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 twenty minutes northwest of Boston.

The directive from the Town of Winchester was to transform the out-of-place aesthetic and poor learning environment to reflect the school’s top ten Massachusetts public school status and National Blue Ribbon credentials.

Through a rigorous planning process, the project team sought to incorporate technology, STEM, and the arts (STEAM), accommodate differentiated learning, and co-locate classes to allow for integrated, applied learning and collaboration.

A Sinking Site

We began with a feasibility study that included a town-wide search for a suitable alternative to the existing site, focusing on 12 properties. 

Ultimately, the study determined that the current location was most suitable for the school. The site was ideally located in the middle of town, but it was also very difficult as it was built entirely on fill and surrounded by a floodplain. It required extraordinary bracing—via pressured injected footings, helical piles, and tilt slabs—to stiffen a massive concrete building frame and prevent settlement over time. 

This engineering process recently earned us a Bronze Award in Engineering Excellence.

  • Architecture and Interior Design Services for Winchester High School Auditorium

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.

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

Supporting the Curriculum

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.

We created critical adjacencies for STEAM (STEM plus the arts) programs: decades old shops, equipment, pedagogy and inflexible isolated rooms give way to multi-layered and connected programs.

Relocating key visual and performing art programs puts them within direct relationship to the new Innovation Lab area and forges new integrated programming opportunities.

Duct Weight Calculation

Winchester High School's ductwork systems were designed in three different materials—galvanized steel, aluminum, and carbon steel—each with different weights.

Aside from adding a parameter for materiality, we also added parameters of calculated value (duct surface area and total duct weight). The total weight of the ductwork has been reflected in the creation of one schedule per each material. The correct gage and weight of material from the SMACNA standards was then applied to calculate the equivalent diameter of each duct.

We concluded that the school used 85,430 lbs of galvanized steel, 3,522 lbs of aluminum, and 91,430 lbs of carbon steel. That's more than 5.5 miles of ductwork and 10.5 miles of piping!

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.