MILTON-FREEWATER — A new school like Gib — as the Gib Olinger Elementary School is already nicknamed — is a perfect opportunity to create the right environment from the ground up, said Jeri Tess of Portland-based Opsis Architecture.

Tess designed much of Gib’s interior with an eye to flexibility of use, a nurturing atmosphere and staff collaboration.

Today’s school buildings, she said, have dual jobs in smaller towns. The first is to serve the needs of staff and students, and the second is to be a venue for the community.

Making sure Gib is up to the task meant careful choices to ensure durability and a pleasing aesthetic for children and adults.

Tess started by choosing colors from Milton-Freewater’s agricultural surroundings — the blue of the sky, the yellow of plentiful sunshine, the green of new crops, the rusty red of turned soil.

Her goal was to meld those natural hues with the energetic colors children respond to, and then use them to make a “wayfinding” model within Gib, Tess said.

Wayfinding has become a focus in architecture, according to Building Design+Construction industry magazine.

Humans use color to sort and group objects by instinct, and businesses understand that. Parking garages use color to designate zones, sports teams choose a primary color for representation, and health care facilities use different hues for signage as visual cues, the magazine’s writers say.

Tess said the Gib design team wanted children to have those easy signals to know where to go and to recognize their own sections of the school. Under the banner of wayfinding, she used carpet, paint and textiles to create “neighborhoods,” or pods, for each grade level.

Within such a neighborhood are all the classrooms for that grade, plus a large common space in the center, outfitted with movable furniture and projector screens. The walls are unified with one color per neighborhood, a cue to help a youngster find her way back to the right spot, the designer said.

Not only does that promote a sense of security, but it adds to school safety, said Aaron Duff, director of business and operations for Milton-Freewater Unified School District.

“They might not know what their classroom number is, but they know it’s in the blue neighborhood, and they can tell an emergency responder that,” Duff said.

These pods, or neighborhoods, within the building serve all kinds of needs, Tess added. The layout allow same-grade teachers to more easily collaborate on curriculum, share information and host group activities. As well, that generous center space lets a paraprofessional work with a small group of kids or individuals without distracting the main classroom.

Or losing precious learning minutes, which gets nibbled at by many school-day demands, experts say.

“We find when kids need special services, if they have to be sent all the way down a long hall, that takes a lot of time. But if they are pulled out and right into their own neighborhood, they can get right back into class,” Tess explained.

“Long corridors, you don’t get much out of those,” she said.

In a more traditional form of wayfinding, Gib neighborhoods feature “sidewalks,” strips of carpet within the wall-to-wall carpet scheme. Created with a complementary pattern and color, the sidewalks will help students stay in line and headed in the right directions, said Duff on a recent tour of the new campus.

“And you notice how where the coat hooks are,” he pointed toward a nearby wall. “The sidewalk is just far enough out that little arms can’t reach and play with the coats.”

Gib, located on Mill Street in the south end of town, will house children in grades K-3. That’s the prime age of “teach to’s,” Duff said. “How do you do something? How do you go through the lunch line, wash your hands, enter a room? That’s not a new thing, but we really tried to use the building to move kids along without distraction.”

Duff is equally happy with Gib’s pod walls. Those boast a “self healing” wallcovering, meaning fasteners and hangers that go in and back out won’t leave a permanent hole. The polymers in the material close up around the hole, leaving a surface ready to accept as many pushpins as needed.

“Teachers wanted places to hang things up,” Duff said, “but you also want the walls to look good.”

That special wallpaper helps both students and teachers, Tess said. “It’s really cool when you’re a kid and your work is hung out in the hall. It’s also where a teacher spends eight hours a day, and it’s important they can personalize it, too.”

That Gib’s all-purpose commons and cafeteria space is front and center in the building’s core is another bonus, Tess said.

“We knew a lot of kids have breakfast and lunch there, and potentially dinner. We needed to create space where that can happen. And it’s the first space when you enter the building … the heart and soul of the school.”

Not hiding that away down a hallway serves everyone better, according to contemporary design standards, she said.

“We want families and community to become engaged right when they come in the door,” Tess said. “And the classrooms can be closed off at night so the commons can be open to the community.”

The two-story, open commons is educational in its own right, Tess and Duff said. Not only was thought put into making the roof deck pleasing to the eye, but the plan was to highlight some construction components.

“We left the main deck exposed so the structure is visible,” Tess said.

Students can look up and see the duct work, for example, and understand that’s how warm and cool air gets delivered to a classroom. With some of structure’s joints left uncovered, those become a lesson plan in engineering.

“It’s how a building gets held up,” she pointed out.

One of Gib’s best gifts to those who use the school will be the design components that hearken back to nature, Tess believes.

“We used natural materials where we could,” she said. “As human beings, we have an affinity for the natural environment. When we are surrounded by beautiful views and natural materials, it is really conducive to doing our best work and to learning.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.