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Upper Dublin Builds New School in Unique Fashion

Tue May 11, 2010 - Northeast Edition
Jennifer Hetrick

High school principal is a difficult role to fill under the best of circumstances. Managing the needs of students, faculty, staff, parents and the surrounding community is oftentimes a miracle of patience, expertise and careful juggling. Being an effective principal in a school that is being demolished, shifted around and rebuilt all on the same site, while classes are in session, seems a lot to expect from any educator.

Yet Charles Rittenhouse, principal of Upper Dublin High School, Fort Washington, Pa., and himself a graduate of the school, seems quite at ease in the midst of this massive project and rightfully proud of the work that has been accomplished so far.

The project began in March 2008 a year after voters approved a Debt Act Referendum, the first time this has been done in Pennsylvania for the building of a new school since the inception of Act 1 of 2006, which capped school tax increases.

Gilbert Architects Inc., Lancaster, Pa., and D’Huy Engineering Inc., Bethlehem, Pa., have been at the forefront of the project, along with what Warren Gericke, senior project manager of D’Huy, characterized as a team of “the best of the best primes. These guys are not ’regular’ construction workers. People still have that idea in their minds that construction workers aren’t very smart and use a lot of rough language and all that, but that’s not this group at all. These are highly intelligent guys and there is a lot of great communication and fun on the job. There have been no ’wars’ between contractors. Right now we have 65 guys on-site. For a while it was nearly 100 and will be gearing up to about 85 as the next phase moves along.”

Nowhere to Go

“Phasing” is key on the project. As a township, Upper Dublin has grown tremendously since the original one-story brick high school opened its doors in 1955. Over the years, the district added on to the building, which eventually sprawled across the property representing several eras of architectural styles. Meanwhile, the rest of the district’s land was being developed, primarily with houses meant for growing families. When it came time to build a new high school, there was simply nowhere for it to go except for the land it already occupied.

“It’s almost an urban setting,” Rittenhouse said. “We’re landlocked by Fort Washington Ave. and Loch Alsh Ave. on two sides, the highway on the third side and the professional center and a pipeline we couldn’t build over on the last side. We looked at a few other options, but nothing else was going to work.”

Once it was determined that the high school was, in essence, staying put, Gilbert and D’Huy divided the $119,242,976 project, which also includes the construction of a new bus garage, into three phases, plus a pre-construction phase that consisted of setting up a modular village to house the classrooms that were being taken away by the demolition of the west wing. In all, 60,000 sq. ft. (5,574 sq m) of temporary classroom space was added next to the east wing of the building.

Superintendent of Schools Michael Pladus credited much of the success of the project so far to the creation of that extra space.

“The modulars are providing a better learning environment than the classrooms they replaced. The heating system is more efficient, they are air-conditioned, which the old classrooms were not, and they are exceptionally well lit. The disruption to the students has been minimal.”

Quietly Building a Giant

Indeed, the disruption to the school as a whole, as well as the district, has been remarkably minimal. Rittenhouse said, “Sometimes I forget the construction is going on. And I’ve had almost nothing in the way of calls from parents or from any of the neighboring businesses or homes to complain about noise or traffic or anything.”

Nearly two years into the ambitious project, the first phase, the new athletic wing, is already up and running. The two-story wing, which was started in June 2008, houses the school’s main and auxiliary gymnasiums; a natatorium with a 618,000-gallon, 10-lane swimming pool; a weight-training and fitness room; locker rooms and something the old school lacked, a wrestling room.

Getting this far, on schedule, on budget and so smoothly is an achievement well worth celebrating, which the community did on Dec. 17, 2009 with the first varsity basketball game. The ceremonial ribbon cutting, which took place at the game, symbolized years of planning, community meetings and hard work —things that would not have happened without excellent communication.

“The communication between the district and D’Huy and Gilbert has been amazing,” Pladus said. “Eighty-five percent of the school is being placed on the existing location, yet the original phasing drawings have had very few alterations.”

Going Gold

One change since the project’s inception is the potential of the building’s LEED certification, once aimed at silver but at press time had exceeded original expectations and was very likely moving into gold.

“When we first started discussing the new school, people in the community made it very clear that having a ’green’ building was extremely important. There are very few schools that have met LEED qualifications at this time, so the community involvement in that aspect of the project was unexpected but very welcome,” Pladus said.

Gericke explained that the old facility that was not air-conditioned, had two boilers, which together burned 180 gallons of fuel an hour to provide sufficient heat.

“The new facility is using a geothermal system, which doesn’t have a boiler or a chiller. We are installing a ground loop system of 305 wells, each of which is 400 feet deep. These wells provide 55-degree water, which will be used for the heat and air-conditioning. In addition, we are building with reflective roofs, methods for conserving water and lighting controls. Even the insulation being used makes a huge difference. Before Christmas, we were in the library space, which was only heated by two small space heaters. It was really cold out, but you could be in there without a jacket because the insulation was so good.”

Out With the Old

The old library was torn down over the winter break, after all of the books, furnishings and other materials had been moved to the old gym in the east wing. The demolition of the library made room for work on phase 2, the academic wing, to begin. The academic wing will feature 45 classrooms, administrative and guidance offices, the media center/library, expanded science labs and a technology forum room for large group instruction and video conferencing. It also will have full wireless access. phase 2 is slated for completion in January 2011.

Work on the final phase, the auditorium and visual/performing arts wing, will begin after the modular classrooms and the east wing, the remaining vestige of the old school, are taken down. In addition to the auditorium, it will house a black box theater; rehearsal areas for band, orchestra and chorus; performing arts classrooms; a television studio and administrative offices. The completion date for this final segment is August 2012.

Working Classroom

For their part, as they await their new school’s completion, students have been learning about the construction industry in all its aspects.

“At the beginning of this, we made a very unique, conscious decision to use the construction as a learning opportunity,” said Pladus. “A number of classes have been given tours of the site, during which Warren Garicke and the contractors discuss all of the different jobs involved in creating the building. They are discussing the career paths starting with architecture and design through to completion of a project with the students, who are seeing the work done step-by-step, not just hearing about it.”

“The construction site is a classroom,” Rittenhouse said. “And it’s been a great experience for the kids.”

Gericke agreed, with only one small complaint. “D’Huy’s been giving tours of our job sites to students for quite a while. We talk about everything that goes into the job, from a career standpoint. So I was leading a group of kids though a site and they all had checklists with them listing all the job categories. They were meant to check off any of the topics they wanted to learn more about and I’ll tell you, not one of those kids checked off ’construction manager.’ No one wants to be me.”

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