HMFH Architects Awarded Project of Distinction

Concord, N.H. — With it’s colorful array of innovative and forward-thinking designs, Cambridge-based HMFH Architects was recently awarded a Project of Distinction Award from the Council of Education Facility Planners International (CEFPI) for their work on three elementary schools in Concord, N.H.
Considered exceptional and inspiring design by CEFPI, Abbot-Downing Elementary School, Christa McAuliffe Elementary School and Mill Brook Primary School were awarded Project of Distinction at the annual Northeast Region CEPI Exhibition of School Planning and Architecture. This year’s conference theme was educational renaissance.
“The layout is very different from most elementary schools and I think the jury saw that and wanted to bring that to other people’s recognition,” said Laura Wernick, AIA, LEED, senior principal at HMFH Architects and project director for the Concord elementary school projects. “This is a different way for schools to be organized that supports new thinking about how learning should take place in schools.”
The layout of each school is very much the same with the heart of each school being the multifunctioning learning commons. The learning commons of each school are situated in the center and surrounded by classrooms, which also have windows looking out into the corridor. The flexible facility includes spaces for group discussion, wet or messy projects, multimedia, amphitheater, story-telling, a book room, small project room and a reading nook for quiet, individual learning.
The deconstruction of the traditional library was the initial inspiration for the design, Wernick said.
“The idea is that instead of everyone going to a single library to do all these activities, let’s bring the libraries to the classrooms,” Wernick said. “This evolved over time into what became known as a learning commons.”
The firm relied upon the collaboration with the schools’ teachers and administrators in providing the most modern and inspiring educational designs to Concord area children. The design centered around three visionary ideas, which included that spaces should support collaborative learning; collaborative spaces should be easily accessible by faculty and students to integrate them into the day-to-day learning experience; and the spaces needed to provide a variety of flexible environments to support a range of learning activities.
“They saw that learning was happening in different ways,” Wernick said of the teachers and administrators of the schools. “They saw that technology was impacting how learning took place and they saw the library, and all the activities that took place there, as being too remote from the classrooms.”
The learning commons allows for a multitude of functions, from individual learning to whole grade levels coming together to collaborate on a project. This flexibility speaks to the educational theory that every child is different and requires different experiences in order to engage with their learning, Wernick said.
In designing the learning commons, HMFH paid special attention to the usage of natural light, provided quality acoustics and utilized different colors and patterns in the design to encourage creativity.
“At my firm we also believe very strongly that color and pattern and texture engage students because it helps make the space special,” Wernick said. “A place that’s colorful, has unusual patterns and images, and unusual special forms can help to inspire creativity in both the teachers and students while giving them a different way of thinking about problem solving.”
Acoustics are also essential to the design, Wernick said, because it is crucial that young children hear every word in instruction because it is more difficult for young students to gain context if they miss words.
The creative design of the learning commons at the three Concord, N.H. schools speaks to the mission of the areas educators and their emphasis on collaborative, inclusive and creative learning.
“If students are in a creative place they understand creativity is OK,” Wernick said. “When you’re sitting in rows in a very plain box space then you’re not being taught that creativity is fun, it’s part of life and it’s part of learning.”