School of Thought
The plans for a new Upper School are an object lesson in environmental design, ethical stewardship, and education of a “certain kind.”
During a lunch with the architects from Perkins Eastman, Middle School students imagined the features they would like to see in the future Upper School. They scribbled notes, stuck them to the wall, and reflected on each other’s work. One insightful student reframed the conversation with an essential question: “Would the Earth be happy with the decisions we made?”
This powerful query recalls David Orr, an emeritus professor of environmental studies and politics at Oberlin College who consulted on Sidwell Friends’ pathbreaking sustainability efforts more than 20 years ago. Orr observed that each day the planet becomes “a little hotter, its waters more acidic, and the fabric of life more threadbare.” The crisis, he suggested—in a 1991 essay, “What Is Education For?”—resulted from an educational deficiency that left residents of the planet ill-prepared to care for the natural world. “Education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom,” he wrote. “More of the same kind of education will only compound our problems. The worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival. … It is not education that will save us, but education of a certain kind.”
Orr’s predictions have proved prophetic. The good news is that a new generation, exemplified by Sidwell Friends Middle Schoolers, feels empowered to ask questions and take action. Principal architect Sean O’Donnell says he often doesn’t see such authentic engagement. “Bringing together the youngest and the oldest children, alongside the faculty and staff, all to build a stronger community is a really powerful idea,” he says. But as impressive as the students are, young people cannot do it alone. Adults must support their imagination by rethinking past practices, adopting new habits, and setting the right example.
One way to do this is through the new Upton campus. The School’s Strategic Plan calls for a unified campus both to care for the Earth and the School’s students. Sidwell Friends has the chance to provide the community with a new home, one where wise and decent citizens pursue intellectual excellence, develop high ethical standards, and walk cheerfully—and lightly—across the world. This mission must be fostered in the hearts and minds of the School’s students and in the bones of its buildings. This is a moment to design a space that is an expression of all that the School values.
Philanthropic partners have already committed more than $53 million toward a transformative effort—the most ambitious capital and endowment campaign in the School’s history. If fundraising goals are reached, the new Upper School will open for the 2026/27 academic year, completing the first step in a strategic effort to unify the campus.
“The worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival.”
“We value nothing more than illuminating the best in our students,” Upper School Principal Mamadou Guèye notes. “We have already begun to address student well-being with a revised weekly schedule to allow for much-needed time to reset, play, and recharge. A new Upper School will allow us to be the village we want to be.”
Since 1964, the footprint of the Upper School has remained relatively untouched, expanding only with the 1997 renovation of the Harrison Building and the addition of the Goldman Library. In 1964, the Upper School enrolled 330 students; today, there are more than 500. The facility serves students well, but as enrollment has grown and programmatic needs have shifted, the Board of Trustees began to evaluate ways to consolidate the community and to consider the relationships between the built environment, teaching, and learning. To that end, they embraced an unprecedented opportunity: the purchase of six contiguous acres on the Wisconsin Avenue campus. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to realize a unified community on a campus that has a strong heart and sense of place,” O’Donnell says. “It’s extraordinary.” The last such transformational moment came in 1955, when the School purchased eight acres, adding Zartman House and the athletic fields—which dramatically improved the student experience.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to realize a unified community on a campus that has a strong heart and sense of place.”
After the Upton purchase, plans for a new village became more discernible—and more exciting. The School hired the globally recognized architectural firm Perkins Eastman, who then led more than 15 gatherings of faculty, staff, students, parents, and alumni to help everyone better understand the School’s mission and needs. Submitting and revising the School’s application to the Board of Zoning Adjustment precipitated 22 meetings with neighbors, traffic consultants, surveyors, engineers, and two different Advisory Neighborhood Commissions about a host of topics, ranging from construction schedules to perimeter-fencing design. These efforts earned approval from the Board of Zoning Adjustment on February 5 and informed a new master plan. Sidwell Friends is pleased to share these initial conceptual renderings—with the understanding, of course, that they will almost certainly be revised over time.
