This New School

Aug. 1, 2005
The path from a proposal to a finished facility is an arduous but rewarding journey for education administrators.

On the day a new school building opens, the facility is filled with smiles. Students from kindergarten to college age are happy to be the first ones to sit in the chairs, tap at the new computer keyboards or pour a solution into new test tubes. Teachers and professors are just as excited to have a new space and modern equipment that will help them instruct students more effectively. Maintenance workers and other staff members grin as they examine the new fixtures and equipment designed to work better and make their jobs easier.

But for the school administrators and architects who guide education construction projects from concept to reality, opening day is not so much a beginning as it is the end of a grueling marathon. A school or university must establish the need for a new building, convince its constituents and the school community of the need, find funding, choose a site, find a designer and a contractor, address environmental issues, deal with weather delays and negotiate change orders, among other things. By the time the desks, chairs and other furniture are hauled into place on the eve of a building's unveiling, administrators may be too exhausted to manage a smile.

All across the United States, schools and universities are spending billions of dollars erecting facilities. In some developing areas, the population growth has forced school districts to come up with more classroom space to accommodate new students; in more established areas, the inadequacy and deterioration of older facilities has led school systems to replace those sagging schoolhouses with new structures; elsewhere, changing educational and social needs compel schools to provide new and different spaces — universities that need suite-style residence halls with amenities that modern college students demand, or school districts adding wings to existing buildings to accommodate preschool programs or full-day kindergarten.

With thorough planning, the cooperation and understanding of the entire school community, and the diligence of a design team and construction workers, the prolonged process of creating a new school facility can be successful and rewarding for everyone involved.

Community process

As school officials in the Medford Township (N.J.) district began to address their facility needs a few years back, they made sure they included all elements of the community in the process.

“We had a collaborative effort from day one,” says Joseph Del Rossi, superintendent of the district. “We sought as much input as we could get.”

The district had to address growing enrollment, but the feedback from constituents convinced administrators that it was important to maintain the concept of neighborhood schools.

As a result, the school system decided to increase the number of elementary schools. It would build two new elementary schools and convert an existing elementary to a sixth-grade building so those students could have an educational setting separate from seventh- and eighth-grade children.

Finding the money

In Westwood, Mass., time was of the essence in 2000 when district officials asked voters to approve a $36 million plan to replace the town's aging high school. Officials were trying to get a package approved before it lost out on an opportunity to receive substantial reimbursement from the state. Voters okayed the package, and Westwood's project was the last one to qualify for the reimbursement program before the state changed the facility funding system, says Edward Kazanjian, assistant superintendent of Westwood schools. Massachusetts provided 59 percent of the $36 million cost. The district was to construct a new high school and renovate a separate building that contained a gymnasium and swimming pool.

Subsequently, the project hit a snag; a miscalculation regarding the size of the gymnasium and pool building resulted in the district underestimating the cost of the project. It needed another $5 million to proceed.

“We had to fire the architect because of the miscalculations and bring in a new architect,” says Kazanjian.

Because of the error, the district had to ask voters to authorize additional spending, “We decided to go back and add more to the bond issue,” says Kazanjian, such as a synthetic surface for the district's athletic field. Voters approved an extra $8 million in spending in 2003.

However, the district's hopes of opening the new high school in fall 2003 would not be possible. It was not until February 2005 that the district was able to overcome enough of the construction obstacles to move into the new high school. Meanwhile, Kazanjian and other district officials are waiting impatiently for contractors to complete the renovation of the gym and pool building.

The right site

In Westwood, site selection was simple — the district decided to build on the existing high school site. When the University of North Texas (UNT) in Denton wanted to build a new residence hall, it also had its eye on a tract of land that the school already owned. The large expanse of land was just south of the main campus on the other side of Interstate 35. There was just one problem — someone else was using it. Years before, the university had leased the property to developers, who built a Radisson Hotel and a golf course called Eagle Point.

