VMDO’s Elon W. Rhodes Early Learning Center is uniquely designed to facilitate experiential learning as a means to holistically grow social skills, coordination, and sensory development. Measured risk-tasking related to play, touch, sight, taste, smell, and listening are encouraged. With a curriculum based on cognitive development, the Early Learning Center (ELC) encourages curiosity and inquiry in young learners to inspire lifelong learning.

As part of district-wide grade realignment, Harrisonburg City Public Schools (HCPS) resolved to consolidate their early learning program into one campus, to create a center dedicated to supporting their youngest learners. Co-located on the existing Smithland Elementary School site, the ELC features 2-stories and 9 learning studios with access to shared communal spaces and outdoor play and learning environments. With a current capacity of 170 students, the ELC was planned to support growth up to 350.

A series of studies were undertaken to identify the best strategies to coordinate site planning with new building and landscape improvements in concert with the site’s existing stormwater, utility, and transportation infrastructure. High performance building initiatives were incorporated at a range of scales.

Abundant daylighting and views to adjacent fields, forests, and outdoor play spaces promote both immersive experiences in nature and the natural curiosity of young learners as they explore the world around them. The project is currently tracking LEED Gold certification and is modeling an energy use index (EUI) of less than 20.

As an addition to the existing Smithland Elementary School, the ELC creativity responds to the existing architecture and site through careful material selection and appropriate massing. The existing playground continues to support Smithland’s K-5 grades, while a separate play area for ELC students offers a variety of age-appropriate active playscapes.

Recognizing that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, the ELC establishes a forward-looking program organized around an ecologically sensitive landscape, affirming HCPS’s commitment to excellence in education and the vibrancy of learning, living, playing, and discovering within the context of skillful and expert teaching professionals.

The ELC was recognized with an Award of Merit in the 2019 AIA Virginia Design Awards program. The content of this profile is based on the award submission.

About the project team

Project Name: Elon W. Rhodes Early Learning Center (Harrisonburg, Va.)

Owner: Harrisonburg City Public Schools

Firm Name: VMDO Architects

Contractor: Nielsen Builders

Photographer: Alan Karchmer