When asked, Sidwell Friends students describe their ideal new school as one with havens for quiet study and reflection, spaces for collaboration and innovation, places to socialize with friends, and areas for individual research projects. They imagine a campus that enables a full range of academic and social experiences, because for most of the year, Sidwell Friends is a second home.
The new building will emphasize a sense of community and wellness by honoring Quaker-inspired design principles: simplicity, integrity, and stewardship. Drawing on features that appear regularly on college campuses, where learning has become increasingly cooperative, the design relies heavily on glass walls that let in natural light, visually connect students to their peers, and provide acoustic balance. Gathering spaces will range in size and function: A dining hall will comfortably serve the full Upper School, allowing for flexible scheduling; “neighborhoods” will enable grade levels to congregate and plan activities; common areas will encourage casual student-teacher interactions and foster group conversations; Star’s new Fox Den will offer a collegiate social atmosphere; a Meeting Room will house gatherings and performances for up to 150 people.
New academic spaces will spur programmatic development. A Science Commons will include a robotics lab, as well as space for individual student projects. Classrooms will be equipped for specific disciplines. Departmental offices will be configured to promote cross-disciplinary relationships. The third floor of the Upton property, which will open onto a green that unifies the three divisions and the Athletic Department, will host the all-school Center for Teaching and Learning and the Center for Ethical Leadership. Both will have a direct impact on the community: Faculty will share emerging practices with one another, the School will host visiting scholars, and students will find new opportunities for growth and leadership.
Faculty and staff are already developing programs that will fall under the Center for Ethical Leadership, such as community engagement and affinity group initiatives. The honorable Ann Winkelman Brown ’55 has generously endowed a capstone project in which 4th graders will examine an ethical problem of their choosing, design solutions, and publicly present their work. The Athletic Department has already established the Sports Leadership Academy, which served nearly 40 students this year (see “Game Theory,” on page 28). The Dehejia Internship program currently coordinates college-level internship experiences for 11th graders. And the Middle School is creating a new health and wellness course that will focus on ethical decision making. In other words, the Center for Ethical Leadership will provide a much-needed home and new resources for next-level educational thinking.
Much like the internationally recognized LEED-Platinum Middle School, the Upton campus will teach students about problems and solutions in sustainability. The School faced its first and most basic challenge when the board determined that 75 percent of the existing structure will be renovated rather than razed. This approach conserves the energy and materials that are already in the building, and based on construction estimates, it will be dramatically less expensive. Moreover, experts will realign HVAC and electrical systems to reduce energy consumption and the School’s carbon footprint. Between power purchase agreements for solar energy and geothermal wells and a number of other energy efficiency measures, the Wisconsin Avenue campus could become a net-zero facility, meaning it would produce as much energy as it uses. Both technologies have short payback periods. In fact, geothermal wells could save the School nearly $9 million over 30 years, a good reminder that campus unification has significant economic benefits.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson for students will come from the land itself. The site’s topography offers opportunities for innovative design that bolsters native flora and fauna and that excels at stormwater management. The most recent campus master plan calls for strategic demolition of the eastern side of the building, where architects will connect the greenway from Upton Street to the central campus green and amphitheater, creating a campus “heart.” The hydrology management plan will use the gentle slope of the property to capture and recirculate stormwater, which is especially important to the School’s neighbors.
Nestled into the hillside, the building will allow many more access points to the outdoors, use more natural light, and improve air circulation. Neuroscience studies—including by the National Institutes of Health and Harvard University—demonstrate that these biophilic features can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, lead to improved creativity, and bolster academic performance. Additionally, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20 percent of American students between the ages of 13 and 18 suffer from a mental health disorder, meaning an emphasis on well-being is a necessity, not a luxury.
