Marissa Dionne Mead
Svigals + Partners
Age: 40
Industry experience: 17 years

Designing schools to be safe in an era of gun violence doesn’t necessarily mean turning them into forbidding institutional fortresses. Architects that specialize in educational building projects are learning from some of the best practices pioneered by Svigals + Partners. Marissa Dionne Mead has spent 17 years as an architect with the New Haven firm, which designed the new Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown after the 2012 tragedy that killed 20 pupils and six staff members. Mead is putting her professional skills to work to support social justice initiatives as well, co-founding a group called Spring Forward that’s lobbying for more equitable zoning bylaws in Hamden.

Q: What are some focus areas of your work at Svigals + Partners?

A: When I graduated from college I went right to Svigals. I was working on a lot of public school projects, where I could be part of a team and we really were learning how to work with a community. School projects can be a lot of fun. They offer the community, if they’re done well, a number of benefits, and people who live nearby are excited about these projects. My first school project was the Columbus Family Academy in New Haven. After the project was finished, there was a shop owner who worked across the street and he came up to me and said, “Thank you so much for this building you made for our neighborhood,” and that was a memorable moment for me. [School construction] is a great way to connect with the students, so over the years in our school projects at Svigals, we tried to implement a “Kids Build” program where we engage the students and have them come visit the sites during construction.

Q: Svigals + Partners was selected by the town of Newtown to design the new Sandy Hook Elementary School following the 2012 mass shooting. In the past decade, how have school designs evolved to reflect security concerns?

A: From an architect’s perspective, many of the principles that were at the forefront when we were designing the Sandy Hook School were common principals that design professionals rely on in creative passive safety strategies. They’re not new. Crime prevention through environmental design is something that has existed in urban design and architecture design. The term was coined in the 1970s, but it certainly existed before that. Jane Jacobs was writing about it in the 1960s. It’s based upon the idea that crime is reduced or prevented when there’s a perceived risk of being seen and caught. It doesn’t just relocate crime, it suppresses crime all over. It’s all about natural surveillance, increasing eyes on the street when you can, being very mindful about access control with fencing or landscaping. The Sandy Hook Elementary School, for example, has only one driveway into the site and it’s very visible from the front of the building. It feels watched. Most designers go back to these principles. They can be done in beautiful ways that really enhance a school as a welcoming and inviting and accepting environment, in addition to strategies like bullet-proof glass, remote-locking doors and metal detectors. The best strategies are passive whenever possible.

Q: What was the firm’s approach for incorporating the community into the design process?

A: Dealing with the grief in the process for the design of the school was as important as the outcome. That was something that Svigals + Partners brought to the process at Sandy Hook. It was about bringing the community in very early on and asking them what they loved about their school, asking them what were their favorite memories. We have been contacted by other architects working on schools after tragedies about working with the community as a designer.

Q: You also operate a small design studio of your own, Atelier Cue. What’s the focus of that practice?

A: Fairly early in my career, I was working at Kent Bloomer Studio in New Haven, a shop that designs architectural ornaments. They do projects all over the country, and it was really an amazing experience that built upon my studies in furniture and sculpture. Atelier Cue is a studio I founded with one of my Bloomer Studio colleagues, who is also an architect. We both really value the ability to be hands-on and to make things, so the studio was an avenue for working on smaller projects where we could be part of the fabrication process and installation team. We fabricated a large custom chandelier for a hotel in Washington, D.C. and we’re working with a New Haven nonprofit, the Town Green District, on a facelift of a busy intersection downtown, adding light and color and crosswalk paintings and hopefully sculpture, at the intersection of Chapel and State streets.

Q: How many projects has Svigals + Partners completed with Hole in the Wall Camp in Ashford, the nonprofit founded by Paul Newman for seriously ill children?

A: We are currently working on our second project. The first in 2020-2021 was a new lodge and bunkhouses for their older campers and some staff. They needed to expand and provide more flexible accommodations for the older campers, and their goal was to maintain that campy vibe but also with a slightly more sophisticated look that would appeal to that older age group. While they were under construction, there was a large fire in another section and it completely destroyed one of the buildings, the arts-and-crafts building. We were honored to be brought in as the architect for the second project. We designed a replacement that brings back a lot of the character of the original building, but also is significantly improved in terms of functionality. It’s slightly larger, so houses a wood shop and a big kitchen zone and a caregiver area, and also a camp store.

Q: You’re active in your own community of Hamden on zoning reform and the role it can play in equitable development. What are the discussions on potential changes?

A: A couple of years ago, a neighbor and I became interested in learning a history of housing segregation. The town of Hamden is diverse but it’s somewhat segregated in some neighborhoods. What we learned is zoning all across the country, and in Connecticut, typically reinforced the racial segregation that was rampant in the early and mid-1900s. A lot of folks are working in this space trying to make change. Myself and probably a couple dozen other members [of Spring Forward] were responsible in contributing several housing and zoning reforms to the new administration, and it includes eliminating an exclusionary overlay zoning that applies to my neighborhood and prevents anything other than single-family homes on large lots. We also want to eliminate restrictions on development of multifamily housing in Hamden. It’s likely going to be part of a complete overhaul of the zoning that happens over the next year to two years.

Marissa’s Five Favorite Outdoor Lunch Spots in New Haven:

  1. The picnic tables and food trucks at Ingalls’ Ice Rink
  2. The front porch at Geronimo
  3. The patio at Harvest
  4. BYO at Orange Street between Center and Crown
  5. The parklet at Zeneli’s