Transforming Brutal into Beautiful

Winchester High School
Winchester, Massachusetts

How do you transform the brutal into the beautiful, the rigid into the flexible, the imposing into the inviting? These are the questions SMMA had to answer in its approach to renovating Winchester High School, an example of 1970s Brutalist architecture serving 1,370 students in a bedroom community situated approximately 20 minutes northwest of Boston.

SMMA's work began with a feasibility study that included a town-wide search for a suitable alternative to the existing high school site, focusing on 12 properties. Ultimately, the study determined that the current location was most suitable for a new school. This is not to say, however, that the site did not pose significant challenges. The land surrounding the facility had settled considerably—as much as three feet in some places!—and the school’s poor soils (having been built on a former landfill) and location within the Aberjona River floodplain were among the numerous constraints and considerations that had to be addressed prior to the commencement of work. 

The school’s rapidly deteriorating condition did not inspire belief that it could be saved, much less transformed. Despite this, and the knowledge that outdoor learning environments and parking would both be greatly affected, SMMA’s proposed use of lightweight materials, seismic bracings for the rigid concrete frame, chilled beam HVAC systems throughout, and increased glazing for daylight and aesthetics all inspired nearly unanimous town meeting support.

  • Architecture and Interior Design Services for Winchester High School Auditorium

Rejuvenation Through Rehabilitation

The decision was made to proceed with an occupied “gut rehab” of the existing building—only the reinforced concrete structure will remain in the academic wings, while other portions of the building will receive more modest renovations, with no disruption to student learning/schedules.

Architecture and Interior Design Services for Winchester High School Library

Laying It All Out

The new entry sequence involves locating administrative offices near the main entrance, for the supervision of comings and goings. Passing these offices, students and visitors will arrive at the large, day-lit dining common, the new light-filled heart of the school. Above, a glazed library/media center will look down on the dining common, becoming yet another source for natural light.

The new layout reverses the current configuration by locating classroom and student space on the perimeter, to gain natural light, with secondary classroom and support space placed in the core areas. Specific classroom “wings” correspond to different subjects, such as arts instruction or Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) learning.

The project, which opened for the start of the 2017-2018 school year, transforms the out-of-place aesthetic and poor learning environment to reflect the school’s top 10 status and National Blue Ribbon credentials.

  • Construction of New Winchester High School
  • Construction of New Winchester High School
  • Construction of New Winchester High School

The site design was complicated by the decision to “gut rehab” the existing building in three phases, all while being occupied by students. Additionally, no classroom swing space was available, requiring 35 modular classrooms to be placed on the site.

Permission to Proceed

SMMA’s site design team, comprising civil engineers and landscape architects, led the site permitting efforts and advanced the final design.

Toward the end of schematic design, the Winchester Education Facilities Planning and Building Committee and project team agreed to move up the Town override vote for the project, to shorten the schedule and reduce costs. This decision required the site permits to be completed within five months from the start of design development, so that early construction could begin six months from the vote.

Read more about the importance of permitting:

Keep Reading

Brutal to Beautiful

The school’s rapidly deteriorating condition did not inspire belief that it could be saved, much less transformed. Despite this, and the knowledge that outdoor learning environments and parking would both be greatly affected, SMMA’s proposed use of lightweight materials, seismic bracings for the rigid concrete frame, chilled beam HVAC systems throughout, and increased glazing for daylight and aesthetics all inspired nearly unanimous town meeting support.

SMMA transformed the 1970s Brutalist style school into a stronger, lighter, and more energy efficient building that is an asset to the community at large. The new school conveys in its built fabric the educational ideals of the faculty and elevates the status of it students by creating a superior environment for learning.