Preserving the School in the Trees
How blending nature, culture, and community reimagined Doss Elementary School’s legacy – because who wouldn’t want to learn in a treehouse?
The existing campus — known as the “School in the Trees” — was nestled among many heritage trees on top of a scenic hill. It also shared its site with a city park, which was a vital green space for the community.
A neighborhood anchor for over 50 years, this campus has its roots in a place where people who grow up here choose to stay and raise their families here, too. Many students are the second or third generation to attend!
With shared community amenities like the park and playgrounds, as well as event and meeting spaces that are available after hours, the neighborhood school is an active hub for outreach and gathering that continuously attracts new families to the area.
A New Life
Our design draws from the existing site context with a concept that helps reinforce the school’s setting in nature. It’s seen outside through recesses and extrusions that cantilever over the site like a treehouse. Inside, you’ll find pops of color that mimic nature, wood features throughout, and the iconic library.
The partnership between the City of Austin and Austin Independent School District enabled us to create new outdoor learning and play opportunities while preserving both the park and playgrounds and the community’s culture – all without reducing any of the City’s dedicated green space or impacting our design of the school.
Shared Resources With City Park
We strategically repositioned the campus to celebrate the character of its natural surroundings, providing a multi-level design solution that preserved the site’s heritage trees while taking advantage of the natural topography. It also offers efficient space utilization and accentuates those scenic hilltop views of nature, the community, and downtown Austin.
Exceeding expectations on building use and performance creates ongoing value for the school district. Reusing the existing gym and play canopy helped achieve this by not only protecting previous investments made by the community but also significantly reducing the building area and, therefore, both initial and operational costs as well.
The monumental and beloved “Memorial Tree” on site was an integral part of the school’s identity, so preserving it was a critical component of our biophilic design strategy. We worked delicately to build it into the new site design, reimagining it as a Tree of Knowledge that shelters the amphitheater.
Times may have changed since Doss was originally built, but unlike many schools today, this campus is still welcoming a parade of bike riders at school each day. In providing adequate bike storage, our design supports this preferred mode of transportation and further respects the local community’s culture and traditions.
Purchasing commemorative pavers for display is a longstanding fundraiser for Doss. They hold special meaning for many families, especially when bringing their kids to school and seeing their own pavers from decades past. Relocating these pavers and incorporating them into the main path helps preserve this culture for future generations.
An Iconic Feature
Throughout the design we created fun and playful elements, like the spiral staircase tree trunk and makerspaces identified by owl signage, that appeal to a child’s sense of wonder and adventure. This enabled us to promote learning through discovery and exploration and provide it in a safe and secure environment.
Small seating nooks in the corridor provide areas of refuge for focus and contemplation, while partially obscured treehouse views offer vantage points where students can feel safe watching the world as they discover where they fit into it. This supports the goal for student choice to drive the learning environment.
Breakout areas throughout the corridors—defined by wood treehouse ceilings, specialty lighting, and flexible furniture—encourage students to find their own unique learning paths. Operable glass walls make these areas easily accessible and visible from classrooms. Passive faculty supervision over dining and the library offers students additional freedom to explore.
Originally built in 1970, Doss Elementary School is named after a beloved teacher who fostered educational opportunities for thousands of students for almost 50 years (and whooo loved painting owls!).
Throughout the design we used owls—the school’s mascot and a symbol of wisdom, learning, and knowledge—as a biophilic strategy to help support lessons in sustainability and environmental diversity.
Low-emitting, durable materials for both environmental and occupant health. Better acoustics. Quality daylight through skylights and fritted glass storefronts. We designed this building with IEQ in mind.
Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ)
Infused throughout the design are connections to nature—expansive views, outdoor learning, animal motifs, organic geometry, patterning, and the iconic treehouse—that enhance the user's physical and mental wellbeing.
Biophilic Design Approach
Our integrated design effort, where all disciplines collaborated to benefit the community, the environment, and the health of the users, ultimately achieved LEED Gold certification and an AEGB 4-star rating for the building.
Green Design and Occupant Health
“It’s not just about adding a wing or more paint or another sidewalk. It’s about creating fully modernized, 21st century learning spaces for our students.”
– Paul Cruz, former District Superintendent
Our multi-level design includes a learning stair, where all students and faculty can assemble at once. It offers seating choices during lunch, provides tiered performance seating, and supports community functions.
Inspired by nature, we embraced the concept of a treehouse’s three primary functions to define moments throughout the interior that allow students to feel safe, explore, and have fun learning.
Operational value adds include a predicted energy use intensity (EUI) of 26 kBTU/square feet/year and a 63,000-gallon rainwater cistern. A raingarden reduces water runoff and provides irrigation for the grounds.
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