Sustainability by Values with Monique DeVane

Project Types, Sustainability
Steven Huegli, AIA
As Head of School at The College Preparatory School, Monique DeVane shepherded the development of her campus’s first project designed for zero-net energy performance. JENSEN Principal Steven Huegli asked her to share how institutional values set the stage for this achievement.

Steven Huegli (SH): Architects are focused on zero-net energy design as a key tactic for tackling climate change. Yet an important lesson of the recently completed classroom buildings at College Prep is that sustainability is more of an outcome than a driver of the campus vision. Can you share how that works?

Monique DeVane (MD): We think carefully about how our campus expresses our values because we have so little land to work with, just five acres. So every move has to optimize our space relative to our mission which is centered around our students and what we believe kids of this age need. This starting premise led us to a set of values – simplicity, connection, balance, and stewardship – that really frame our campus vision.

College Prep Sustainability Diagram
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SH: Core values often associated with sustainability.

MD: Exactly. The values that guide our approach are adjacent to sustainability. So when we start with our purpose, then build out the values that animate that purpose, the result is often less wasteful, more flexible, and healthier. In terms of our campus, this means taking something that’s often a limiter, its size and setting for instance, and reinterpreting this constraint as an advantage. 

Our open-air tradition requires a conscious balance between buildings and nature. We have to be deliberate in recognizing the natural environment is the soul of our campus, not its trimming. Likewise, the idea of simplicity asks us to build and operate modestly, to prioritize connection and creativity. Rather than overshadow kids with edifice, we create simple, indoor-outdoor spaces, because we live in a place where that’s possible, and it turns out to be community building and healthy as well.

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SH: Our project is the most recent of many improvements and additions made to the campus over recent decades. How does a values-driven approach play out over time?

MD:  If you have a small set of core concepts guiding many small decisions over time, you actually end up in a place of greater integrity. And I don’t mean righteous integrity, I mean whole integrity. We have a vision for community that’s expressed in a way that amplifies the values of sustainability. It’s a million little decisions, rather than a declaration.


SH: When I first toured the campus, the relationship to the landscape was palpable. Our buildings wiggle the way they do because they align with the site typography so we could reduce the amount of excavation and strengthen the relationship with the natural environment but that’s really part of the campus’s DNA, something cultivated over time.

MD: We have evolved opportunistically to make the most of our site while also staying in balance with its limitations, and frankly, with our limitations. We started in the 1970s with decommissioned portables purchased from the Oakland Unified School District. For a long time, we didn’t have any big, south-facing buildings. When we finally got one of those, we put photovoltaics on it. But we’re always considering our students.

The important question is, how much is enough? A school that’s overbuilt has a certain kind of fancy sterility, like the living room that you only use on special days. That’s not where the kids live. Kids really need spaces they can own. That’s the feeling that runs through the program and is expressed through the physical spaces. When we have assembly, kids aren’t clearing their announcements through a grown up before they talk, they just talk. And by talking they learn how to speak before a group, how to recover gracefully from a mistake, and how to listen to each other. Then that muscle makes them better lifelong learners and better citizens.

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SH: Assembly is when the entire school convenes outdoors and students present what’s happening in the week ahead. It’s such a magical moment of community, we really thought about how the new courtyard could amplify this sense of connectedness. At the same time, whenever I visit, it seems that every classroom is set up in a unique way, even changing between sessions.

MD: I think that has to do with having a vision for who owns the culture. What’s the balance? Do kids in school see themselves as guests or owners? A highly relational learning community like ours, where learning is experiential and collaborative, is about spaces where kids feel a lot of ownership. They drag the furniture all around and spill outside, the whole campus is theirs.


SH: The teachers and students were really our partners in the design of the classrooms, including outdoor spaces and relationships between the two. It was a great collaboration; from your perspective, what factors set the stage for our success.

MD: A collaborative design process works best when the client is engaged, but aware of what they don’t know. At the same time, instead of dismissing our sometimes harebrained aspirations, the design team was able to hear the underlying need or intent, even though we might not have had the right words to explain what we we’re asking for. You really met us where we were at.


SH: It was important that everyone felt they could throw out ideas and contribute. There also were no small thinkers at the table. Everyone came with big aspirations for this project and recognized the opportunity to shape the campus in a positive way. Another aspect was continuity. The school representatives who walked the construction site with me were also there for the early design meetings. This type of continuity really helped keep the project on track.

MD: It is a bit like a marriage. There are all these layers that aren’t visible at the outset; you’re taking a leap that the synergy will hold. The third partner in this, of course, is the contractor. If all three bring a certain skill set and a complementary capacity to benefit from each other, that’s your best case. And I really feel we got the best case. To finish on time-ish, under budget, with a beautiful, functional space that amplifies the values: it makes you better than you are. It’s a home run.