Miller Dyer Spears
- Written by: Neil Cote
- Produced by: Ian Nichols
- Estimated reading time: 5 mins
Architecture is more than aesthetics. It’s a service-oriented and relationship-driven profession that the Boston firm of Miller Dyer Spears takes to heart as it tackles projects for some of New England’s most prominent institutions. MDS specializes in institutions that, among other purposes, serve educational and health care needs, and must constantly be served in kind to address their ever-evolving challenges.
A good example is the historic Perkins School for the Blind, which needed a new building to accommodate the special educational, living and safety needs of its lower school students. MDS worked closely with staff in designing a 55,000-square-foot facility in the Boston suburb of Watertown.
With MDS’ expertise encompassing energy-efficient design, the three-story facility includes photo-voltaic arrays, a green roof, and daylighting with sunscreens and light shelves. It garnered LEED Gold certification and the verification of the Massachusetts Collaborative for High Performance Schools for sustainability and overall environmental friendliness.
MDS optimized design of the 55,000-square-foot classroom building to serve the needs of blind or visually-impaired children—some of whom may be afflicted with other disabilities—with careful choices of finish material textures, color palettes and easy-to-follow circulation patterns to facilitate the students’ day-to-day activities. Having a long history with the Perkins School, MDS is very familiar with the unique needs of the institution that once unleashed Helen Keller’s vast potential, and strives to do the same with all in its care.
“We have a broad understanding of what’s going on at that institution,” says MDS principal Myron Miller who earned his Master of Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1971 and has prepared many campus master plans over the course of 40-plus years in architecture and design.
“Our relationship with Perkins is typical of our relationships with all our clients. As new needs arise, we comprehend how they serve their students and how pedagogies are changing, so we’re ready to step in. We realize it’s an evolving institution.”
As are virtually all MDS clients.
In select company
Since its 1993 founding, MDS has carved out a substantial niche planning and designing the kinds of institutions that make Greater Boston a hub of innovation. Health care facilities, schools at all levels, nonprofits, cultural institutions and public agencies make up a very impressive clientele, not just in Greater Boston, but throughout Massachusetts and into abutting New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is world-renowned and constantly in need of upgrades to keep pace with advancements in treatment and care of the disease. Its primary locale, however, in Boston’s very congested Longwood section, just south of Fenway Park, makes any kind of major construction a challenge.
Well-versed in dealing with the Boston Planning and Development Agency, MDS has long helped Dana-Farber navigate what’s often a complex permitting process. For over a decade, the architectural firm has aided the 10-building, 1.3 million-square-foot campus in adapting existing infrastructure to modern uses, and placing new facilities in sites with tight constraints, the most conspicuous of which may be the Yawkey Center for Cancer Care.
Named after the late Boston Red Sox owners and philanthropists Tom and Jean Yawkey, the 13-story LEED Gold certified center creates a new institutional image and front door. Collaborating with the national architectural firm ZGF, that served as design architect, MDS led the pre-design planning and assisted in the overall design, winning plaudits in 2011 from professional associations including the Boston Society of Architects, IIDA New England, Build New England Awards and Modern Healthcare Design.
In a related project, MDS aided Dana-Farber in converting a former parking garage into administrative offices, lobbies, patient-service and research space, linked via footbridge to the new building. Razing and rebuilding might have been easier, but such options rarely are available to institutions in the heart of Boston with ever-busy and occupied facilities.
“Like the majority of our work, this was very challenging—more so than designing a new building from scratch,” says MDS principal Amy MacKrell. “The heavy concrete parking structure with low floor-to-ceiling heights, did not easily accommodate modern building systems. Also, the Jimmy Fund Pediatric Clinic occupies a suite within our project area and remained operational throughout construction.”
Still, there is a practical limit to just how much can be fit into Longwood. Its expansion opportunities limited, Dana-Farber leased space in a former Army warehouse on the Boston waterfront and entrusted MDS to redesign it into the new Harbor Campus. The facility includes an imaging center, animal research facility, cryogenic storage core facility and research lab, and is linked to the main campus by shuttle vehicles. It’s a Boston two-for, further enhancing Dana-Farber’s status in cancer research and treatment, and bringing a most desired development into South Boston.
MDS’ other health care clients include Harvard Medical School, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston Children’s Hospital and the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at UMass Amherst. Many other colleges in and around Boston have used MDS at some point.
Another test aced
With all the major projects MDS handles, the firm’s smaller-scale work may be easy to overlook, but its principals deem it no less important, especially when the futures of young people may be at stake.
Aware that children in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood endure challenges all too common in urban life, MDS implemented principles of Trauma Informed Design to create a peaceful, bucolic, supportive environment at Codman Academy Charter Public School.
MDS associate and director of sustainable design Nereyda Rodriguez explained that, “our design approach was inspired by the theme ‘A Walk in the Woods’ and borrows from nature’s soothing palettes and elements to bring out the best in budding minority scholars in need of a respite from the challenging and sometimes dangerous settings in their home neighborhoods.
“The executive director had a strong vision for the school that we tried to embrace with a healthy and welcoming environment.”
That essentially sums up MDS’ modus operandi. Whatever the project, the firm’s approach is crafted around an inclusive process to provide the best environment for the people who actually use it, taking into account the factors that make every project unique. Aesthetics and functionality share top priority, with the latter enhanced by MDS’ commitment to the continual evolution of energy-efficient design—something all clients seem to want today.
“The essence of giving good service is getting an in-depth understanding of each institution and how it works, and how each project fits in with the institution’s overall mission,” says Miller. “We’re proud of our record in that area.”
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