Leominster, Massachusetts: Allencrest Community Center
The Allencrest Community Center in Leominster, Massachusetts is providing students with a rich learning environment while serving as a national model of community-based architecture. Leveraging a $400,000 grant from the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, the Leominster Housing Authority (LHA) partnered with an area vocational school and with Boston-based Abacus Architects + Planners to design and construct the facility. The quality of the design and the community partnerships that made the project possible helped earn the project the 2013 American Institute of Architects/HUD Secretary’s Award for Community-Informed Design.
For years, children living in LHA’s Allencrest Apartments spent their afternoons in a converted apartment where high school students and other volunteers would assist them with homework and provide individual attention. The Allencrest Learning Center was a quiet place for mentoring, tutoring, and doing homework, and it provided access to computers and other resources that students may not have had at home. An LHA-funded staffer managed the afterschool program, coordinating tutors and volunteers and developing a curriculum with teachers from the city’s school district.1
Although the learning center improved students’ academic performance, the small apartment was ill-equipped to meet the demand for the program from families in Allencrest and the surrounding neighborhood. The community needed a new facility to serve more children and ensure the center’s long-term success. In 2008, the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development gave LHA a $400,000 grant to construct a new building that would improve the quality of the center’s programs and expand its reach to children throughout Leominster, a working-class city of 41,000 residents. LHA partnered with the Leominster Center for Technical Education Innovation to provide vocational school students with invaluable real-world experience and help make the project financially feasible.2
Over the course of three years, Abacus Architects + Planners managed a design and development process rooted deep within the community. The resulting building reflects the project’s goal: a sustainable, multipurpose community learning space that functions with limited staffing.3
Located on the western edge of Allencrest Apartments, the center physically and socially connects the affordable housing complex to the surrounding neighborhood. The building’s design, with its barn-inspired form, respects the scale and proportion of the adjacent buildings. The 2,000-square-foot interior consists of a single, expansive space that can be arranged to accommodate small groups of students or up to 50 participants at community meetings. Carrel desks along the perimeter of the room allow for individual study or one-on-one tutoring. A semiprivate loft extends into the two-story building volume and a reading room below the loft can be left open to the larger space or enclosed with a sliding door. These subspaces within the larger room create a structured environment for the students and can be monitored by one adult — an important consideration in staffing and designing the facility.4
Another key consideration of the project’s designers was to minimize the center’s impact on the environment. The architects used several techniques to reduce the building’s energy demand, from careful site planning to integrating energy-saving technologies.5 In addition to a high-efficiency boiler that provides radiant floor heating, the center’s design makes use of passive solar energy. During cold winter months, double-height windows along the southern and western elevations maximize solar heat entering the building, and the thickened concrete slab stores heat energy from the sun.6 The roof overhang and a large deciduous tree shade the same exposures in the warm summer months.
A Community Building
The community center would not have been possible without the LHA’s partnership with the Leominster Center for Technical Education Innovation. The design originated from the drawings of drafting students and evolved through meetings with LHA staff and residents of the Allencrest Apartments. Over the course of two school years, 11th and 12th grade students studying to become carpenters, electricians, and plumbers constructed the center under the supervision of instructors, construction managers, and the architects. The project’s construction schedule accommodated the needs of the students, who split their time between the classroom and the building site. The partnership made the project financially feasible and provided dozens of students with hands-on experience. The students were a part of the design process from the earliest stages and were exposed to construction techniques and materials that are not used in typical class projects.7
The center’s construction has created a broad and diverse platform for community engagement. Dozens of local tradesmen volunteered their services, and building suppliers contributed steeply discounted materials to make up for shortfalls in the project budget. Many of the contributions came from graduates of the vocational school who wanted to support the institution that had prepared them for successful careers. As planned, the new facility has enabled the learning center to reach more students.8 Today, approximately 70 children from across the city participate in the center’s afterschool program, nearly doubling its size.9 From its early operations in a public housing apartment through its successful operations today, the center has thrived with the collaboration of housing agency staff, local educators, and hardworking students.
Interview with Eugene Cappocia, executive director, Leominster Housing Authority, 13 September 2013.
Interview with David Eisen and David Pollak, Abacus Architects + Planners, 23 September 2013.
Ibid; internal award documents provided by the American Institute of Architects.
Interview with David Eisen and David Pollak.
Internal award documents provided by the American Institute of Architects.
Interview with David Eisen and David Pollak.
Email correspondence with Margaret St-Laurent, Leominster Housing Authority, 27 September 2013.