Those who think preschool is all naps and apple slices could learn a thing or two from the Little Owl Preschool in Long Beach, Calif. Janet and Laurence Watt, the owners of Watt Development, sought to build a preschool that approaches teaching in a fresh way. They hired Meg Beatrice, AIA, principal of Architecture M, to design a school that reflects the Reggio Emilia philosophy where children are given respect and independence, and the outdoors serves as a primary teaching tool. Naturally, the building is a sustainable one.

Architecture M purposefully positioned the 7,100-square-foot school on its narrow site so that the footprint defines various outdoor classrooms and places to play. “The outdoor spaces are as much a part of the program as the interior classrooms,” Beatrice explains of the arrangement. (A natural playgrounds specialist helped with the climbing wall, slide, and other features.) Though the building is designed to LEED Gold standards, the owners chose to invest funds that would have gone towards certification fees on additional large fruit trees.

The school’s façade provides an opportunity to learn about nature up close. Architecture M used a proprietary living-wall product from ELT Easy Green and created a unique pattern with bands of succulents, sedums, and other drought-tolerant plants in varying shades of green. Other portions of the building are clad in color-coordinated stucco and fiber-cement board. The school also boasts a 1,030-square-foot green roof above the classroom that is stocked with plants, shrubs, and herbs and paved with interlocking tiles. In addition to providing added insulation and stormwater management, it also offers additional space for teachers to meet or converse with parents. A secondary 2,452-square-foot green roof that is accessible only for maintenance tops the building.

In line with the Reggio Emilia philosophy, Little Owl’s main façade offers two options for entering the building: one full-sized door for adults and a half-sized version for the students. The school’s interior is an open, flexible volume, made possible by a brace-frame system with drag beams at the exterior walls that transfer structural forces to concrete stairwells at each end, which function as lateral anchors. Thus, materials are minimized, though sliding metal-framed panels with wood-and-gypsum-board infill allow for spatial divisions when necessary. More private teacher offices and open office spaces are located on the second floor.

To maintain a connection with the outdoors, Architecture M selected a palette of earth tones and light woods for the interiors, and specified matte-white wall surfaces (consisting of gypsum board in most areas and formed concrete in the entry and stair areas) to reflect the natural light that floods in through the school’s windows and light-shelf system. In fact, the building acts as a light fixture. Beatrice worked with optical engineers to determine angles for the canted exterior walls in order to bounce enough light indoors to illuminate the entire space. Exterior canopies on south-facing windows have a dual function as sun shade and light shelf to mitigate the excess. This strategy worked: No electrical lighting is needed, so long as the Southern California sun is shining.