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Updated: June 27, 2022 Focus on Architecture & Construction

Central Massachusetts’ new architectural legacy

photo | COURTESY OF LPA | Architects In updating the Hanover Theatre, LPA | Architects had to preserve its historic feel with modern touches for new audiences and performances.

For generations, Central Massachusetts has been known for its historic mill buildings, classic three-decker houses, and local architectural icons like Union Station, with its marble flooring and stained-glass.

But today, there’s room for new, contemporary designs in the region, as well as homages to what’s already there.

Local architects who design in Worcester and the surrounding areas said so much of what’s being built in the region in the current age is focused on sustainability. Materials are being sourced from nearby, and more eco-friendly products like wood timbers are replacing steel columns and beams as high-interest pieces.

photo | COURTESY OF LPA | architects
LPA seeks contemporary designs for its schools, including Worcester's South High Community School.

At the same time, there’s an emphasis on enhancing what existing buildings already have to offer. Some of the area’s older, brick-clad structures are getting outfitted with modern extensions. There’s a balance between maintaining a building’s historical integrity and adding upon it with more sustainable materials.

“Architecture reflects culture. I take that as a positive thing,” said Katie Crockett, president of Worcester-based LPA | Architects. “It’s not ignoring the past. It’s still a celebration of a historic building, which is so, so important, but it’s a new design coming forward, reflecting our time today.”

Residential construction

A big focus in residential construction is making a building’s ground level more pedestrian-friendly, said Jeremy Baldwin, architect with Maugel DeStefano Architects in Harvard. In Boston, it’s pretty common to see an apartment complex with a retail or restaurant tenant on the ground level. Residents at the Ink Block Apartments in the South End, for example, can take advantage of a downstairs Whole Foods.

Putting street-fronting amenities, whether it’s a retail store or even a gym, on the ground floor of a multifamily building can make it more inviting.

“If you have a seven-story building right up against a street front, that can feel very stark and like a wall. So, how do you articulate that streetfront, and bring down the scale? You do it with different material at that level, or if there’s a bump-in or bump back, or maybe we’ll do some pergolas,” he said. “We do it in a way that’s more inviting to people to really come and sit and enjoy that space right in front of the building.”

Boston, Baldwin said, is a prime example, especially in the Seaport District, where there’s a clean slate.

“They’ll put in a canopy, and that draws your eye towards the ground floor, and allows people to be more engaged with the streetfront and the building,” he said.

Maugel DeStefano did this at the Wachusett Brew Yard at the Worcester Public Market, which has big windows, outdoor seating, and high ceilings once you’re inside. Baldwin said he’s incorporating those accessible outdoor principles into a new 421-unit residential structure in the works for 274 Franklin St. in Worcester.

Down the pipeline, Central Massachusetts could start to see the results of some national housing trends starting to gain traction. One of those is 3D printed homes, where components made out of concrete are 3D printed and then assembled, said Scott Richardson, principal and cofounder at Hopkinton-based Gorman Richardson Lewis Architects. Builders still need to do the interior work, but the whole exterior can be assembled in about 27 hours, he said.

photo | COURTESY OF maugel destefano architects
Maugel DeStefano Architects tried to infuse an artist atmosphere in the design of The Kiln housing development in Worcester.

Richardson said he has noticed an overall movement towards smaller homes, including so-called tiny houses.

“You’re certainly going to see a lot more tiny house development in California or Colorado, but I’ve talked to several people who recently bought houses in the area who say, ‘All these houses are too big. We don’t need 3,000 square feet for our family,’” he said. “Are people going to trend back to 600 or 700 square feet? Probably not. But I think we’re going to see a trend for smaller houses, and these can tend to be pre-fabricated and/or 3D printed construction.”

Sustainable materials

About a decade ago, the trend in building sustainability was LEED sustainability certification. But today, architects are focused on reducing a building’s carbon footprint as much as possible, Baldwin said.

