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On the Job

Building better environments for learning

Architect Greg Smolley works on school projects, which includes trying to persuade the public change is needed. Architect Greg Smolley works on school projects, which includes trying to persuade the public change is needed. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Cindy Atoji Keene
Globe Correspondent / October 2, 2011

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Fix our nation’s schools, President Obama said last month, calling for federal funds to repair 35,000 aging schools.

Greg Smolley, principal with JCJ Architecture in Boston, knows that schools could use the help. For more than a decade, the architect has examined leaky roofs, dimly lit classrooms, poor ventilation systems, and overcrowded cafeterias and made the case for school modernization before building committees, school officials, and taxpayers.

Smolley has spearheaded such projects as the Glover Elementary School in Marblehead, Norton High School in Norton, and Elmer S. Bagnall Elementary School in Groveland. “An important precondition for learning,’’ he said, “includes a good facility.’’

You’re involved with the planning and design of a school. What does it take to go from conception to completion?

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. The ideal school should endure for 40 to 50 years while being flexible enough to adapt to education as it evolves .

What are the most rewarding and frustrating parts of your job?

It’s great to see kids’ faces when they go into a new building for the first time after being in a space desperately lacking so many features. It’s most frustrating when people come to a forum and hold an opinion without wanting to be informed. The quintessential example is a homeowner who just renovated the 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 comparison.

We’ve come a long way since the one-room schoolhouse. What are the latest changes?

Today’s school has a non-institutional feeling, with multipurpose rooms that foster a sense of community and allow technology upgrades; plenty of views outside and in; comfortable acoustics; and, of course, energy-efficiency. One of the best advances is 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.

How is it different from what you remember in school?

I went through the baby boomer era, and my junior high school was as antiquated as it could get, and remains that way to this day.

You’ve worked on a lot of projects. What’s your favorite?

That’s kind of like asking someone to pick their favorite child. It’s not possible to choose.