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Mistakes of schools past: Making designs that stand the test of time a challenge

Mistakes of schools past: Making designs that stand the test of time a challenge


When Hoover Elementary School opened, it was the height of innovation.

In a Sept. 9, 1969 article on the school’s opening, the Gazette-Times said the school was designed around an innovative open-concept where three grades shared one large classroom.

“Hoover Elementary School with its modern classrooms and facilities may not be the little red schoolhouse of old," the article read. "However, some of the teaching concepts which will be used in its classrooms this year are similar to those that the ‘old school marm’ used in the one room schoolhouse years ago."

The article went on to quote a teacher talking about how having three classes in one room would mean teachers could assist students, even those not in their class, as needed, or send them to reading or math groups based on their ability, not their grade.

“The system has so much flexibility and opportunity,” the paper quoted Genevieve Stovall, then a second-grade teacher, as saying. “You can move students from one grade level to another, which would reflect their needs.”

The school continued to be a hub of educational experiments, over the next years: new curricula in math and reading were tried and the school hosted a very successful and then-new concept — having Oregon State University education students work in classrooms as student teachers. A few years into the experiment, the school district was planning to take the model to all new schools and even knock down existing walls at older schools.

Less than a decade later, however, by 1978, Hoover had added permanent internal walls to create more traditional classrooms. Gazette-Times archives don’t make clear when exactly the district abandoned the open concept, but current staff members at the school have said the no-wall rooms made for a noisy and distracting learning environment.

The addition of walls turned the school into a more traditional education environment, it came at a long-term price: To this day most of the school’s classrooms don’t connect to interior hallways and some internal walls sit at odd angles. The lack of internal hallways forces students to make long walks outdoors and along the parking lot to get between classes or to the bathroom.

Hoover is the newest elementary school building in the Corvallis School District. Nevertheless, in May, Corvallis voters approved a $200 million bond that will pay for, among other things, tearing down Hoover and building a brand-new school on the site. Even though the district will leave much older elementary schools standing, bond proponents said Hoover needed to be replaced before older schools because of its poor layout and the low quality of its construction.

The specter of Hoover stands over the Corvallis School District as officials work on plans to replace it (and Lincoln Elementary School) — and do remodels, upgrades and expansions at other district schools. Here's the question: How do you design and build schools and school expansions to end up with buildings that stand the test of time?

Values of design

For Kim Patten, the Corvallis School District's facilities and transportation director, creating school facilities that last comes down to three things: having and following values for educational design, having diverse teams provide input on designs and being more technical in bidding projects.

Patten said the district already has a list of its design values that it's using in decision-making. (See the related story for more information about those values.) One of those values, that design should be adaptable, would have prevented Hoover from having a design that couldn’t flex to meet different needs, she said.

“We’re not just designing for today. We’re designing for 10 years from now, 20 years from now. These buildings are going to be there for 50 years,” she said.

Dave Fishel, a co-founder and vice president of the Wenaha Group, the project management firm the district hired in June to manage its bond projects, said the firm has had to push other districts it works with into adopting values for design, but the Corvallis School District had strong values in place even before the firm signed on.

For Fishel, who is moving to Corvallis from Washington state to manage the projects here, those strong values are a big reason why his firm wanted to work with the local district. 

His firm plans to hire one or two people locally, have two project managers commute from Portland and stay in Corvallis during the week and have one commute in from Washington a couple days a week.

“We’re making a pretty significant commitment to this project,” he said. He added that Wenaha is a medium-sized firm, and this project will present about 15 percent of the projects they manage by dollar value. The district's contract with Wenaha allows the firm to bill up to $4.9 million.

But, Fishel said, the deal represents more than money to his company.

“This is a district where our values align so strongly with theirs that we see this as an opportunity to make a difference,” he said.

Fishel said his firm’s role is as the district’s partner and representative.

“On a very foundational level, our job is to make sure the district can keep all the promises they have made to the public, be a resource and a partner for them at that. What that means varies by owner, but we always come back to that as our core mission.”

The next steps

Fishel said the next year is mostly about design and permitting. He said the public may see some bond project work over the next year, but it will be rare.

This summer the district and Fishel have been working together to lay the foundation for how they will manage the bond projects, working out details such as who reports to whom and how decisions are made. District staff plan to present an outline for an organizational structure at a 6:30 p.m. board meeting Thursday, at the district office at 1555 SW 35th St. One key element of how this will work is that the projects will be grouped into three project teams. One team will focus on building new Lincoln and Hoover school buildings, another will work on the upgrades and expansions to all the other district elementary schools, and the third will focus on projects at the middle and high school level.

