HK Architects

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Female owned

Chattanooga, TN


Montessori Elementary School at Highland Park

The Montessori Elementary School at Highland Park is housed in a new, state-of-the-art facility that expands the Young Women’s Leadership Foundation’s mission of educating at-risk youth in the inner city. Designed to meet the specific requirements for education in the Montessori method, the 51,358-square-foot building features a streamlined color and materials palette, large classrooms with designated learning areas, and a connection to the natural world from every room. The school replaces a grammar school from the early 20th century, which was beloved by the neighborhood. Initially, the design team labored to preserve the former structure, but it was ultimately decided that a new building served the Montessori objectives better.

The new school recalls the old in form and scale. It is clad in subdued brick and limestone, with colorful metal accents and futuristic sunshades. The wayfinding orange accent color of the railings, entry portal and stairways stands out against the soft palette, guiding students and visitors into and through the building.

The sunshades serve as the main focal points, drawing one’s eye with their almost-stark, post-war modern aesthetic, though they purposely prevent the eye from traveling too far. In addition to adding interest to the façade, the second-story sun shades offer privacy, while also reducing glare and heat gain.

It was important that, in every room, the students be able to see the sky and have a connection to the outdoors. The building plan is a disciplined, efficient square that minimizes costly exterior walls while maximizing access to plentiful daylight, employing clerestory roof windows that fill the interior of the building with natural light. The two stories of classrooms and common spaces surround an atrium with cascading wood tiers that connect the two levels. The monumental staircase, which leads students up to their classrooms, also serves as auditorium seating for presentations. Ensuring that every habitable room gets natural light, classrooms within the atrium have skylights, and each of the building’s 21 total classrooms looks out onto the hallway, lit with clerestory windows and natural light spilling over from the exterior-windowed rooms along one side of the hall. The design invokes a language of transparency that is surprising for such a large, seemingly solid, building.

Modern security concerns created the need for intense discussion regarding the balance between providing natural light into the spaces and maintaining a sense of openness while blocking direct sightlines from the neighborhood into student areas. Thanks to the innovative system of sunshades and light shelves, each classroom has a very large window, lending expansive views into the surrounding neighborhood or the school’s outdoor play areas, while also maintaining the required privacy.

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Status: Built
Location: Chattanooga, TN, US
Firm Role: Principal Architect