Designing for a New District

Ayer Shirley Regional High School
Ayer, Massachusetts

The towns of Ayer and Shirley along Massachusetts' northern border came together to form a new District, sharing resources to help maintain a critical enrollment mass. To further elevate the District’s educational culture, SMMA’s design team opted to transform an antiquated 145,000 sf 1960s-era high school by completely reinventing the building layout. The idea was to challenge the notion of using simple renovations to achieve client goals:

“How can we remake a school from a bygone era to inspire teachers, engage students, and embrace the two communities?”


The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) had initially prescribed a combined middle and high school to increase its total population. SMMA convinced the communities to rethink this logic by thoroughly analyzing the physical attributes of the building, and then conducting a master plan of the District’s entire portfolio of schools. The final solution took the original 1960 building, which housed over 1,000 students, and converted it into a new high school designed for only 495 students.

  • Ayer Shirley Regional High School Floor layout option 1
  • Ayer Shirley Regional High School Floor layout option 2
  • Ayer Shirley Regional High School Floor layout option 3
3D design rendering of high school floor plan at Ayer Shirley High School

Connection Through the Commons

The heart of the building’s reinvention involved infilling the existing courtyard to establish a centralized learning commons. This new gathering space is directly connected to the arts and technology disciplines on one side, while still joined with the school’s commons cafeteria on the other. The high school’s new structure establishes open and free-flowing corridors throughout, enabling access to all major facilities such as a large gymnasium, auditorium, media center, and TV studio.

A Cost-Saving Campus

By treating the site as a campus, open pathways and connections are formed between all grade levels. Understanding the building’s physical attributes and their potential impacts on learning was key in supporting a modern 21st century pedagogy. The comprehensive solution saved the state and communities over $20 million.

Staying Connected

The new layout aims to maximize student-teacher interactions and meaningfully joins previously separated departments, such as its STEAM, the arts, and humanities classrooms. It incorporates a variety of spaces such as teacher planning centers, small group rooms, two types of large classrooms, and mobile furniture systems. Corridor and commons amphitheater-style spaces prompt student socialization and foster the concept of learning anywhere, anytime. The refreshed program places integration and collaboration at the forefront of the school’s daily curriculum.

Inspiring a Community

Ayer Shirley’s main entrance, formerly a loading dock and service court, now faces a redesigned parking lot. The new entryway establishes a celebratory plaza complete with a canopy and outdoor learning and dining spaces. Additionally, a sculpture court allows for students to express themselves artistically.

The building’s materials help bring the outside in through lightweight metal panels and new fenestration. These not only conserve energy, but they maximize daylight in its interior promoting wellness and an outdoor connection. Skylights also provide natural daylighting at strategic points throughout the building, including the second-floor art rooms overlooking the learning commons.

Sketch of exterior to Ayer Shirley Regional High School in Ayer, MA

A Phased Project

The phasing of the new high school was complex and challenging. The school remained operational while different areas were demolished and renovated. For the HVAC systems, a close-knit and innovative system of ductwork was developed in collaboration among SMMA architects and engineers using BIM technology. This integrated design team overcame an extremely complex structural and climate control system, ultimately arriving at a scheme in which end-user comfort is balanced with efficient energy conservation.