Case Study – Thoroughgood Elementary

Elevated View Over School (Rendering)

Thoroughgood Elementary

Designing a Neighborhood School for the 21st Century

The new Thoroughgood Elementary School will enable students to learn, explore, discover, and  play in an open and collaborative environment. The partnership between the architect’s team of designers and engineers, Virginia Beach City Public Schools administration and school board, faculty and staff, students, parents, and community members has promoted a 21st century school design supportive of non-traditional and diverse learning methods for students Pre-K through 5th grade.

This project replaces a sixty-two year old aging and over-crowded elementary school facility. The overall design is custom and tailored to reflect future forward educational instruction, contribute to the VBCPS system’s wide sustainability goals as a net zero ready facility. The new 91,913 SF school will initially house 725 students. The design features exposed elements of construction and energy efficiency as teaching tools to facilitate learning through demonstration; it redefines the ideas of traditional educational spaces to promote collaboration and learning everywhere and finally the design reveals the positive effects of identifying, respecting and integrating the site’s existing attributes and characteristics.

The new Thoroughgood Elementary School is deeply rooted in its community and is supportive of its core values and culture. These values are revealed in each design element beginning with how one approaches the site and experiences the entry, moves through the special shaped spaces in each area of the building, enjoys the natural light and air everywhere, and enjoys the natural textures and cheery colors. It is a bright, fresh and stimulating environment inside and out for learning and sparking young minds!


Goals, Vision, and Inspiration Design Charrette With The Thoroughgood Staff Focus Group


Goals, Vision, and Inspiration Design Charrette With The Thoroughgood Staff Focus Group


Programming Meeting With The Staff Of Thoroughgood To Determine Where School Functions Should Be Located In Relation To Each Other


Site Planning Meeting With A Thoroughgood Staff Focus Group


Site Planning Meeting With Out Student And Staff Focus Group

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Leading, Listening, and Learning

Long gone are the days of prototyping a new school’s physical shape, content, and support needs to accommodate the way students will learn and teachers will collaborate in today’s learning environment. The new planning paradigm recognizes that each student is unique and representational of the community from which they are integral and connected. Recognizing the importance of place, values, culture and home grown inspirations is foundational for City of Virginia Beach’s School Planning facility movement.

Our building and site team conducted extensive workshops including groups of faculty and staff, community members and students to discover Thoroughgood’s definition of themselves. These workshops were interactive and brought forward all the participants in a safe environment where all were free to respond to cues and have their voices heard.

Our team’s charge was to weave these findings with the space planning program objectives and the existing site offerings to bring forward a design which:

    • Reflects and supports how the faculty and staff collaborate on a daily basis
    • Provides spaces that enhance the student’s learning styles
    • Offers discovery through the architecture as a constant

The conversations had in these workshops and their spoken words were carefully documented and are now memorialized in the built product.

The research and findings brought forward a consensus of ideas which allow the new school’s learning environments to bring forward each student’s unique gifts and talents. By engaging all stakeholders in the process of design, the new school truly represents the surrounding community and neighborhood it serves.

Main Entrance - Elevated (Rendering)

Main Entrance And Parent Drop Off

Art Hallway (Rendering)

Hallway Within The Pre-K / K / 1st Grade Wing

4-5 Hallway (Rendering)

4th and 5th Grades Hallway

1st Floor Central Stair (Rendering)

Central Staircase

2nd-3rd Hallway (Rendering)

2nd And 3rd Grade Hallways Looking Into A Collaboration Space Between Two Rooms

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Connecting Students, Teachers, and Nature

One of the primary planning principles was to harvest as much natural daylight as possible in virtually each space of the building to include those deep within the footprint. This objective as a baseline for design steered the floor plan circulation configuration, classroom layout, locations of special program spaces and the three dimensional form of the structure. The idea of transparency occurs not only in the rooms which have an exterior wall and windows, but is accomplished in internal spaces as well with interior windows and upper clerestory windows at the roof level to allow light down into and through these spaces. One always feels a connection to the outside in this building.

Thoroughgood Elementary School’s core literacy belief “every child everyday” was also a key component in the design decisions. Multi-purpose collaborative and flexible use type spaces are everywhere to enhance the student learning experience. The multi-functional and double tasking of spaces concept enables flexibility as education evolves in years to come.

