Spatial Design, 18 - 36 months, 36 months - 6 years

Penn State Child Care Center at Hort Woods: Case Study by studioMLA Architects

Michael Lindstrom of studioMLA Architects 22 February 2024

Sustainable Child Care Center

Location: State College, PA, United States
Architect: studioMLA Architects

Completion: 2011

Photography by Howard Doughty

Situated on the edge of the last remaining untouched site at historic Hort Woods, the Penn State Child Care Center serves the children of the Penn State community, as well as the University’s families, faculty, staff, and students. This center acts as an instructional resource for the Department of Education and other departments involved in child development. The 21,500 SF south-facing LEED Platinum-certified construction was designed with a highly collaborative, integrated approach in mind. The early learning center demonstrates the explicit connections between design, education, biophilia, and the environment. The project showcases how sustainable design can have a direct impact on students.

“Our spaces are designed specifically for children. Everyone is really surprised at the beauty and aesthetic of the space.”

Misty Woods, Program Specialist at Hort Woods

Site Plan of Penn State Child Care Center at Hort Woods

Project Goals

The Penn State Child Care Center at Hort Woods was designed to meet three key goals. First, the University wanted a space that would connect children with nature and support a biophilia-infused, child-centered curriculum. Second, there was a strong desire to create a campus entry that would heal the old edge of Horts Wood and reflect the University’s commitment to sustainability on campus. Finally, the space was designed to develop a means for integrating sustainable design and nature through education for young children, students, and academic researchers and to support learning about environmental stewardship through exploration.

Before and after images of the Penn State Child Care Center. After photography by Howard Doughty Photography.

The Space

By integrating the building into the woodland edge, the project created a wide variety of outdoor spaces. The zones, which are defined in terms of form, climate, materiality, plantings, and opportunities for different activities, all enhance the children’s experience of their environment. The building placement also marks the campus entry with careful attention to scale, materials, and opportunities for playfulness appropriate to children.

Photography by Howard Doughty

The brick, copper, and painted aluminum structure houses two floors of child care spaces. The first floor includes five classrooms for infants and toddlers, a multipurpose area called the “imaginarium,” an atelier, a library, and outdoor patios. The second floor includes five additional classrooms for preschool children, family gathering areas, and a library space. Additionally, three distinct nature-based outdoor learning spaces intentionally reinforce the building’s sustainable themes to help educate the young children who play there daily. The indoor and outdoor spaces work seamlessly together to reconnect children to nature by creating tangible links between sustainable design, curriculum, and children’s everyday experiences.

Photography by Howard Doughty

Photography by studioMLA Architects


With the project’s emphasis on sustainability, the Center incorporates many sustainable features, and provides opportunities for these features to be integrated into the curriculum.

1. Natural ventilation (view diagram below to see how the system works)

Within the Center, the children and staff work together in order to activate the natural ventilation system. Outdoor sensors notify the staff of ideal conditions for passive cooling, allowing them the opportunity to open the large sliding windows on the northern facade. The children and teachers then work together to open the classroom spaces for ventilation. When the classroom ventilation is initiated, the destratification fans and transom windows on the south side operate, initiating cross-ventilation throughout the building. The children can visually experience the system working when they see the ‘whirligigs’ begin to move within the space.

2. Sustainable and recyclable materials

We sourced a combination of reusable materials found on-site (i.e., bricks to make a walkway path outside) and sustainable materials (i.e., bamboo and cork) for construction. Using sustainable materials is not only better for the environment, but also allows opportunities for the teachers to integrate it in their curriculum. For example, the students can learn not only about the look and feel of cork but also its geography, how it's harvested sustainably, and its inherent qualities.

3. Rainwater collection

A 6,000-gallon cistern located on-site collects rainwater from the road, which then gets recirculated back towards the building and is used as greywater for the toilet system.

Additionally, rainwater is redirected to the outside barrels along the building's edge at the play spaces through the use of rain chains. The children can use the collected water to water plants or create a temporary brook in a special streambed. The simple technique not only makes for integrated architecture but allows for the children to become part of the sustainability process.

4. Natural sunlight

Natural sunlight is harvested throughout the building to minimize the need for artificial lighting, and copper light shelves are utilized to control solar input.

By having fewer artificial lights, the Center generates less heat and electricity. This allows for the use of a smaller, more efficient air conditioning system, which saves both money and resources for the University.

Photography by Howard Doughty

Conclusion and Lessons Learned


The careful integration of building and landscape can improve children’s environment of both:

  • Siting the building consciously amongst the landscape can be beneficial to its systems. In this case the building was carefully nestled amongst the trees, which helped in both natural shading and cooling.
  • The landscape can provide a variety of natural materials (i.e., leaves, fruit, seed pods) to inspire children’s activities and play.
  • The landscape (a certified pollinator habitat) can attract insects, birds, and other animals that enhance children’s learning and play experiences.
  • The footprint of the building as it is integrated on the site, can help to carve out distinct and special outdoor spaces.
  • The building can be laid out internally to provide transitional spaces which can encourage greater engagement with the outdoors. This can be done through the use of key viewpoints, terraces & decks, skylights, or even spaces which open up to allow the outside in.

For more information on studioMLA Architects, visit their website