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Norwalk School's Green Design Draws Kudos

NORWALK, Conn. – A private Norwalk school believes that its environment-friendly plans for remodeling should become a standard for local schools.

Faced with the challenge of creating a permanent facility on the 13.2-acre former Vitam property at 57 West Rocks Road, officials of Winston Preparatory School had several goals in mind when they met with designers late in 2010. All of them were related to the environment, but the design went deeper.

"We wanted to align the essence of the school with the essence of what Norwalk is," architect John Boecker said at a zoning commission meeting last week. That meant a lot of research into the watershed and the geological, sociological, economic and hydrological history of the area.

They set out to create a "colony of learners" at Winston Prep, which specializes in helping those with learning disabilities. There are currently 23 middle school and 59 high school students enrolled on the campus, which was established in 2007 under a special exception permit from the city.

The new design calls for a driveway that heads toward the pond on the property. "It really is an inviting entry, but you don't exactly know where to go because the pond is in the way," Boecker said. "This is in alignment with the school's teaching method. It's very much a process of discovery, so the students themselves discover how to learn."

If the zoning commission approves the plan, four buildings will be demolished to reduce the amount of impervious surface and retain the natural flow of storm water on the hilly property. The campus will be pedestrian friendly for students making their way between buildings. A long wing will be situated on a west-east axis to maximize solar exposure from the south and daylight from north, yet with plentiful sun shades to prevent students from getting a glare in their eyes.

"A school building uses a lot of energy for lighting, so we have attempted to design the building to maximize the amount of light that comes into the structure," said architect Muscoe Martin. "A number of studies over the past 10 years show that students do better in classrooms that have large amounts of natural lighting."

The campus will feature two zones, one 50 feet above the other. The pond will be restored environmentally and there will be a campus green next to it. Other features include native plants and a half-acre reduction in the impervious surfaces.

"We hope when this is completed, we will not only have a better facility to do our work and help our students and help them pursue their goals and dreams and achieve their potential, but that we will really be a place that's a model for what's possible here in Norwalk, what's possible educationally, in terms of restoration, but also what's possible architecturally, in a built environment in terms of restoration," said Scott Bezsylko, executive director of Winston Prep schools.

Diane Lauricella, an environmental consultant who lives "just over the hill" from the school, urged the commission to approve the design. "Norwalk needs more members of the development community to embrace low-impact development when building projects such as this," she said. She added that the water-quality upgrade is key as the site eventually drains into the Norwalk River basin. She said Norwalk schools should also embrace the idea of natural light in its buildings.

"We're so glad this school has relocated to Norwalk," said Jennifer Gabler of Westport, who spoke on behalf of the parents of children enrolled in the school. "It's created a resource for people who have special education needs that are not being met, especially in the high school years."

Her 14-year-old son agreed. "Since Winston has relocated to Norwalk it has changed my life educationally," said Alex Gabler. "Before, I was a very slow reader and a very slow writer. Now I am able to read books that are above my level in grade."

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