Perspectives August 1, 2019

The Transcendent Detail in Billerica Memorial High School

By Jeff Brussel and Patrick Cunningham
The school’s commons finds its identity by connecting river to town and sky to ground

The Transcendent Detail Competition is an annual firmwide competition that provides a platform to showcase the best technical design work produced by Perkins&Will. The focus of the competition is on a detail or collection of details that solve a design problem displaying both technical adroitness and beauty. The Billerica Memorial High School team was proud to enter this competition with a design solution that embodied the values of the firm at large, gathering expertise from our in-house experts, consultants, construction manager/subcontractors, owners project manager, and working as a team to produce a unique, beautiful solution to a challenging problem.

Billerica Memorial High School is a new high school constructed under the auspices of the Massachusetts School Building Authority at a cost of $172 million. It’s located in the historic Town of Billerica (just north of Boston)—a town with a long history extending back to the Revolutionary War, which garners great local pride. The town’s history has evolved from being an agricultural center through manufacturing and transportation in the 19th century to currently having a strong, forward-thinking technology presence.

Just like the town itself, Billerica Memorial High School has a long history of making things and is always a strong competitor in the robotics competitions that are held statewide. The programmatic vision for the school was one that married this history of making with an interest in sharing the experience of learning, such that pedagogical spaces favor openness and transparency.

Architecture of the school
The town’s character is expressed through an architecture of inventive craft and workmanship.

The building site is northwest of the Town Commons, and midway in the topographical stepping of the commons down to the Concord River. The school was conceived to take advantage of this change in the site section by integrating the lower and upper levels of the school through a Dining Commons atrium space, a spatial device that organizes the school both in plan and section. Due to the site orientation, the Dining Commons atrium is positioned on the north side of the building, and though open to the outside through the large windows to the north, would benefit greatly from natural light provided by a series of skylights located above.

Like many of the spaces in the high school, the Dining Commons had multiple roles to fulfill, due largely to the limited amount of space available. It is the “Town Commons” of the school, where staff and students co-mingle at all times of the day; it is where meals are taken; it is the arrival space for those students arriving from the north; it’s a pre-function space for the Gym. These demands required a high degree of acoustic tempering but also an abundance of natural light and visual drama appropriate to the central organizing space of the school. That these multiple demands were made in the central space of the project informed the solution that singularly incorporated all of them, and more.

Skylight diagram
Beautiful details often come from a synergy between poetic and pragmatic necessities

The need for natural light in the atrium space had a companion need, that of an atrium exhaust system as required by the International Building Code. The design team saw this as an opportunity to combine the two into a single entity, creating rooftop monitors with perforated metal panels that would bounce light deep into the atrium space while simultaneously acting to evacuate rising smoke in case of a fire. By aligning the exhaust fans along the length of the skylight monitors, the design was able to avoid the potential of plug holing, whereby exhaust gases are displaced by fresh air due to their excessive concentration about a single point of exhaust.

Section Detail
The integration of skylight and exhaust plenum explored in a rendered section.

The detail language of the skylight monitors is one that marries function with a material honesty of expression and process. The monitors are lined with 1/4-inch metal plate, painted white and perforated on the exhaust side, and set against the wood laminated structural beams. This metal plate mirrors that used as guardrails along the edges of the atrium space and are held in place by exposed fasteners organized about the spacing of the roof windows above and the north curtain wall mullions beyond, consistent with the dual themes of making and process that informed the design throughout the school.

The synthesis of the dual need to reflect light and exhaust deadly gases has its parallel in the programmatic desire to showcase the act of making with the need for focused study and reflection. These values are embodied not just in the treatment and detailing of architectural elements, but in the school at large and the greater history of the community to which it is a part.

The act of making and that of focused, reflective study is one that we find reflected in our own environment here at Perkins&Will, and perhaps was telling in its synthesis at a skylight monitor over a high school dining commons, fulfilling so many other roles as it focused on a single code mandate.

detail of skylights
A balance of dynamic directional light and pragmatic indirect light illuminate the school commons.