As university officials began to consider other ways to solve their space crunch, the developers of Eagle Point approached them with a proposition — please take this golf course off our hands. Eagle Point hadn't been doing the business the developers had hoped. Eagle Point needed golfers to play 40,000 rounds each year for the course to be profitable. About 26,000 rounds were played in 1999, and by 2002, the number had plummeted to less than 17,000 rounds.

“There were too many golf courses in the area, and Eagle Point was not as profitable as expected,” says Peter Giglio, university architect at UNT. “So we were able to negotiate a deal to take back the golf course and reduce the rent. It was a godsend.”

In fall 2004, the school opened Victory Hall, a 600-capacity residence hall, on what is now known as UNT's Eagle Point campus.

Even when a proposed school site seems ideal, problems can crop up. In Westwood, a lawsuit over preservation of wetlands near the site of the new high school contributed to construction delays. Residents contended that the school construction was approved too hastily without making sure that nearby wetlands were protected. “Ultimately, that was resolved in the school's favor,” says Kazanjian.

Other regulations — local, federal and state — can cause construction to bog down. Often, schools have to deal with issues involving endangered species or burial sites as their construction project progresses. While building new school facilities in Medford Township, Bryan McGair, assistant superintendent for finance and support services, says the district had to deal with agencies such as the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“The layers of bureaucracy don't move as quickly as they should,” says McGair.

Unavoidable obstacles

When all else is going right, there's always the weather to mess up a construction schedule. To an administrator aiming to open a new school on time, rain is an unwelcome intruder. As Medford officials pushed to have their two elementary schools finished in time to open in 2004, administrators anxiously monitored the daily weather reports.

“We just kept at it day in and day out, and worked our way through [the heavy rains],” says McGair.

But all that was forgotten (almost) by September 2004 when Medford administrators and teachers welcomed students for the first time to Kirby's Mill Elementary School and Chairville Elementary School.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

Medford Township (N.J.) School District, Chairville Elementary and Kirby's Mill Elementary

The Medford Township (N.J.) School District, in an effort to address growing enrollment and still allow its students to attend neighborhood schools, opened two new facilities for the 2004-05 year. Chairville Elementary and Kirby's Mill Elementary have nearly identical designs and were built to have an initial capacity of 500 each.

“This is a 45-square-mile district, and much of it is undeveloped,” says Bryan McGair, assistant superintendent for finance and support services.

The district serves about 3,050 students from preschool through eighth grades. Each of the schools has three wings — one for grades 4 and 5; one for grades 2 and 3; and one for preschool, kindergarten and first grade. Each wing has a large skylight shaped as a circle, square or triangle to help students and visitors identify the wing.

The core facilities of each building were sized to accommodate 650 students, and design of the building will allow the wings to be expanded if needed. “The end of each wing is not brick, so we can go back easily if we need to do an expansion,” says superintendent Joseph Del Rossi.

Funding for the two schools came from a $48 million bond referendum in 2001, which also included funds for a new transportation center. The state of New Jersey contributed $10 million to the construction projects.

As administrators put together plans for the schools, they sought input from students, parents, teachers and the entire community.

Each building has a geothermal system to heat and cool the facility, which is expected to reduce the district's energy consumption and require less maintenance over its life. The district also had an eye toward reducing long-term maintenance when it decided the school's walls would be polished block.

“They never have to be painted,” says McGair. “That's a big maintenance expense you never have to deal with.”

Each school's phone system runs on the school's Internet connections using voice over Internet protocol (VoIP).

The heating and cooling system was designed to avoid potential acoustical problems that can occur with noisy equipment.

“The noise level is low because the ductwork is in the ceiling of the hallways,” says McGair. “All you have in the classrooms are the return vents in the ceiling. We learned from previous work in other buildings the importance of minimizing noise in the classroom.”

To add visual appeal, the school's instrumental band area and art rooms have glass walls so that parents and others can observe students' projects and performances.

