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With architects on board, school building project ramps up

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AYER/SHIRLEY — With owner’s project manager (OPM) Trip Elmore of Dore and Whittier Management Partners already on board and the feasibility study set to start, the last step in the first phase of the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District’s first major building project was to find the right architect. Now, that task has been accomplished.

At its meeting last Thursday night, the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District Building Committee introduced the architectural firm chosen to design the project: Symmes, Maini & McKee Associates, of Cambridge.

Chairman Scott Simmons said the ASRSD School Committee still had to approve the sub-committee’s choice and would most likely do so at its next meeting.

The school building project that the 15-member group was appointed to orchestrate and oversee is envisioned as a top-to-bottom makeover of Ayer-Shirley Regional High School, possibly with a new science and technology wing added. The 50-year old building is slated to be the district’s middle and high school when the renovation is done.

The Choice

A three-member sub-committee formed for the purpose picked SMMA from a final line-up of three candidates. But Simmons said the group had its eye on a different firm at first.

After reading through the three proposals “page by page,” they decided to forego interviews, Simmons said. But an attorney for the Massachusetts School Building Authority – which has approved the project concept and agreed to reimburse the district for a percentage of its cost – disagreed.

So interviews were conducted after all, and that made all the difference.

“We invited the candidates to come in,” Simmons said.

Superintendent Carl Mock had favored a firm with more “educational expertise” than the committee’s first choice but changed his mind after the interview. “They didn’t speak to this project,” he said.

The Selection Committee also switched its pick, voting unanimously for SMMA.

Simmons said SMMA was the only one of the three candidates to customize its pitch. Rather than generic written proposals and “dolled up” presentations, “they showed us their vision for this project,” he said. And the firm accepted his invitation for a site visit.

The other candidates “missed an opportunity” and he told them so, Simmons said. SMMA architects not only showed up, they asked to come early in the morning to observe traffic patterns and pedestrian flow from the parking lots into the building.

Presenting a fly-over view of the proposed project that included current layouts versus various re-do possibilities and sample sketches from the architect’s previous presentation, Simmons said the goal is to produce conservative, cost-effective plans that will enhance education as well as update the building, inside and out for the next 50 years.

Competitive Edge

Coupled with ongoing educational upgrades, a key goal of the project is to make the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District an attractive choice in an era of School Choice.

High choice-out numbers negatively impact school districts programmatically and financially, and the issue is one of the problems the project plan must address, Mock said.

It won’t be simple to re-do the 50-year old building for a lifespan as long as its history.

With multiple levels, several entries, assorted stairs, corridors branching in various directions and no single area identified as the heart of the school, re-designing the building space for two student groups – high school and middle school – will be a challenge, even if the project is more a renovation than a new build and whether or not a wing is added.

And the design team must tackle socio-educational issues as well as architectural ones. For example, which sectors will shared by both groups and which ones must be separate? Which structural elements are worth keeping versus those that must go?

And the plan must have universal appeal. In addition to staff and student ideas already gathered via sit-downs and surveys, the committee discussed future community forums – possibly in February – to get public input. Architects call such gatherings “charettes.”

Besides passing muster with MSBA and an extended community network that includes four schools and taxpayers in two towns, the final plan must translate ideas into structural designs.

According to Mock, it will need to be flexible enough to handle new and evolving teaching techniques and learning styles and curricular needs that don’t even exist yet, such as community-based programs and other off-campus options.

Spaces may be serve more than one purpose, for example, or morph into new uses as educational innovation and 21st century technology moves forward. “We have to change,” Mock said. “There’s no question about that.”

Chances are the obstacles may be as ubiquitous as the possibilities. But the architects seemed energized by the prospect.

“Our team is really excited,” said Executive VP and CEO Joel Seeley. “This is a complex but interesting building with lots of challenging problems to solve.”

Seeley was one of three SMMA architects who attended the recent meeting. The others were Senior VP and Institutional Practice Group Director Alex Pitkin and Educational Facility Planner Philip Poinelli, a principal in the 180 member, 57-year old firm.

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