Lauren Levin, Step One’s Communications Manager, spoke to Kerstin and Andrew Fischer, project architects and parents of Step One alums Jimmy and Marie, about their work on the project. Thanks to them and to their wonderful colleague Charlie Stott, who also has personal connections to Step One and has made important contributions to the design.

What has your inspiration been for this project?


We were both enamored with the existing building. It’s ramshackle and funky, but also well-designed. It’s unpretentious, and it has that 50s optimism: a mid-century excitement about creating new forms that didn’t exist before. In architecture terms, we’d say that the school is a classic example of warm but rational Bay Area modernism. We love how you can see what all the buildings are doing. So we made our addition just as clear, with exposed structure, so you can see how the building works.


How has having your own children at Step One influenced the design?


We have ultimate trust of the methodology of the school, so we wanted to be good stewards of the building, and respect all the fantastic work going on inside with the teachers and kids. We had also had a good sense of the traffic patterns in the space through our observations as parents here. Seeing teachers carrying heavy trays of snack, we knew the kitchen needed to be closer to the classrooms! Step One has gotten a lot of mileage from the Fischers because we love the school and don’t want to see it in any other hands. We work hard on every project but this one is extra-special.


What, in your opinion, is the most vital change you are making?


The Studio, that big flex space. A new conference room and kitchen will be great, but we know what will happen in them, while the Studio holds all this amazing potential for large-scale projects of different types, group work, dancing....The potential of that space and how the teachers will use it creatively will be fascinating. The world will be their oyster in there.

What makes the design green?

That we are preserving so much of the existing building is the most green thing we could do. Throwing a good building on the garbage heap has a huge environmental impact, and is all too common, unfortunately.


What are you most excited about in the new design?


The teachers are the most important priority for Step One. We’re excited that the project gives them dedicated space. To relax, to create. We’re also excited about what is not going to change. This design preserves the experience that people associate with Step One: walking into the liveliness of the space, the playground, the beautiful outdoor space.


We are also excited that getting into the school and leaving the school will be a new experience, with comfortable, cozy places to pause and have a conversation, and additional safety measures so parents can really relax. Such an important part of the experience of Step One is having the social experience, the family-community connection. The teachers don’t want to shoo you out of school, but they have to for safety. We can’t wait to have the Gathering Plaza as a place to continue community-building conversations.


What are each of your favorite spots in 1) the new design and 2) the current school?


Kerstin Fischer: I’m excited for the Gathering Plaza and the entry sequence. There will be a sense of arrival at the school beginning on Spruce Street, not just when you’re already up the ramp, which will be a nice change for the procession of getting to school.


The best thing about Step One...well, even though I’m an architect and love space, I have to say the teachers. The space works well, but the teachers make it sing.

Andrew Fischer: I’m excited about some “addition by subtraction.” That is, getting rid of the kiosk in the middle of the playground. That kiosk building disturbs the teachers’ sightlines and, in my opinion, upsets the whole vibe in the playground. Opening it up will give a better sense of the vitality of the school and how the classrooms interact. I’m looking forward to that big breathing space!


As for the current school, I love the whole place! Something about the idea that the building was a public school in Berkeley really fits Step One. It’s a Berkeley institution, and it has that feeling to it, of a civic space.

"The Studio holds amazing potential for large-scale projects of different types, group work, the teachers use it creatively will be fascinating."

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499 Spruce Street

Berkeley CA 94708


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