Out with the Old, In with the New

Phelps Elementary School
Rockland, MA

Rockland Public Schools’ elementary school students had long been divided between three aging facilities across the district: Esten, Memorial Park, and Jefferson Elementary. Each school was in varying stages of decline and experienced complications ranging from unusable entryways, lack of fire protection, and outdated electrical systems. After SMMA’s thorough exploration of possible renovations and sites for a new school, the district decided to construct a new school on the old Memorial Park Elementary School site, right next door to the district’s middle/high school complex.

The new Phelps Elementary School will support next generation learning and replace the district’s three outdated elementary schools. The two-story, 120,000 sf consolidated school will accommodate all students in grades 1-4 under a single roof and include a new lighted turf field on the site for Rockland youth sports. 

Rockland Public Schools Site Plan

Adjusting a Complex Process

The new two-story building replaces the aging Jefferson and Memorial Park Elementary Schools. The Jefferson School will be taken down and the land will be cleared and turned over to the Parks Department as part of a land swap. The Memorial Park School will be removed to make room for the new school and field, and the former Esten school will be transformed into an early childhood center that will house all kindergarten students district wide. As one can imagine, the permitting process for schools is rigorous and requires working to ensure that the project plans comply with local standards for land use, zoning, and construction. There are added challenges when a new school will be constructed on the site of the pre-existing facility that is to be replaced, and the land from the previous schools is in the shuffle.


To navigate these changes during the COVID-19 pandemic, SMMA transitioned to meeting with groups like the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Planning Board, and the Conservation Commission virtually. In these meetings, our team utilized digital presentations and screensharing to make the permitting process as seamless as possible while working remotely. Our team found that the digital presentations allowed more information to be included than before and provided more opportunities to answer questions which has helped to streamline the permitting process. Additionally, these meetings have helped maintain engagement with the community and kept the public informed during the remote review process.

Phelps Elementary site map

A Unique Footprint

SMMA’s design creates a distinctive overall geometry for the school with five wings protruding from the building’s core. This modular floor plan creates “pods” for each grade, where four classrooms are grouped in a neighborhood of rooms and feed into a common area that serves as a shared learning environment. The core of the school includes a gymnasium, servery, and cafeteria, as well as makerspaces, a media center, and classrooms for music and the arts all enveloping an enclosed outdoor courtyard.

These spaces will accommodate modern curricula and emphasize science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics (STEAM) education, as well as the district’s commitment to special education.

Learning through Design

While the exterior of the building embraces simple contemporary design, the interiors explore vibrant bursts of color and youthful design elements. Blues, yellows, and greens run throughout the school and are included in the various interactive environmental graphics that explore nature, music, community, and imagination. These graphics are designed to pique the students’ curiosity with interactive elements such as magnetic letters, dry erase maps, unique seating, and sensory items.


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Phelps Elementary School Environmental Graphics Music Wall
Phelps elementary school structural engineering

Ensuring Structural Soundness

The proposed design features five wings that extend from the building’s center, posing a challenge for SMMA’s structural engineers, tasked with ensuring that the unique geometry of the building is seismically sound. When a building’s shape is irregular, ensuring that it meets modern building codes becomes more complicated. While New England rarely experiences earthquakes, SMMA’s structural engineers implemented several tactics to meet code requirements and ensure the safety of the building’s occupants. One major tactic was to incorporate a seismic isolation joint following the western wall of the courtyard to effectively create two structurally separate buildings. With the joint, each section can better move independently and will not fail at an inherently weak location.

When there is a complex geometry, the building code requires the use of a structural model that uses a semi-rigid diaphragm to determine how the force will be distributed to the elements of the seismic force-resisting system. With this advanced computer-based analysis, our engineers can locate braces where they will be most effective in resisting the motions of an earthquake. This results in an efficient design that creates open spaces within the building.

Less is More

Normally a school like Phelps Elementary would have an energy recovery unit (ERU) for each classroom pod, the admin area, cafeteria, gym, and custodial spaces for a total of seven or eight units. Instead, SMMA’s team was able to design a system that uses two larger units with a ring duct that distributes air to all the spaces throughout the school. This consolidated system allows diversification of the ventilation block load by considering that the same person cannot be in the gym, cafeteria, media center, and classroom at the same time.  A reduced number of units comes with inherent advantages, including less structure, less roof screens, more PV area, and less maintenance, all for the cost of additional ductwork in the corridors. Additionally, each unit can cover more than half of the peak building load, which means they also have partial redundancy enough to cover the minimum building ventilation– a luxury more commonly found in labs or hospitals, but in this case will result in lower costs for the school.

Phelps Elementary Ring Duct System