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Out Of The Rubble Of Tragedy, How To Build A New Sandy Hook?


Newtown, Conn., is moving forward with plans to rebuild Sandy Hook Elementary School. The original building where gunman Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six adults was demolished late last year. The process of designing a new school - one that both honors the wishes of the community and provides a new home for learning - lies with architect Barry Svigals.

Svigals and his design team recently unveiled their plans at a town meeting in Newtown, and he joins us now to talk more about it. Welcome to the program.


CORNISH: Now, your firm began this process by convening an advisory board and also, consulting with the community and families of the victims. When you approach them, what did you go in thinking you would hear? And in what ways was it different from what you expected?

SVIGALS: Well, we tried to leave behind any expectations that we had. We were struck by the fact that when we first walked into the town hall, there was a sign that said: We Are Sandy Hook, We Choose Love. That feeling was clearly a basis of their engagement with us, and we felt it. In a way, it was difficult and yet certainly made easier by the nature of this extraordinary and courageous community that met us and engaged so wholeheartedly.

CORNISH: What kind of elements did they want in a new school?

SVIGALS: Right from the beginning, they said they wanted it to be welcoming - and that is the nature of this community, by the way, and you feel it; obviously, a nurturing environment; clearly, safety was a part of it - how could it not? And yet it was part of a learning environment that would be delightful for the children, a place where they look forward to coming and every day engaged in a joyful process of learning. That was an important part.

CORNISH: Now, you mentioned safety and obviously, safety became a part of the national debate about school security.

SVIGALS: Absolutely.

CORNISH: How did you approach it in this design?

SVIGALS: From the very beginning, everyone in the town, the school board, the security consultants with whom we're working, felt that there was one single goal in the security of the school, and that was to create a wonderful learning environment. So any of the things that we do that would be aspects of the security of the school needed to be brought into that mission. It couldn't compromise it at any point. And so there are a number of features that would not be noticeable as security features that are, that we've devised. And it's not appropriate to go through each one of those, but they are built into...

CORNISH: But for some examples, I read one - is that there's some sloping, some grading along the buildings so that you can see out of the windows but people can't necessarily have a full view looking in.

SVIGALS: That's exactly right. That is one of them. There's another one - which is one of my favorites - that goes in front of the school. It's a bioswale. It's a place where plants can grow and water is feeding it. In this case, it's stormwater runoff that we're containing. The water will be there when there's a storm event, and it will be drier when it isn't. So it's an area that if someone is not supposed to be there, they're clearly obvious. At the same time, it's a chance for the kids to come out and learn from nature, which was a very important part of this school.

CORNISH: As you were researching and kind of putting together your thoughts for this project, were you looking at sort of how schools have traditionally been built? Were you getting any advice from people who have had a similarly grim task of doing something that is going to be in a very sensitive place, or a place where there's also potential to memorialize an incident like this?

SVIGALS: Actually, we didn't. We didn't look back. We felt our charge was very much to look forward, and to offer the community the hope of building and creating a new school that would serve their children for many years to come. So I can't emphasize that enough for the design of schools around the country as they face these very difficult questions.

Having a circumstance of openness, of trust and inclusion draws upon the creativity of the people who know their community best - those who live there. So if there's anything to look to, it is the process, not the specifics that would be drawn upon from any other community.

CORNISH: Barry Svigals from Svigals + Partners. They are doing the design of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

SVIGALS: Thank you for giving me the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.