“We are proud of the students' art,” says Del Rossi. “The glass wall lets you see the students in action, and you get to view their artwork.”

To bolster security, the principal's office at each school has a 270-degree view of the parking lot and student drop-off area. The buildings also are equipped with an access-control system and a security system that will enable school officials to lock down the buildings in case of an emergency.

Initially, each school was to be the same size — 64,000 square feet. But during the planning, Medford Township approached the district about the community's recreation needs.

“The township wanted a full-size gym,” says Del Rossi. “So they paid $300,000, and we built a bigger gym at Kirby's Mill.”

Kirby's Mill ended up having 66,000 square feet.

By opening two elementary schools, the district was able to convert an existing elementary school, Haines, to a facility for sixth graders, who had been housed with older students in the middle school.

“We believed the sixth-graders didn't fit well in the same building with grades 7 and 8,” says McGair. “We made Haines a sixth-grade center and put in a walkway to connect it to the 7-8 building. We retrofitted the bathrooms, lockers and science labs, and had the bus loop reconfigured to make it safer for middle-school students.”

University of Hawaii at Hilo, Classroom Building

Some 20 years had passed since a major construction project had taken place at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

But as enrollment at the university grew, officials didn't have the facilities to handle the additional wave of students. About 3,300 students attend the school, and officials hope to see that number grow to 5,000 in the next several years.

One of the first steps in addressing those expansion goals can be seen by anyone arriving at the main entrance to the campus. The University Classroom Building, formally dedicated by the university in 2003, became the first new major building on campus in two decades.

“It sets a standard for what we want to have on the rest of the campus,” says Loli Chih, the university's director of facility planning and construction. “I think people are very proud of it. The people who are not in there want to be in there.”

The $19 million facility was designed to become the “signature building” on the Hilo campus.

The 85,000-square-foot building includes a 150-seat lecture hall; six multimedia, tiered classrooms with distance-education capabilities; seven classroom/teaching labs; five computer/electronic classrooms; and more than 60 offices, conference rooms and support facilities.

The building houses the education, history, nursing, political science, psychology and sociology departments.

Roy Yamachi, a principal in the architectural firm Kajioka Yamachi Architects, which designed the building, says faculty and staff members told him they wanted the building to be “something special” that would serve as the new entry to campus.

The three-story building has an “H” shape and is designed to encourage students and visitors to use it as a walkway to the rest of the campus. The university also has erected a $1.6 million covered plaza and walkway that will provide a sheltered path from the classroom building to the school's campus center, and from there to the library and other campus facilities.

The covered walkway is especially welcome in Hilo because of the frequent rain there. Average yearly rainfall is 130 inches near the shore and even higher inland, according to the National Weather Service.

The rainfall also was a factor in the design of the classroom building, says Yamachi. Much of the exterior of the building is glass curtainwall. Yamachi says that because of the relentless rain, any textured exterior building material would be a breeding ground for mildew.

With the classroom building up and running, the university is pursuing other new facilities. Chih says a science center is in the design phase of development, as is a student-life center.

The classroom building “sets the tone for the coming development,” says Yamachi.

Students and staff are pleased with the new facility and the milestone it represents in campus development, but Yamachi is modest about the building his firm designed.

“They didn't have anything for 20 years,” says Yamachi. “Anybody who had done anything would have been applauded.”

Westwood (Mass.) High School

The high school in Westwood, Mass., was “a hodgepodge of space,” says Edward Kazanjian, assistant superintendent of Westwood schools. The original section was built in the 1950s, and additions followed in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

“They were built cheaply, as schools of that era were,” says Kazanjian.

In 2000, town residents were ready for something better. They approved a $36 million plan for a new high school that was to open in the fall of 2003. The state would reimburse the town for 59 percent of the cost of the facility, which was to be built on the parking lot of the existing high school.

