspiration for these colorful elements is the old-fashioned schoolhouse alphabet and number graphics, updated here for the 21st century. In an earlier generation of school interiors, alphabet letters and sequential numbers typically appeared in straight lines as a border for walls, chalkboards, bulletin boards and windows. The interpretation seen in the Thompson School is less structured, and it aligns with the creative and improvisational spirit of a school that celebrates education and supports a variety of learning and teaching styles.

A prominent shape on the multipurpose room surface is a pineapple, a universal symbol of welcome. This familiar shape is seen as a design element carried throughout the interior space of the school. An oversized yellow steel pineapple extends a can’t-miss welcome at one of the two main entrances. The pineapple form also appears on the gymnasium floor and on the floor of the gathering space outside the library. The yellow pineapple even anchors the Thompson School’s website.

Designing a school requires the ability to solicit input from a wide variety of stakeholders, and to bring well researched solutions to these stakeholders. To facilitate the choice of flooring materials, the HMFH design team provided the school building committee, along with Thompson School administrators, teachers and maintenance staff, with information and hands-on evaluation of multiple options. Research was shared, mockups were presented and, when possible, visits to other schools were arranged. The result of this collaboration was a strong sense of ownership by the users and an informed understanding of the tradeoffs in selecting one type of flooring over another.

The facilities and maintenance staff in Arlington, for example, talked with peers in other area schools about the flooring and other products to assess the operations and maintenance issues of each before any decisions were made. For crucial areas, such as the gymnasium and hallways, hearing and seeing the real-world comparisons between the more familiar flooring and the newer options provided the crucial evidence needed to support the choices.

The design team’s response to the budget and sustainability challenge produced a design that proves how a determined team’s attitude to embrace efficiency can be an advantage instead of an obstacle. The HMFH team is now back in Arlington, consulting with the school department on space planning for all of the town’s schools in response to projected student enrollment increases. The team continues to hear positive reviews from parents, teachers and administrators on the Thompson School design.

“The school is bright and happy, and I do think it contributes to the overall mood in the building,” said Liza Halley, librarian and teaching assistant at the Thompson School. “I believe the colors and the flexible design features really help make it a school students are eager to come to and are proud of.”

Copyright 2015 Floor Focus