Karen Curtiss of San Francisco architecture and design firm Red Dot Studio transforms a warehouse into a cheerful preschool.
The San Francisco preschool Sweet Peas is housed in a newly renovated space courtesy of local architect Karen Curtiss. Formerly an electrical warehouse, the 1,400-square-foot interior is now a gleaming example of a modern teaching space. "Rather than hide the industrial past we sought to use it as a metaphor for the building blocks to help little minds grow," Curtiss says. She divided the layout into distinct zones from a quiet area to active learning to dramatic and free play to outdoor play. "A school environment sends a signal to children about the value we place on them in the world," she says. "The space needs to be both organized and malleable."
"There is a triangle in projects between budget schedule and design," Curtiss says. "The common wisdom is you can hit any two but hitting all three is hard. We tried to hit all three." The raw space featured concrete floors and since it was formerly industrial, had oil spills on the slab. To create a floor that was safe for the kids, Curtiss opted for an epoxy. "Epoxy floors are used in hospitals and labs and are super easy to clean. We also knew it was an economical way to coat concrete." Custom colors are available, but for an extra charge. To rein in expenses, Curtiss chose a blue hue that's normally used for ADA striping.
Natural light floods the interior thanks to Solatubes. Barn lights from HiLite offer additional illumination. Curtiss left the Ultratouch blue denim insulation exposed in the ceiling. "We asked the insulation supplier if we could check the denim batch colors," she says. "We didn't want black mixed in with the washed blue color. He thought we were crazy."
The interior is an open plan, but divided into different zones through furniture. "It allows smaller groups of children to be in different activity zones without having closed off classrooms," Curtiss says. "There's enough space to have each group be work in an area without being distracted by other groups. By keeping three groups at 10 children, it’s manageable both with space, sound and teacher to child interaction by being spread throughout the school from front to back."
The project is the product of community involvement. Curtiss's children attended the school and she worked with the husband-and-wife team Eric and Sarah Olson for the bench/bookcase near the entrance. "Eric is getting his architecture license and he used the project for his required community service hours," she says. "We used FinPly precut into strips based on a cut pattern that Eric developed. It was a really nice way to get a hand hewn look into an otherwise off the shelf space. It also was part of the community building ethos of the space. One former parent donated his shop space for Eric to work and use his equipment."
The Manzanita tree came from the farm of a Sweet Pea teacher's parents' farm. "We wanted a tree to bring down the scale of the space to kid level around the reading area using a natural element that could get decorated with craft projects," Curtiss says.
Curtiss worked closely with contractor Jason Kotas and Samantha Dionne, the school's director, to overhaul the space. "A cohesive construction project team and strong community building effort helped bring this little school to fruition," Curtiss says.