Along the way, the district had to replace the project's architect, come back to voters for approval of an additional $8 million in spending, work through a legal dispute over wetland preservation and cope with other construction delays. The fall 2003 completion date came and went, as did half of the 2004-05 year. Students finally moved into the new 180,000-square-foot school facility in February.

“The community has been waiting for this for four years.” says Kazanjian.

The facility can accommodate 1,000 students. The current enrollment is about 800.

With the new building open, the district will tear down the old school and put a parking lot in its place. One part of the old school is being salvaged; a gymnasium and pool building, situated between the old main building and the new school, is being renovated. During construction, the gym and pool building served as a buffer to keep the noise and disruption of the construction site away from students, and keep students away from potentially hazardous areas.

Kazanjian says that before a school design was developed, he traveled to several new school facilities around the country to see what modern features could be incorporated into a new Westwood High.

The building organizes most of the high school teachers into departments where they work out of office space rather than classrooms. Classrooms and offices are equipped with computer docks so teachers can connect laptops and have access to needed information regardless of where they are.

Sixteen video-surveillance cameras have been installed throughout the school grounds to enhance campus security. The building is divided into three sections, each of which can be locked down to keep out unwanted visitors, even when another part of the facility is open.

Classrooms are outfitted with electronic boards, intercom systems and multimedia capabilities so teachers can play DVDs or videotapes. The school has a 650-seat auditorium, a food-court-style cafeteria, and an athletic field with a synthetic surface. The fiber-optic computer network installed in the new building also has been extended to the nearby middle school so that staff members there can have access to voice mail.

School officials in Westwood decided not to seek LEED certification as a high-performance building, but Kazanjian says that the state of Massachusetts mandates rigorous design criteria for schools that has resulted in an environmentally friendly school.

“We have a 70,000-gallon tank buried in the front of our school for groundwater retention,” he says.

At the heart of the new high school is a 2½-story library and media center that has conference spaces for small-group meetings.

University of North Texas, Victory Hall

The state of Texas is big and getting bigger, and that's true of many of its colleges and universities, too. The enrollment at the University of North Texas (UNT) in Denton has grown to more than 31,000 students, and the 11 residence halls on campus could not accommodate all the students who wanted to live on campus. Even some freshmen have had to live off-campus.

“We needed more dorm space,” says Peter Giglio, university architect at UNT. “We were desperately tight for land.”

The school reclaimed a golf course that had been built next to the main campus and began making expansion plans. For the long term, university officials decided to use the golf course land to expand its residential and athletic facilities, while concentrating core academic facilities on the main Denton campus on the other side of Interstate 35.

The university dubbed the 157 acres that had made up the golf course the Eagle Point campus, and commenced construction in 2003 on a $23.7 million student complex called Victory Hall. With a three-story wing and a four-story wing, the facility has capacity for 600 student residents. The university overcame record-setting rainfall in the summer and completed the project for the fall semester of 2004.

“It's a little bit nicer and a little bit bigger than the other student housing,” says Giglio. “It's highly competitive with the other housing in the area.”

When it opened, Victory Hall became the university's 12th residence hall and boosted on-campus student housing capacity to 5,364 beds.

Victory Hall has private rooms and double rooms with suite bathrooms. Access-control systems monitor entry to the building from all exterior doors. The central lobby separates two large courtyards and serves as a student community area. It has a cyber cafe, computer lab, kitchenette, media room, classroom, and game and seating areas. Adjacent to Victory Hall, UNT has built a $5.3 million dining facility, which is connected to Victory Hall by a covered walkway. Also recently built on the Eagle Point campus is a $6.5 million athletic training complex, and long-term plans call for a new football stadium and athletic offices.

Even though Victory Hall is adjacent to an athletic facility, the housing is intended for the entire range of students, says Giglio.

The Eagle Point campus is accessible to the main campus via pedestrian and bike paths, and shuttle buses run weekdays from the hall to the main campus. “It's fairly easy to get across,” says Giglio.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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