Thomas Hirsch, FAIA

Thomas Hirsch, FAIA

Madison, WI, US


Wingra School Outdoor Classroom (2016)

This well thought out structure integrates innovative and standard materials, seamlessly merging form and function simply and forcefully. 

The client, Wingra School, an elementary school in Madison, Wisconsin, requested a structure designed to advance their goal of students learning from nature. What was envisioned was a fun place to sit, think & learn, adaptable, light and airy.

With a first glance this outdoor classroom structure immediately delivers what is asked of it: providing a pleasant, sheltered, flexibly defined outdoor classroom for young learners.   Beyond that goal, it delivers additional design value on several levels: aesthetic,psychological, architectural, structural, and educational - it is a classroom first, and last. 

-- aesthetically, the structural use of the repurposed trees, with inherent natural shapes and textures, echoes living trees  in the wooded neighborhood. Trees in their original form make the structure a welcome neighbor. 

-- psychologically, the use of repurposed trees as roof supports conveys feeling of a sturdy sheltering atmosphere, a legacy of trusted association with trees, even among the youngest intended users. The sight of a tree in its original form merges form and function seamlessly, instantly, and instinctively.

-- architecturally, the tree supports and their geometry in plan effortlessly define the space as they might in a clearing in a forest. The height of the structure, when defined by a repurposed tree, visually obvious as itself, conveys a confident sturdiness

-- structurally, the vertical wooden supports remain intact as trees and retain and repurpose every bit of the the strength grown into (or built into, said another way) by the tree itself. The trees are structural elements, capable of load bearing equal to conventional timbers.  The exposure-tolerant concrete counter and cedar siding of the storage unit serve not just as a space-delineating design element, but add their own lessons about the use of materials found in nature.

-- educationally, as an outdoor classroom suggests, teaching about the natural environment will be on the lesson plan. The first lesson almost writes itself, and is delivered by the structure: What are these trees doing for us in our outdoor classroom?

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Status: Built
Location: 718 Gilmore Street Madison, Wisconsin
My Role: Lead designer
Additional Credits: James Worker, Assoc. AIA, CAD drafting, 3-d models, and presentations
WholeTrees Architecture - Roald Gunderson, AIA - structure design & assembly