Friday, October 2, 2009
OMR chosen for CCHS Master Plan
A local architectural firm will be the CCHS Facilities Master Plan Committee’s partner in developing new directions for high school building improvements. On Wednesday, September 23, the committee members unanimously chose the Acton-based firm The Office of Michael Rosenfeld, or OMR, Inc., the same firm that designed the Beede Center and the recently completed Willard School in Concord.
Familiarity with the local community and commitment to the project were cited as factors that outweighed the larger staffs and national profiles of some competitors. In addition, the firm had presented a phased renovation/addition concept plan that appeared to provide a workable method for addressing most of the problems with the current building.
The decision was made after reviewing 13 proposals, of which four firms were invited to give presentations. Two of these, Perry Dean Rogers and Design Partnership, presented on Monday, September 21, and two, The S/L/A/M Cooperative and OMR on Wednesday, September 23. Immediately after the second set of presentations, the committee reconvened for discussion, and quickly centered on OMR as the right choice. Head architect Michael Rosenfeld, a Concord resident, was felt to have shown deep familiarity with the high school and its issues, and OMR’s presentation was judged to be the most in-depth and specific. In addition, several members of the Master Plan Committee had developed familiarity with the firm through collaboration on the Willard project.
OMR holistic and collaborative
In the presentation, Rosenfeld had introduced the team that would be dedicated to the project, and focused on his firm’s inclusive and collaborative decision-making. The company has 35 years experience, is made up of 28 individuals, and has completed over 300 projects. He pointed to the philosophy of “all is one;” that design should take a holistic approach that includes consideration of circulation and flow, natural lighting, and sustainability. He noted 75% of OMR architects are LEED-certified.
The presentation then turned to goals for the high school: transforming the old CCHS with new ideas encompassing the physical, social and emotional; advancing cutting-edge education; providing for community uses; maximizing flexibility; and crystallizing the new school vs. renovation/addition decision. Other tasks would include convincing two communities of the need to go ahead in tough economic times, proactive management of the process, and thinking strategically about sustainability. Several of the firm’s completed projects were displayed, demonstrating how a building could have “attitude,” how a renovation could bring natural lighting into classrooms, and how a high school in Newburyport could increase in size without raising concerns among close-by neighbors (see www.omr-architects.com for examples of the firm’s work).
Concept plan for phaseable renovation presented
Rosenfeld then introduced a concept for the high school building that he called an “all new phaseable renovation/addition” that would gradually move the school to a more compact floor plan. The concept would involve demolishing the eastern end of campus (L, S and I Buildings), to focus renovation on the current A and H buildings, cafeteria area and gyms. It would include new extensions into the courtyards, a second story over the H Building, a new auditorium where the upper gymnasium now rests, with a new field house in front.
Administration and guidance would be moved to the main entryway. An arts area would be located in the area of the current auditorium. Entering from the east (parking lot side) would take a student down a “Main Street spine” that would run through the arts area to a reading room, through a new student dining area, the administrative/guidance rooms and main entryway, and end at the field house. The spine would improve traffic flow, promote school community interaction, and provide an aesthetically pleasing environment using natural lighting and art display areas.
A second floor would be added to the H building to house the sciences, with more science areas by the gym. These classrooms would be sunlit through southern exposure, and a rooftop experimental garden could be incorporated. Entryways to the school would be limited to four or five, including the current main entry. The classrooms could be blocked off for public events. Parking could move to the area where buildings were demolished, with more parking off the Thoreau end of the driveway at a lower elevation out of sight, and staff parking could go behind the school.
Phasing of the project would “require a lot of discussion,” said Rosenfeld, but could be spread over four or five years, with perhaps five phases in all. At each step provisions would be made for continuing classes with minimum disruption. Initially, classrooms would stay much as they are now, with the flexibility to knock down walls to provide collaborative areas. In the end, the renovated school would be “vibrant in the way I hope a new school could be.”
Rosenfeld demurred on a question regarding costs, noting the concept plan would require more work before estimates are possible, but pointed to his firm’s experience working with communities to come up with financially viable proposals. For example, the Town of Longmeadow is currently considering two OMR-developed options, polished in four community forums, for renovating and adding to a 1950s high school building. “We educate the community, not just the committee,” said Rosenfeld.
