The Quaker Meeting House at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC is featured in the March/April 2012 issue of GreenSource magazine.
Between Silence and Light: In Washington, D.C., a KieranTimberlake-designed meeting house for adolescents embraces the Quaker values of simplicity and beauty.
By Alanna Malone
After students at the Sidwell Friends School pass through the entry lobby of their new Quaker Meeting House, the laughter and chatter begin to die down as they set aside their backpacks and file into the space. The kids take their seats on long wooden benches arranged facing the center and silently begin the Quaker meeting for worship, a weekly practice that involves 45 minutes of quiet reflection. No visitor to the school would ever guess that the serene, light-filled worship area is actually the former school gymnasium.
Philadelphia-based firm KieranTimberlake, which has worked on multiple projects around the Washington, D.C.–based school campus, led the adaptive reuse project. "The fundamental question for us was how to form architecture about silence and light, and do so in a way that would reflect everything that culture believes in regarding sustainability," explains Stephen Kieran of KieranTimberlake. The 22,940-square-foot building is now targeting LEED-Platinum certification, and serves as the central building on the school grounds, connecting the upper and lower campuses. Mike Saxenian, assistant head and CFO of the school, lauds the project: "Students have commented on how important it is to have this space—they really do appreciate it." In addition to a beautiful worship area, the program includes a variety of art studios and music practice rooms where the locker rooms and support spaces used to be.
When the firm originally devised the school's master plan a decade ago, it intended to build an entirely new structure for the Meeting House. "We tested a variety of locations before it landed back in the Kenworthy Gymnasium," says Kieran. While there were concerns about the aesthetic difficulties of transforming a gymnasium into a quiet room for reflection, the school ultimately agreed with the decision.
The minimal, simple, and elegant aesthetic of Quakerism dominated the design. "The challenge was to try to create a modern space of the 21st century that embraced historic Quaker traditions," says Jason Smith of KieranTimberlake. The firm spent a lot of time looking at Quaker architecture and talking to the school about Quakerism.