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School architect creates productive learning environments for students

By Cindy Atoji Keene

Fix our nation’s schools, said President Obama earlier this month, calling for federal funds to repair 35,000 aging schools nationwide through the jobs bill. This call to action is nothing new for architect Greg Smolley who has been on the frontline of modernization for tomorrow’s schools for over a decade, pleading the cause for much-needed K-12 upgrades in front of building committees, officials, and taxpayers. Leaky roofs, dimly lit classrooms, poor ventilation systems, overcrowded cafeterias: the list of disrepair can go on and on, said Smolley, a principal with JCJ Architecture in Boston. “An important precondition for learning includes a good facility,” said Smolley, who said just the simple steps of adding more sunlight and improving air quality have been proven to boost student achievement.

Today’s students are more technology-driven, self-expressive, and connected than any prior generation, so 21st century schools need to be designed to complement these evolving learning styles, said Smolley, who has spearheaded such projects as the Glover Elementary School (Marblehead), Norton High School (Norton) and Elmer S. Bagnall Elementary School (Groveland), among others. A former municipal director in several towns, Smolley isn’t fazed by the many players – parents, administrators, town agencies, and committees – who need to come to a consensus on cost estimate and design plans before groundbreaking even begins. And of course, the students, who will request everything from a library located at the top of a tree to hallways shaped like a strand of DNA, doubling as a teaching tool.

Q: You’re often involved with the planning and design of a school, from feasibility studies, down to final paint colors. What does it take to go from conception to completion?
A: Generally it takes about a year to complete the programming and design of a building, and another year or two for construction. A school has to reflect the feelings that a community has about itself and its approach to educating students. There is the reality of physical space, the budget to build it, and the ability to manage and operate it afterwards. We take all the ideas and pare them down to what will actually work. The ideal school should endure for the next 40-50 years while being flexible enough to adapt to education as it evolves in the next few decades.

Q: What’s the most rewarding and frustrating part of your job?

A: It’s great to see kids faces when they go into a new building for the first time after being in a space that’s desperately lacking so many features. But it’s most frustrating when people come to a public forum and hold an opinion without wanting to be informed. The quintessential example is a homeowner who just renovated their house and wants to know, “Why does a school have to cost so much – I just fixed my house for X number of dollars?” It’s not a fair cost comparison.

Q: We’ve come a long way since the one-room schoolhouse. What are the latest changes?
A: Today’s school has a non-institutional feeling, with multi-purpose rooms that foster a sense of community and allow technology upgrades; plenty of views outside and in; comfortable acoustics; and of course, energy-efficiency, using energy, water and other resources efficiency. One of the best advances is in school furniture, which used to be screwed to the floor. But kids don’t sit still, and now furniture can rock back or forth, or bounce around with them. There’s even a desk that you can stand up at.

Q: How is it different from what you remember in school?
A: I remember my school days very well. I went through the baby boomer era, and my junior high school was an antiquated as it could get, and remains that way to this day.

Q: You’ve worked on a lot of education projects. What’s your favorite?
A: That’s kind of like asking someone to pick their favorite child. It’s not possible to choose.

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