OMR was architect for Lincoln-Sudbury High School, he continued, a project completed on-time and under budget, at a cost per square foot that won the firm a national award. However, the school was new construction, with the old school demolished upon completion, a course that is not currently under consideration at CCHS.
As a Concord voter himself, Rosenfeld knows many would view a plan for a whole new school with suspicion, wondering, “Have you explored other options?” The concept plan presented could be somewhat flexible in its phasing if funding became an issue, said Rosenfeld, but “It’s complicated.” Financial flexibility may be the key to moving the project forward. “I’d like to really see it happen,” he concluded.
Louis Salemy of the task force called the concept plan “brilliant” but wondered about protecting students during execution. “We do it all the time because we have to,” said Rosenfeld, pointing to Newburyport High School as a renovation project completed in a limited area while classes continued. Chair Mike Fitzgerald expressed concern there would be students “whose entire high school experience is dealing with plaster dust.” “I don’t want to be rude, but right now they have to be here,” countered Rosenfeld. “There are things about this learning environment that could be improved.” Science teacher Brian Miller wondered about fostering student-centered learning, and Rosenfeld spoke of the “sense of interconnectiveness of everything” and noted there is “a huge amount of education” in the form and function of a school.
Jerry Wedge thanked OMR for “an amazing amount of work. Responded Rosenfeld, “I care a lot about this community and this project. I want it to be successful.”
After leaving OMR and reconvening in the CCHS Library, the group discussed their impressions. Concord Selectman and architect Elise Woodward summarized the thoughts of many, saying each presenter seemed very skilled, but “OMR’s presentation contained a sincere conversation about goals and took us through the process,” including “methodology, cost tracking, and phasing.” She also noted, “A very strong differentiator was that this is a small firm in our community. This is a very large project for them.” Salemy was also convinced that Rosenfeld’s residing in Concord means “he has ownership and would put everything into it.”
John Flaherty was “very impressed” that OMR had successfully presented a “new old school” that would be transformative. Flaherty, who was familiar with OMR’s Lincoln-Sudbury High School was asked for an assessment of that outcome. He struggled for an answer, finally admitting, “There are some pros and cons.” Jerry Wedge reported that the design for Willard was “very thoughtful.”
A vote was taken to rank the four firms, with OMR gaining fourteen of the seventeen number one spots. Chair Mike Fitzgerald admitted he had voted for S/L/A/M, which had presented earlier, because he found it “more cutting edge.” Bill Tice agreed that S/L/A/M had “more creative technology ideas.” That firm had presented before OMR, offering three high-level concept plans without the detail in the OMR plan. S/L/A/M was the architect for Nashoba and Blackstone Valley High Schools, and, with over 200 employees, had displayed a wide range of projects nationwide.
Principal Peter Badalament was torn between the two firms. Earlier he had praised S/L/A/M, noting their “grasp of the issues,” analysis, and “really beautiful artwork.” Now he wondered how realistic their vision was, pointing to a proposed expensive new façade for the building as an expense the Massachusetts School Building Authority and local taxpayers would be unlikely to find necessary.
The two firms that presented Monday were not discussed Wednesday. Perry Dean Rogers presented several of their projects in the private sector, and suggested further conversation before coming up with a concept. Design Partnership was the architect for Acton-Boxborough, Hopkinton, and Reading High Schools. The firm presented several concept plans for renovation.
Creativity vs. community
Brian Miller was impressed that OMR “Put in work about our school” but said he had been dissatisfied with the response to his question about supporting new methods of learning. “I saw boxes” where interactive learning should be taking place. Wedge said the overlay of a later classroom configuration had been hastily removed and might have been missed.
Committee member John Boynton noted OMR has recently added creative people to its roster. In addition, “I think OMR brings a lot of community to table, and that outweighs the creative thing.” Salemy agreed, “Community things are a lot tougher.”
Superintendent Diana Rigby thought it was unrealistic to expect a design firm to tell educators how to teach in the 21st century. The goal should be flexibility. “Our education now is not cutting edge. I expect us to make changes and the building to respond.” She was confidant Rosenfeld would listen and incorporate what educators need. Miller agreed, “Teachers know better than architects what’s coming” in education.
Mike Fitzgerald announced he was willing to endorse OMR, noting the current school was innovative for its time, and “It wasn’t successful. Maybe it’s time to put a practical building on the site.” A vote was taken and OMR was approved unanimously. Reference checks and negotiations with the firm will take place before a contract is finalized. ∆
© 2009 The