School Without Walls

Washington, DC

The School Without Walls (SWW) is an innovative urban high school located in the heart of the George Washington University’s academic district in downtown Washington, DC. Taking full advantage of its urban location by creating partnerships with the university and the wealth of other resources throughout the District of Columbia, the school sees the city is its classroom.

EE&K’s modernization and addition created a unique, state-of-the-art, urban learning environment. SWW was housed in the 19th-century Grant School building. By modernizing this landmark structure and combining it with a contemporary and appropriate addition, District of Columbia Public Schools and SWW created a campus that fosters the educational process and helps the students of the District of Columbia succeed.

As a 19th century example of urban public school architecture, the building presented opportunities and constraints for a modern high school curriculum. However, before the design team was hired the building had fallen into a terrible state of disrepair. The video at right details the student’s perspective on the conditions of the building before the modernization and addition. With the design team’s guidance, the school community was encouraged to look beyond deficiencies resulting from long deferred maintenance, to see the real qualities of the historic building. For example, the building was more intimate in scale than most operating public school buildings. It fit successfully into a tree-lined street with adjacent rowhouses and small apartment buildings. Its basic plan was light-filled and more residential in character than “institutional.” Likewise, historic finishes and details created a unique sense of place. All of these attributes reinforce the “small learning community” created by the Schools Without Walls.

The dense urban site affords the opportunity for sustainable site development, with close proximity to the Metro reducing parking needs and the innovative joint use of the facility with GWU reducing the building footprint. The design capitalizes on the reuse of the historic school, optimizing natural light and views. Indoor environmental quality is enhanced through the use of efficient mechanical and lighting systems, operable windows, and low-emitting materials. The school is Certified LEED Gold.

The school opened for the 2009-2010 school year.

The project has been awarded a number of prestigious awards including Learning by Design’s 2010 Grand Prize Award for Excellence in Educational Facility Design, the 2010 AIA Committee on Architecture for Education Educational Facility Design Awards Program Citation and the 2008 Design Share Merit Award.