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GLADSTONE, N.J. – Mark Biedron isn’t your average run-of-the-mill father. When he and wife Gretchen couldn’t find what they were looking for in a school for their first-born, they started their own.
Later, when it came time to start constructing classroom facilities, the founders’ beliefs in virtues-based education extended to the buildings themselves – so they asked their architects to build the greenest school building possible.
Click photo to enlargeAnd, they achieved their goal by relying on a mix of cutting-edge design and recycled materials, including stone reclaimed from several 19th-century buildings.
WALKING THE WALK
Mark Biedron has probably always been a little bit ahead of the curve when it comes to environmental awareness. However, his greatest success with The Willow School may be showing its students how to walk the walk when it comes to caring for the natural world.
Biedron began his working career in the family paint business, which specialized in low VOC (volatile organic compound) paints and coatings. After selling that to a well-known paint manufacturer and working in that firm’s marketing department, he and a friend began Solid Wood Construction LLC.
“We started making homes out of barns that were going to be destroyed,” he explains. “We’d save the barn, bring it to New Jersey, reconstruct it and make a house out of it.”
Gretchen Biedron’s background is as a learning-disabilities specialist, and as the couple’s oldest child approached school age, the parents didn’t see any programs that provided what they were seeking.
“There are a lot of great schools that specialize in different aspects of education in our area,” Mark Biedron says. “We didn’t see any one school doing the combination of things we thought could happen so we decided to found a school.”
The Biedrons base their school on three basic principles: mastery of language, joy of learning combined with academic excellence, and virtuous relationships between humans. It’s the last that led to the couple’s – and the school’s – approach to sustainability.
“We developed a core virtue curriculum where we study one virtue every month at the school,” Biedron explains. “When we started talking about ethical relationships human-to-human, it got us looking outside.Click photo to enlarge
“Contrary to what (Sir Francis) Bacon and (René) Descartes have been telling us about man versus nature, we believe we’re part of the natural systems, and our happiness is highly dependent on the happiness and well-being of the natural systems that surround us.
“If we’re going to be speaking about virtues to the children, we have to do it in the most virtuous and ethical habitat and we have to have an ethical relationship with our natural systems and our landscape,” he adds.
It’s from this perspective that the Biedrons began planning the first classroom building for The Willow School.
Located on a 34-acre site with mature landscaping and some wetlands, the couple committed to keeping the location as natural as possible. The original farmhouse and barn now house administration and library facilities, as well as mechanical systems.
To design the classroom building, the school hired Princeton, N.J.-based Farewell Mills Gatsch Architects. Firm principal Michael Farewell believes the choice came from reputation.