Some of the most unique attributes of the design are the learning commons, gymnasium and cafeteria connection, and interconnectivity between classrooms. The learning commons is split-level to accommodate multiple classes at one time to curate collaboration for small group activity. The gymnasium and cafeteria are connected by a two sided performance stage to serve a variety of school activities, occupant levels, and after school programs. The Pre-K-Grade 1 individual classrooms have the ability to join their neighboring class for one learning experience via operable sliding panels.

The two story wing houses Grades 2-3 on the first floor, Grades 4-5 on the second floor and is nestled into the forested area at the rear of the site. This building siting effect has a two-fold impact: one is external and the other internal.

    1. From the street view, the building never really presents a 2 story feel to the dominantly one story residential neighborhood aiding, in the appropriateness of scale to its surroundings.
    2. Internally, whether you are on the 1st or the 2nd floor, you always feel like you are in a treehouse. It is a super positive natural “green” effect where the outside feels like it is on the inside all the time.

All the classrooms in this area of the building are designed to be interchangeable with these 4 grade levels to accommodate the ebb and flow of age group demographics. This 2 story zone of the building is all classrooms and the same planning principles are the drivers organizing natural light and transparency from room to room, multi-tasking of spaces and shared classroom space for special learning activities. The accent colors on the floors and walls are themed after earth, wind, water and fire and enhance the feel of openness and vibrancy as you move through the corridors.

The upper level commons area features several unique spatial relationships. It looks down into the gym and is accessed by an open central stair or elevator. An extraordinary Maker Space Lab is open to and looks down into the 2 story learning commons volume and has direct access to a rooftop outdoor classroom which is partially decked and partially planted.

Creating a transparent environment enables students to feel more comfortable and less confined, encourages more communication between faculty and staff, and allows visibility for teachers to keep a close eye on their surroundings. The key to this design strategy was connectivity.

    • Materiality, color + form guide your eye from room to room
    • Natural light from all directions is a constant
    • Portable furnishings offer infinite flexibility and are interchangeable amongst spaces
    • Visibility to the outside is everywhere
    • Writing surfaces for lessons and messaging occur throughout
    • Art + music access the courtyard directly

The integration of nature and increased natural daylighting has been proven to enhance academic performance, decrease disciplinary issues, lower stress levels, encourage curiosity, and enhance occupants’ ability to focus on tasks.

Thoroughgood Elementary is one of the last true neighborhood schools in Hampton Roads. Respecting the goals of the stakeholders, the school naturally blends into the neighborhood and reflects the surrounding community’s culture. The entry was carefully designed to be distinct and welcoming to all who walk, bike, bus, or ride to school with a history walk as a nod to the historical namesake of Adam Thoroughgood, one of the founding colonists and community leaders of the 1600s.

Parent drop-off, faculty and visitor parking, and the bus loop are clearly delineated and separated with independent entry points for safe circulation.

A critical component to the design and construction of the new school was a tree preservation exercise to retain the beautiful century old canopies and forested area at the rear of the site. Designing the parent drop off and bus loop to weave through the trees was a part of this preservation plan. The new school was positioned and thoughtfully shaped to preserve and enhance the site’s character and capture the existing natural attributes. The final result is a new school which feels as if it were always there.

Learning activity areas on site:

    • Outdoor reading areas
    • Legacy garden
    • Outdoor dining
    • Storm water features
    • Outdoor classroom
    • Art gallery + music patio
    • Multiple hard play courts + grass play fields
    • Forested fitness area

Sustainability Moment

Rainwater Cisterns
Collection and retention of rainwater in rainwater cisterns will be used as “greywater” for restroom fixtures. Annual collection of 500,000 gallons exceeds the 180,000 gallon annual usage that is estimated for the school.

Stormwater Retention
87,215 cubic feet of underground storage was added to mitigate any large rain events. These retention areas are used to keep water on site and slowly release water so the city’s systems are not overwhelmed. This retains 78% of stormwater runoff in a 100-year storm event.

The ability to closely interact and collaborate with all stakeholders throughout building design, interior programming, and site development allows us to learn about the inner workings of our client, just as it allows our clients to learn about the inner workings of design and architecture. We have found these collaborative and idea sharing moments within a project to be special and memorable for the entire team. It creates a bond of understanding, effectively creating a better design than we could not have imagined from a singular vision.

Additional Photos

Learning Commons 2nd Floor

Learning Commons From The 2nd Floor


Playground and Courtyard

Art Classroom

Art Classroom

Classroom Hallway

Classroom Hallway



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Learning Commons 2nd Floor
Art Classroom
Classroom Hallway
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