After five years in the making, BIG has completed The Heights, a new public school building in Arlington, Virginia that not only offers a unique and energy-efficient take on school architecture, but also helps maximize density and open space. Located along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, The Heights combines two existing secondary schools into a new 180,000-square-foot building that opens like a fan with a cascade of green-roofed terraces to provide an indoor-outdoor learning landscape. An emphasis on natural daylighting, green space, material reuse and energy efficiency has put the building on track to achieve LEED Gold certification.

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white building with staggered exterior

Completed on a $100 million budget, the dynamic new school building houses two programs: the H-B Woodlawn Program that offers visual and performing arts-focused curricula for grades 6 through 12, and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Program that serves students aged 11 to 22 with special needs. The school can accommodate an expected enrollment of up to 775 students.

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aerial view of large triangular-shaped staircase
staircase near glass walls

To make the most of a compact urban site bounded by roads on three sides, BIG organized the school as a stack of five rectangular floorplates rotated around a fixed pivot point to create a series of outdoor green-roofed terraces connected with a rotating central staircase. The spacious first terrace can be used for special events while the upper terraces are more suitable as classroom and study areas.

hallway with yellow walls
hallway with purple walls

The classroom “bars” have also informed the interior layout, which is anchored by a central vertical core containing the elevators, stairs and bathrooms as well as a triple-height lobby with stepped seating on the ground floor. For easy accessibility and to encourage public interaction throughout the school, the lobby is directly adjacent to many of the school’s common spaces, such as the 400-seat auditorium, main gymnasium, library, reception and cafeteria. Intuitive wayfinding is also extended to the classroom spaces in that each classroom “bar” is defined by its own color used to paint the walls and lockers.

tree growing in center of staggered seats
circular concrete spaces surrounded by greenery on a rooftop terrace

In contrast to its colorful interior, The Heights’ exterior is clad in white glazed brick to unify its fanned-out massing and to respect the surroundings, including the historic architecture of Old Town Alexandria. Select materials from the former Wilson School, which The Heights was built to replace, have been salvaged and reused in the new build.


Photography by Laurian Ghinitoiu via BIG