Once the building is complete, students will have an opportunity to learn about the design and evaluate its systems. Heather Jauregui, a senior associate and sustainability expert at Perkins Eastman, assesses environmental performance through rigorous data analysis. She frequently works with students to measure and monitor carbon-dioxide levels, teaching them that lower CO2 levels lead to higher brain oxygenation and deeper levels of student engagement. “I’ve seen a lot of ‘aha’ moments with students when they’re doing lab measurements,” Jauregui says. “Taking CO2 readings in one location and then opening a window and taking them again, the students understand that there’s a direct connection between fresh air ventilation and CO2 levels.”
Meanwhile, landscape designers will work with faculty and students to study the local flora and fauna of the Rock Creek watershed and to design a landscape that prioritizes ecological balance. The promise of more access to the outside already has environmental science and biology teachers eager to catalog native bee and bird populations, and to help them and other native species thrive. As one alum put it, hands-on practices enable students to not only learn science but to learn how to be scientists.
“Hands-on practices enable students to not only learn science but learn how to be scientists.”
The new campus will allow the School to forge a connection between environmental sustainability, student and employee wellness, and learning outcomes that no other institution has previously imagined. LEED, WELL, NetZero, and other green-design frameworks, as well as emerging research in neuroscience, have improved environmental design, but as far as Perkins Eastman understands, no institution has integrated these standards into the comprehensive, interrelated approach Sidwell Friends is taking. Architect Ann Neeriemer says Sidwell Friends will be “an oasis in an urban environment.”
This urban oasis comes directly from students and faculty who, the architects at Perkins Eastman say, think about design in an “uncommonly dialectical manner.” Designers typically create comfort and inspire aesthetically. But Sidwell Friends students seek to sustain the natural world, to improve it, and to imagine new ways of being in a relationship with it. Their ethical imaginations, grounded in the “certain kind” of education that Orr wrote about and that Sidwell Friends offers, speak directly to a deeply human need to care for community, to live positively and peacefully, to act with integrity, and to lead through stewardship.
If the School follows their inspiration, it will create a campus that places decency, human survival, and joy at its core; that makes the students proud; and that resonates well beyond Sidwell Friends.
Let’s build a world our students can proudly inherit.
The alum-architect who’s on the job.
Harry Webb ’11 can’t decide if it is “a bonus or just weird” that he is a member of the Perkins Eastman team working on the Upper School project. The young architect and Sidwell Friends alum—a lifer—has a lot of memories of the School. Yet, he didn’t expect to see his colorful finger-painted handprint (circa age 5) hanging from a mural in Zartman House when he and his colleagues showed up to share their design ideas with School administrators. “It was surreal to see it up on the wall when professionally presenting,” Webb says. Luckily, he adds, “Sidwell set me up for success.”
After earning his bachelor’s in architecture from the University of Maryland, Webb attended the University of Oregon for a master’s in the subject. He returned to DC to work at a six-person boutique firm on 14th Street, where doing a little bit of everything allowed him to learn a lot. And, when he wanted to stretch his wings at a larger firm, he was thrilled to land at Perkins Eastman. “We have all different kinds of projects, and we’re all over the world,” he says. Webb is quick to point out that it is “pure coincidence that I ended up at Perkins and they got the Sidwell project.”
Maybe so, but the School does have a deep connection to Webb’s passion for architecture. It was, after all, as a student at Sidwell Friends that he realized what his future vocation would be. “I knew I wanted to be an architect since Middle School,” he says. “I was there when they did the Middle School building renovation, and I saw how that influenced life before and after.”
Since being back at Sidwell Friends in this new role, Webb says he has “learned a lot more about the bones and the history of the campus.” He says his work on the building calls on this new information and combines it with his own memories of the School. “I use my memory to think about what exists already and what we can do to modify it,” he says. He understands, for example, the need for common spaces that aren’t hallways. He wants to expand on the parts of the School that are working—like by giving every grade a version of the well-liked senior center.
And of course, Webb intends to stay true to Quaker values. “Simplicity of experiences, simple processes, simple design—if we don’t need it, we don’t put it in there,” he says. “The Quaker tenet of simplicity is something I apply to my personal life and the way I think about architecture.”
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