The Heights School – Portuguese Steps
The Heights School is an independent day school for boys. The campus is naturally divided into two sections. The Lower School (grades 3-5) has a natural or rustic feel, as the classes are held in vintage log cabins located in a wooded area known as the ‘Valley’. The Middle and Upper Schools (grades 6-12) are located on the hill in a new flagship building with a stone exterior that has a medieval or ‘Old World’ ambiance. In between is a steep wooded slope, a ‘no man’s-land’, which prior to the project, served to divide rather than unite the two sections. The obvious solution was to build a connecting stair, but the design challenges were many. Because it is a school, the stairs needed to be large scale enough to accommodate heavy traffic flow. And because the majority of users would be boys, they need to be very durable. Additionally, it was hoped that the stairs would not just link the two areas of the campus, but that they could harmonize the different styles, and serve as a focal point of the campus, and gathering area for the students.
The inspiration for the design was a trip to Portugal where the ancient structures are built directly on the living rock. The lay of the land and the native materials dictate the details of the design. Therefore we chose natural stone as our building material. Not only is the appearance relevant to both the rustic ‘Valley’ and the medieval Upper School, but it is long-lasting and impressive. The overall lay-out of the project used a series of steps and landings, set at different angles, and following the existing contours, to provide not only access but rest stops. The starting point was to place large (3,000 lb.) boulders strategically, yet seemingly randomly, in order to provide the bones on which the stairs and walls would be built. The local (Carderock) stone walls and broken PA flagstone paving were then fit on and around the boulders. As important as the materials selected were the techniques used. The artisans of old had no diamond bladed gas powered saws. So every stone in this project was hand hewn with hammer and chisel. These simple choices, executed with integrity, created a solution both elegant and authentic. It is such a successful design, that it has become a popular hang-out spot, graduation picture location, and the future site of an alumni memorial.