Modernism with a Twist

The Lincoln School
Lincoln, MA


Located due west of Boston, the Town of Lincoln sought to reinvigorate and modernize their sole educational facility. Originally built in 1948, the school had been renovated several times over, but had not been updated since 1994. The aging school was unable to support modern learning and could not operate optimally. Following nearly a decade of attempts to receive state funding, the town opted to privately fund the project and engaged with SMMA to reimagine the school as a future-forward facility targeting Net-Zero Energy building standards.  

Our team worked in partnership with Philadelphia-based EwingCole, architects of the new Hanscom AFB Primary and Middle School for the district. The Hanscom school is located on the Hanscom Air Force Base supporting service member families and not the broader town. The project required significant coordination and collaboration between our architects, engineers, interior designers, and EwingCole to combine strategy with design to achieve community objectives, including those driven by Energy Conservation, site sustainability and building preservation. 

The Lincoln School is the first ever net zero energy school renovation in Massachusetts. Its design balances the need for a changing educational pedagogy and modern physical infrastructure with preserving the school's historic charm.
View of library and flexible learning space at Lincoln K-8 School


Lincoln and Modernism

Lincoln is home to a large number of architects, who initially flocked to the area following Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus and head of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.  The Town’s architecture is heavily influenced by its residents and their ties to the modernist design movement of the 1940s and 50s. 

When it came to exploring a new school design, the Town was vocal in its desire to preserve the original Modernist look of the building. “The community did not want to see the building torn down,” says Alex Pitkin, Project Director. “They valued the asset of the structure itself and the site itself. That was really important to be maintained, no matter how complicated it might be.”

The new design celebrates the original school’s Modernist ethos. The learning commons features ambitious daylighting and direct views to nature through both sides of the building, while the asymmetrical roof forms present a modern twist on traditional New England barn structures. Sun shading devices help control light and glare into classrooms and common spaces, while the school’s orientation accounts for passive solar heating.

Kids reading in the learning commons at Lincoln K-8 School in Massachusetts
The school is the only educational facility in the town and serves as the meeting place for town-wide forums. The community feels deeply connected to the site – it is not just a school but a cultural center as well. It was critical to them that certain design elements were maintained and respected. As such, there was significant community input that went into the visioning process. The proposed design for the additions and renovations to the school was the culmination of a year and a half of intense public planning and dialogue with the full community of Lincoln. 
Newly renovated auditorium at the Lincoln K-8 School in Lincoln, MA
View across plaza outside the Lincoln School in Lincoln, MA

Designing for Net-Zero

From the beginning, it was imperative that the school would be designed for Net-Zero Energy standards, with a goal of achieving a building EUI of 23 kBtu/sf/yr. Given that the fossil fuel-free school also serves the town as an emergency shelter, they sought to eliminate natural gas fuel systems for heating and cooking by designing a fully electric-operated kitchen. To achieve net-zero, the design incorporates a combination of high-efficiency mechanical, electrical, plumbing systems, including a 100% onsite solar PV roof and parking canopy system. The proposed design also includes significant work on the façade, requiring that all the brick be stripped off and wider foundations added to create space for deeper insulation for the rebuilt exterior walls and roof envelopes, to ensure that the mechanical systems function efficiently.

Outdoor Connections

The Town of Lincoln is mostly rural and over half the Town’s area is protected conservation land, with the school situated on a site that includes wetlands and open space connected to town-wide walking trails of significant natural beauty. Early in the visioning process, the community emphasized their belief that the site was significant to the educational campus, and students should be able to engage with the outdoors as part of their learning. To foster connections to the outdoors, our site designers worked to incorporate various interactive elements to the site, including access to an adjacent boardwalk that winds through the wetlands allowing for in-situ up close observation and science experimentation.  As well, the team designed exterior courtyards that function for both school and community use. Most classrooms have doors that open directly to the outside to further strengthen the children’s relationship to nature. 

As well, the large mature trees on the site were sacred to the community, and for those that required to be taken down, the team had to consult different planning boards and committees for review. The front Learning Commons courtyard incorporates wood and granite benches that are created from salvaged trees from the site and salvaged granite boulders from the Town.

Students playing with softy play toys on the plaza of the Lincoln K-8 School


Site Map of the Lincoln School in Lincoln, MA
Learning hub space outside classrooms at the Lincoln School in Massachusetts

A 21st Century Revision

The new plan seeks to bring modern educational planning through the inclusion of grade level, Neighborhood Learning Commons “Hubs” that are surrounded by classrooms for grades 3-8. The creation of a centralized core at a new main entrance helps to resolve longstanding challenges by better connecting the elementary and middle schools’ wings and is flanked by a media center, learning commons, and renovated space for a newly centralized dining commons with a consolidated full-service kitchen. This new center will connect administration, staff, and students and reduce travel time while serving as a design element that brings clarity to the floor plan and massing of the school.  

With the bulk of the new additions creating these newly centralized public spaces and by demolishing the older and less stylistically modernist facades, this provided an opportunity to unify the architecture and to honor the elegance of the original Smith and Brooks buildings.

Together, the three common spaces create a new heart for the school, forging a clear connection between the elementary and upper schools, while also creating an open space for the community.
Dining commons at the Lincoln K-8 School in Lincoln, MA
Lincoln K-8 School duct work HVAC
Lincoln K-8 duct work HVAC

Solving the Jigsaw

Our mechanical engineers were tasked with designing an integrated HVAC system that works for the existing buildings and the addition: an otherwise ordinary task for our integrated firm made complicated by limited ceiling height, new and existing steelwork, acoustical requirements, plumbing, and electrical needs, as well as Net Zero targeting and historic preservation goals.

To develop a system that works with the architectural vision and meets the specific needs of a multi-use early education facility, it was paramount that the systems were created with flexibility in mind. The engineers opted to use a Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) system to make efficient use of the limited ceiling height by reducing ductwork, while benefitting from its reduced size which allows the duct system to thread through the building more easily. Additionally, it helps to achieve greater energy efficiency through a heat pump system that allows for the regeneration of heating and cooling throughout the building.