Just two years ago, students at Manchester Memorial Elementary School walked every day into a tired, woefully outdated building that broke ground in 1951. On Wednesday, their first day of school, they’ll enter brand new, $52.2 million, 77,000-sf building designed for the next 50 years.
All told, it’s the biggest construction project Manchester or Essex has seen since building the ME Regional High School nearly 20 years ago. The project navigated considerable challenges posed by site location, not to mention a global pandemic, and yet the building has come in both on time, and slightly under budget.
Now that’s something.
“Every time I’m here I find something new to appreciate,” said Pam Beaudoin, ME Regional School District superintendent. With four years of planning, coordination, and construction, it’s nearly done. “It’s worth the wait,” she said.
For the Memorial School Building Committee, there were challenges and opportunities. Safety and security requirements. The challenge of how to be creative about space. Then there were the practical realities of working within budget constraints, logistics, optimizing state grant money to lessen the burden to taxpayers, and working within considerable environmental restrictions that came with the building site on Lincoln Street.
The old Memorial School was a large, single-story building. For all its limitations, the old building was awash in sunlight, and the team wanted to incorporate that in the new design. They also wanted to lean into the site’s surroundings—the immediate brook and marsh, and beyond it, the ocean.
The building’s brick façade was designed to tie in with the middle and high school across Lincoln Street, to give a campus feel. Inside, it’s large and light and feels like nature. There are lots of windows and natural wood. And the color scheme is all about the sea—greens and blues, like sea glass.
“The innovative building is a major milestone for the town, reflecting leadership in creating a cutting-edge public structure,” said Massachusetts Sen. Bruce Tarr, and early and strong supporter.
Dore & Whittier Management was hired as the owner’s representative on the complex project. JCJ Architecture headed up design. W.T. Rich Company was the construction company. All three specialize in educational building design and construction.
The biggest challenge was a universal one the design team faced, and that was how to design a school for the next 50 years when the future of technology and how children will be educated is largely unknown, said the new Memorial School’s lead architect, Lauren Braren with JCJ Architecture. Will there be libraries and books?
Maybe. What form will teaching technology take in ten years? Who knows?
Because of this, the building was designed for extreme flexibility, with spaces that can morph easily from one function to another. It’s a necessity of a school’s design today.
“The institutional knowledge was with the whole team was just amazing,” said Adam Zaiger, a real estate attorney and a member of the Building Committee.
The other major design challenge was utterly unique to the Memorial School project: the site.
The building site immediately abuts a range of protected wetlands, and is less than 500 feet from the Lincoln Street municipal well, which provides 40 percent of Manchester’s public water supply and its most sensitive environmental resource area (Manchester’s “Zone 1” watershed protection area).
In 2019, the Manchester Conservation Commission green lit the Memorial School Building Committee’s plan, provided a series of conditions were met to successfully work so close to the 100-foot wetland buffer of the MassDEP and Manchester’s own, stricter wetlands buffers—the 50-foot “No Build Zone” buffer and the 30-foot “No Disturb Zone.”
It was a challenge, but one that was overcome by embracing science and working together. In the end, ConCom Chairman Steve Gang even suggested having access to the wetlands for educational use. Beaudoin said it’s an idea the school “is certainly going to pursue.”
One of the environmental elements of construction is a massive underground “stormwater runoff capture” system. It is roughly the size of the school’s parking lot located immediately off the entrance, along the brook and Lincoln Street walking bridge. The recapture system will collect rain and melting snow from the impervious paved lot and playground and hold it, allowing it to naturally absorb into the ground over time. When completed this fall, it won’t be seen but its presence will be mighty. It’s an advanced technology, according to Jon Rich of W.T. Rich Company. And it was expensive, but worth it.
Despite its scale, and despite the pandemic, the project has gone smoothly. It’s likely due to the building committee’s deep bench of experience. Annie Cameron of Essex, and Manchester’s Sarah Creighton are both veterans of the ME School Committee, regionalization and the ME Middle High School construction project.
Others on the committee are Andy Oldeman, a mechanical engineer at a global engineering firm; Gordon Brewster (engineer); George Scharffe (large industrial electrical company partner); Tyler Virden (construction project manager); Remko Breuker (building designer); and Adam Zaiger (attorney).
And of course, there is Avi Urbas, the Manchester Essex Regional School District’s director of finance and operations. He and Beaudoin worked with the committee as the “voice of the District.”
“The project team has been very, very strong,” said Avi. “By the time we’re involved, we already had great information.”
The new memorial School is larger than its predecessor, but not dramatically. In fact, the two-story structure actually sits on a smaller footprint than the 66,773-sf former school, and it’s designed to be dramatically efficient. Rooms and sections easily morph based on how they’re used, and areas can be combined for larger needs. There are “project rooms,” and “maker labs” that can be converted to classrooms if a bigger-than-anticipated grade, like the Class of 2022 was when it entered the district.
Technology is everywhere, with internet ports and state of the art presentation tech. And security is integrated with tech and simple design. The extensive windows and light, for instance, ensure visibility and site lines. The long entrance walkway is lined with administrative offices, which is key to ID’ing visitors. There are also cameras throughout, and invisible lockdown management systems.
The thought that went into space is clever. The entry lobby serves as a hub space that can be used for gatherings or presentations. This hub connects to the cafeteria, which is connected to the gymnasium with a moveable wall on one side. The team nicknamed this the “café-gym-a-torium,” that can be used by the community for events, elections, or forums. Then, finally, another wall of the cafeteria opens to an outdoor playground and seating area, enabling outside dining—all designed before COVID.
In the end, Braren said the constraints became a design element.
The building committee didn’t want temporary classrooms during construction. It was expensive and they didn’t want to disrupt the students. So, construction logistics were like a complex government deployment, with students in 2019-2020 attending classes in half of the old structure while W.T. Rich Company began the new, two-story academic building. Last school year, the process flipped, and construction of the other half of the school began. The last bits of the old school finally came down last month.
The Massachusetts School Building Authority is the agency that dictates the new school’s capacity and awards grants. Of the $52.2 million total budget, Urbas said, the local assessment is expected to come in at just under $40 million after the district receive up to $12.2 million in MSBA grants. An additional two percent giveback from the design’s expected LEED certification is also expected, but that would come after the school has been in operation for about one year.
Final site work and new hardscape areas are going on now. The stormwater runoff system is going in, the dedicated parent drop-off/pick-up area, a dedicated bus loops, three playground areas (called “playscapes”) including one with a basketball court. By January, 2022, it will all be done. Then, after four long years, it’s break time for the building committee and school district officials. Now, they get to watch kids enjoy their new digs.