Passive House certification is more of the focus today, especially in Massachusetts, where the Mass Save program offers training. Passive House is all about creating a stronger envelope for a building, including insulation and air tightness, high-performance glazing, and simplified mechanical systems for lower energy use.

About a decade ago, sustainability was trendy, Baldwin said. But today, it’s a given.

“Now everybody’s doing it,” he said. “You can’t find a manufacturer out there that doesn’t show how their product is sustainable. It just comes with the territory now.”

Climate legislation at the federal, state, and local levels are huge influences on architecture today, Crockett said. LPA | Architects is working on the new Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester, which started the design stage around the same time the city was pushing its Green Worcester Sustainability and Resilience Strategic Plan, an initiative emphasizing lowering carbon footprint.

“We went through an extensive process to study ways to limit the amount of fossil fuels being used on the site. It’s emphasizing electrification, and hand in hand with that is finding ways to generate energy on the site – in this case, photovoltaics,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of really interesting approaches to reducing energy usage and increasing the amount of on-site energy generation. That might be something that people wouldn't necessarily look at a building and discern, but it’s an enormous industry.”

Being sustainable means sourcing nearby materials, Richardson said. A lot of the glazing systems used by Gorman Richardson Lewis come from Connecticut, brick comes from Pennsylvania, granite is sourced from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and wood comes from Canada and Maine. As a material, wood has been especially popular recently, for its durability and sustainability, Richardson said. Bamboo is used as an interior material for cabinets and drawers.

“We’re still designing as energy-efficient a project as possible, using better materials, better insulation, hopefully some natural ventilation and hopefully some more local materials as well,” he said.

Bringing something new to something old

The new Doherty Memorial High School structure will have a clean, contemporary look with metal panels, brick, and a huge format burgundy tile looking like it’s slicing the building in half. The wall of the cafeteria is decked out with a giant world map next to an illustration of Massachusetts and a symbol indicating the location of Worcester. It’s printed digitally, which means it can be changed over time, Crockett said.

The bright colors and modern techniques are quite a contrast from the 1960s building sitting across the way.

“It’s sitting on a hillside right next to the 1960 version of Doherty, which has a very economical, low-slung, straightforward design,” Crockett said. “It’s a contrast. In the 1960s, that was cutting edge.”

Massachusetts, a state with countless old mill buildings, is no stranger to revamping or reconstructing historical structures. Plenty of former manufacturing plants have been converted into apartments or multifamily units across New England. But when it comes to working with old buildings, the trick is to replicate their beauty with more sustainable and modern materials.

Katie Crockett,president of LPA | Architects

For example, in 2016, LPA | Architects completed an extension on the Shrewsbury Public Library. The library, which was built in 1903, needed some upgrades, although Crockett said many town residents wondered aloud at the time if they even still needed a central place to read in the digital age. Still, surveys found a need for a place where kids could go for story hour, and where meetings could be held in a public space.

LPA added a 32,000-square-foot extension, with a technology learning center, public computer stations, a multi-purpose room and commons area, and a climate-controlled history room. The expansion was a success, and Crockett said it actually increased library membership. It plays into a trend Crockett said she’s noticed since COVID: People want places to gather, and they want spaces that cater to mental well-being.

“The use of libraries continues, because people need a place to meet,” she said. “Some of them have carved out quiet places, where people can come for reflection. We see a big interest in well-being, in sort of a comprehensive, physical, mental kind of way, and it’s becoming an interest in terms of facilities we’re designing.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a lot of emphasis on copying Worcester’s traditional building style of brick, industrial-esque buildings, decades after the production age had ended, Crockett said. Today, she sees more contemporary structures.

But still, for a historic structure, like the Shrewsbury library or the Hanover Theatre and Conservatory for the Performing Arts in Worcester, there are ways to upgrade them to make them relevant today.

“They have this historic piece to them, and a legacy and a connection to the community in the architecture,” Crockett said. “Finding a way to take these jewel boxes and finding how do you make them relevant today without shooting them off to be an archival space that you have to get a key to enter.”

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