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Renovation: From Fitness Gym to Preschool

Updated: Aug 27, 2020

My first professional project was a LARGE undertaking. Our children's preschool, SoulShine Schools, was opening a second location a few miles from their first one in Decatur, GA. The owner, Shannon, had become a good friend over the years and she knew I was contemplating a career shift from advertising to interior design. When she offered that I run the project of designing the school and project managing it's open, I didn't hesitate. It was terrifying to leave the industry I'd known but this project combined so many things for me: kids, sustainability, gardening, design, project management, that I jumped right in!

Did I mention I also needed to retrofit the Kirkwood location during this buildout of the space? I wanted to ensure the overall brand felt as cohesive as possible, the Kirkwood location was in 2 residential type homes, this made the spaces themselves feel very different.


The leased space was previously a 14,000+ square foot fitness gym, I actually used to have a membership there. We had a wonderful architect and contractor to create the foundation of the space and help us get through all the permitting and safety requirements (which as you can imagine are large) needed for a school. With those elements taken care of, my job was to bring Shannon's vision of a preschool to life and fill the new school with all the appropriate supplies, furniture and decor suitable for an eco-focused preschool.

Immediately it proved challenging to source commercially available, sustainable products. I worked with Shannon to come up with some rules on what types of materials we did and didn't want in the school. Where possible we wanted to avoid man-made materials that use toxins, pesticides, and petroleum to produce. We wanted to use natural materials made from fast growing plants or repurposed materials like recycled polyester. We also wanted to support like minded businesses who were doing good in their communities. Some certifications we looked for in vendors: USDA Certified Organic, or does it meet the NSF/ANSI 305 Guidelines for products made with organic ingredients, FSC Certified (Forest Stewardship Council) wood, Certified organic, Made in the USA, Cruelty free, BPA free, Vegan, B-Corp, 1% and Fair Trade.


Natural Pod Play arch
Natural Pod Play Arch

We were fortunate to find a great partner in Natural Pod, who spatially laid out the classrooms by age for us with foundational furniture such as table and benches. Community Playthings provided us with classroom dividers, gates & creative center units. Ikea was our source for the schools textiles and staff room furnishings.


The school's curriculum centers on permaculture, focusing on ecosystems of our region, this inspired me to bring the natural world inside as much as possible. The way I interpreted this was to choose neutral colors that would allow the children's artwork and the plants to be the focus of the space. Below is a break out of this came to life starting from the ground up:

Floors: The floors were concrete, and I wanted something a little softer for the children should they fall, but not carpet since that can get gross with kids! I chose a vinyl faux wood flooring that added warmth and some squish. While it was hard to source sustainably for this, it was the best choice for the school.

Walls: The paint within the schools was all Sherwin Williams low VOC. The walls are Creme (SW7556), in eggshell so they'd clean easily but not be super shiny. The ceilings in the hallways are Aviary Blue to (SW6778) to emulate the sky and the trim is Tansy Green (SW6424) for the trees.

Decor: SoulShine has such a cool, hippie, eclectic vibe I wanted to make sure that wasn't lost in the schools. I added art lines to hang the children's artwork and hired a brother & sister team, Brooke & Spencer Ussery, to hand design all the signage in the schools & event the alphabet cards hanging in the classrooms. I had custom boards made for circle time, to show the date, weather & activities but they ended up not working great for the teachers. Shannon the owner sourced the new ones in these pictures!

At Kirkwood, we painted the walkway with flowers but left quite a few "unpainted" so the kids could color them in with chalk.

custom diaper changing area
WIP of Custom diaper changing table Changing Area

Cabinets & Counters: We had the cabinets custom made by our contractor. I love supporting local businesses and they did fantastic work. The classroom cabinets were custom because we wanted the height to work with the ages of the children & be functional for each need. We used Formica® countertops, Elemental Concrete 8830, as their product is sustainable and easier upkeep in a childcare setting than natural stone.

Between two of the infant rooms, I actually co-designed a changing space that helped us keep classroom space for the children to crawl but provided a shared space for the staff to change the babies & store diapering items.


I really wanted the school to be used for the many needs of the school. I had the builder create two custom outdoor classrooms. I thought the kids could use the space to play house when they are out there, and it also could be used for story time or lessons. PS (playgrounds always look so sad without kids on them:)

The after school program makes homemade items like balms, ornaments, a planted herbs & they have monthly markets to sell the items with proceeds going to local charities. The market unit I designed to hold their items has a little window for the children to sell out of. Secretly this is a space I would've loved as a child.

children's market shelving unit
SoulShine Children's Market

Overall it was a whirlwind project that allowed me to learn SO much! I am FOREVER grateful to Shannon for taking the chance on me for this project and allowing me to help her bring her schools vision to life. To know that children for years to come will grow up and learn in a space I designed is an amazing feeling. I promise to take chances on others to pay it forward!

The school has been open for almost FOUR years, and has evolved into the coolest space. Shannon has found additional decor for the children & teachers that truly finished off the schools. Check out both schools today below! Photo credits: Nate Dorn & Cameron Hart.

SoulShine Schools Decatur

SoulShine Schools Kirkwood

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