Embodying Waldorf Education
The design of a new classroom building at the Waldorf School of Pittsburgh supports its holistic approach to education.
The Waldorf School of Pittsburgh is an independent, K-8 school located on a two-acre campus in the city’s Bloomfield neighborhood. While the majority of the school is housed in a historic Victorian-era mansion, Waldorf asked Bohlin Cywinski Jackson to develop a new standalone classroom for eighth graders, reflective of its core values and responsive to this pivotal stage of student development and growth.
The design team explored Waldorf’s experiential approach to education, which encourages children to learn through their “head, heart and hands.” In the Waldorf educational model, the eighth grade is an important transitional period — a time when students are supported while they gain independence and learn to feel at home in the world. The school is also committed to nurturing an appreciation for nature and wanted to create a healthy learning environment as well as building that would serve as an educational tool. This provided an opportunity for our team to leverage past experience with Core Green Building Certification and WELL Building Standard requirements from the outset of the design process.
The new eighth grade classroom’s name, Heartwood Annex, emerged from an exploratory process with students, who were inspired by heartwood as the strongest part of a tree. Respect for trees on campus would become an important part of the design process and included carefully planned pathways to preserve the natural context of the site, as well as the creative use of wood as a raw, unadorned material in the building design.
The graceful curve of the classroom’s east side is accomplished with untreated, live-edge hemlock, while a sheltered window seat incorporates oak from a storm-damaged tree felled onsite. This curve forms an embrace around the school’s beloved outdoor green space and recalls the gesture of a cupped hand, providing both support and encouragement.
The pandemic has greatly affected the educational experience for students around the world, and the Waldorf School of Pittsburgh has adapted to new ways of maintaining critical student-teacher relationships throughout the year. Before gaining access to the classroom, students began interacting with the new building by holding outdoor classes on the open-air stage, designed as a performance space. The eighth grade classroom is a true manifestation of Waldorf pedagogy — a healthy and supportive environment where young minds discover their own creativity, engage with the natural world, and discover their own paths forward.