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Growing up in Mexico, Montserrat Fonseca remembers wandering through fields of corn on her grandfather’s farm.

“We’d take a trek through the farm and go into the cornfields. The corn stalks grew so tall around us, it was so amazing. They were much taller than I was at the time,” Fonseca said. “I can still kind of smell it.”

Now in her last year as a master’s candidate in the School of Architecture and Portland State University, she believes her experience immersed in nature as a girl is a key to solving the nature gap: the lost sense of connection with nature that exacerbates a variety of problems for young children learning how to navigate the world.

“The goal is to have kids learn about gardening and how to harvest food to cook and feed themselves. I'm really wanting to incorporate a connection with nature,” Fonseca said. She calls the project the Living Education Center, and intends to serve students in kindergarten to eighth grade.

By returning nature to a place of importance in the design of a school—in the sense of its architecture and its programs, what students actually learn—Fonseca believes she can address health issues like diabetes, social problems like bullying, food insecurity, perhaps even instill the kind of empathy for life that would restore nature to a place of respect.

“I feel like a lot of that comes through a loss of that sense of connection and a sense of bonding with animals can help them calm themselves,” Fonseca said.

To restore the connection with nature, Fonseca will rely on biomimicry and biophilia to inform her design. Biomimicry will inspire her structure—like the shape of a leaf or the shell of an armadillo. “Biophilia design is more focused in terms of mental health design and wellness,” Fonseca said. “So it's getting incorporated natural light or green space, making sure that there's plenty of green space in those natural elements.”

Easier said than done. Throughout the Cleantech Challenge and her thesis—Living Education Center is part of Fonseca’s capstone project and will accompany her the the end of her program at Portland State University—Fonseca has grappled with technical challenges and design revisions that have led her to develop not one but three prototypes. Each will represent a different design concept for Living Education Center.

“During this process with my ideas, I've really been considering what I want it to look like, focusing a lot on the structure and what materials I would like to utilize for that, which still incorporates natural sunlight and allows children to be comfortable in their environment and also allows for visual accessibility,” Fonseca said. “So there's been a lot of considerations along with that.”

The designs incorporate a number of sustainable concepts. A curved roof that protects interior spaces from the elements will also act as a water flow catchment system. With the rain it catches, Fonseca will feed other elements, for example, a garden. The designs include a green roof with skylights to pass light through to lower levels.

And the building will also be surrounded with glass to maximize natural light and access to natural spaces.

“I really don't want there to be any solid interior spaces where you can't have that access to see out,” Fonseca said. “But I do want things to be adjustable so you can have slats that close up and create darker spaces for having that quiet space or more serene interior.”

Designed to mimic the appearance of a caterpillar walking on a leaf, Fonseca’s approach to architecture is inspired by an imaginative adaptation of nature, concepts known as biomimicry and biophilia.

If successful, Fonseca hopes to build Living Education Center as a school in the Portland Public Schools system at an old site on Fern Hill Park in Portland’s northeast neighborhood.

“It's really amazing and a unique school that I'm trying to develop,” Fonseca said. “It's a new idea incorporating biophilia and biomimicry within design and really trying to show the world an example of what a prototype could be for a school that incorporates those concepts.”

Monserrat Fonseca is a master’s candidate at the Portland State University School of Architecture. This is her final year.

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