Thinking Outside the Box

A Q&A with Phil Poinelli

SMMA’s Phil Poinelli recently sat down with The Huffington Post to discuss the firm’s successful integration of a center for senior citizens into the design of Swampscott High School. That interview is transcribed as follows.

Huffington Post: What inspired you to create this shared facility in Swampscott?

PP: The client had reserved a small amount of square footage for seniors, and when we finally got to meet with the seniors and understand what their program was, we realized there were a great many common themes to what the seniors wanted in the school and what was already going to be provided. We decided it was natural to pursue it further.

HP: How often do those conversations happen and how much do they actually help when it comes to conceptualizing something like this?

PP: Whenever you’re starting a design, you start with programming meetings—so we had already met with all of the teachers and some of the students to understand what the needs for the school were. We saw the Council on Aging as another constituent, so [we thought], “Let’s meet with them and understand what their needs are.” We met with the group and said, “There’s an awful lot of things we can do together.”

HP: How did you decide that this was the appropriate design for both facilities? What kind of overlaps were there?

PP: The seniors wanted autonomy and easy access. The location [of the center] was at the first-floor level—it’s a three story building. They needed to be able to arrive by automobile and get right in, and they didn’t want to conflict with the traffic patterns of the students. So that identified the location of the where it would be ideally situated. The types of spaces that we realized were going to be common were quite a few: [The seniors] identified that they have a very strong dance program—the school has a dance room. They have a very strong art program and wanted both an art room and kilns, and the high school was going to have two kilns that were only fired once a week—so why spend extra money? Just use their facility. It went on and on. They use the computer rooms, the use the music rooms, they use the large gymnasium, with a track in it for walking. Previously, the Council on Aging would bus seniors to a local mall to do their walking during the winter. Now, they do it right in the facility.

HP: So, in terms of what you’ve been doing throughout your career, how often is it that you have these different worlds, different generations colliding in this way?

PP: Not often enough, frankly. This is the only senior center that we’ve incorporated into a school. We’ve incorporated early childhood programs and daycare centers into high schools that serve both students and teachers. We’ve incorporated community college programs into schools. I wrote a book chapter on this subject called “Still Hoping for That Cradle-to-Grave High School.” Why aren’t schools that are a significant cost to communities serving those communities from what we call “cradle to grave”—from early childhood right through to teen centers and community college and senior centers? All too often, it’s not the case.

HP: Why is that not the case? Is it a funding thing? Is it an “ideas” problem—a disconnect with people in society thinking that this is something that can’t happen? Or is it the money—is it the dollar bottom line?

PP: I think it’s a little bit of both. They may be on different schedules—the state plays a big role in planning, and looks to design schools and not community facilities. We’re always encouraging that to happen, but it’s not always well-received.

HP: How are the residents responding to this? How are the high school students responding and how are the senior citizens?

PP: That’s the real success story of this project. The seniors were rather apprehensive, at first. They thought, “Am I going to get hurt walking down the hall with these big football players?” Well, in fact, it’s been a terrific program for all involved. The seniors have embraced the students—they’re teaching cooking and knitting, and veterans are participating in Veteran’s Day social studies classes and mentoring the sports team on citizenship. The students are teaching computer classes and how to program a cell phone and use other technology. There’s really a terrific relationship that’s developed and continues to grow, and I think it’s a huge success story for the community. 

HP: Final question: How hopeful are you that other communities will actually use this as a good example and try to replicate it?

PP: It’s a great project that could be replicated. It was very cost-effective to construct and actually to operate, as well, because it’s sharing the structure and systems of the school. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity and I really do hope other communities look to this as a model, because it can be replicated in many communities around the country.