The district has also been in the process of soliciting bids from architectural firms, who can choose to bid on all the projects, one of the three bundles of projects as described above or multiple bundles that interest them.

Patten said proposals from architects were due Aug. 2, and the district received 11 proposals. From those it has selected 6 finalists to interview this week.

The district plans to interview those finalists from 4 to 8 p.m. Monday through Wednesday at the Western View Center, located next to the district office. Patten said the district administrators plan to have a group of 25 to 30 stakeholders at the meetings and to use their feedback in bringing a recommendation for a contract with an architect, or multiple architects, to the school board at its Sept. 13 meeting.

The meetings are open to the public, but people interested in attending the meetings are asked to contact the district at 541-757-5877.

Fishel added that there will be many opportunities for the public to have input on the designs besides this week’s interviews.

“Just because you weren’t on this doesn’t mean you won’t be heard,” he said.

Patten said the district will form site-based design guidance teams, made up of a variety of stakeholders, to offer focused insight on designs.

A roof lesson

Hoover Elementary isn't the only district effort that aged prematurely: Corvallis High School opened its new building in 2005, one of the signature projects in the district’s last facilities bond. So when, just over a decade later, the new school bond before voters this May included $2.8 million to put a new roof on the school, many voters wondered what happened.

Patten said thermoplastic polyolefin (TPO) roofing at the time was going through formula changes, and the TPO roof installed on the school proved to be a low quality version; as a result, the roof is already failing. She said the district pursued redress through a warranty, but the roof’s manufacturer, J.P. Stevens, has gone out of business.

“We got one that didn’t last. Because the roofs didn’t last the company went bankrupt,” she said.

“This is not a problem unique to Corvallis,” Fishel said. “That contractor left a trail of these products.”

Patten said at the time Corvallis selected contractors strictly through a lowest bid process — but the district intends to be more specific this time in selecting roofing formulas with a proven track record of more than a decade. And she said the district intends to have more detailed specifications when bidding out projects to make sure the district knows what it is getting.

For example, she said, consider boilers: By going out for bids for boiler replacements without specifying what kind of boiler to use, the district could wind up with a different boiler at each of its 15 buildings, which would be harder to maintain than if they had the same kind of boiler at each school.

Fishel said this is the kind of thing Wenaha can help with — getting more specific about the types of products to be used when going out for bid to ensure quality products are used. He said Wenaha can also develop alternatives to using a strictly low-bid process, such as limiting bids to prequalified bidders.

Lessons from Albany

Greater Albany Public Schools voters approved a $159 million bond in May 2017, a year and a day before voters in Corvallis approved their own bond. The Albany bond included funds for, among other things, building a new elementary school near Timber Ridge School and the first phase of a replacement of West Albany High School.

Russ Allen, business director for Albany schools, said his hope is that Corvallis did a good job estimating costs and left room in its projected estimates for costs to inflate.

“The biggest lesson (Albany) learned is … we are in an unprecedented difficult market. Supply and demand is not in our favor,” he said.

Allen said he’s heard of districts that have gone out to bid on projects and had no responses from contractors. And he noted that for a $12 million project at South Albany High School, the district’s lowest bid was $1 million over that budget, so the district is having to bid it again this fall.

Allen added that the Albany district has been working to simplify bid proposals to make it easier for contractors to bid. He said asking for quality materials in a bid wouldn’t scare off a contractor — but making the bidding process too complicated could.

He said the Corvallis architects and project manager should work to make things easy on contractors and really reach out to them.

“Corvallis is in the unenviable position of going out at the same time as Salem-Keizer (Public Schools),” he said. Salem-Keizer voters passed a $620 million bond the same day Corvallis passed its bond.

“While it’s been incredibly difficult for us, it’s going to be even harder for Corvallis,” Allen said. “It’s a tough market and it’s only going to get tougher.”

Fishel said Wenaha has in its recent projects been experiencing the tight contractor market, both in urban and rural areas, and has been working on strategies to attract contractors.

“One vitally important thing that we are already doing is to be in personal contact with contractors and subcontractors in the region to make sure we time the bidding activities to be in the market when contractors are looking to add more work to their backlog — rather than at a time when they are already booked up. We will also seek their feedback on how to assemble the various projects into packages that best fit the capabilities of the most qualified contractors,” he said. “In addition to personal contacts we plan to host open house events in various locations in the region where contractors and workers can learn more about our projects and where we can get feedback on our approach.”

The district also has some financial cushion for its projects: Since the bond passed, it has been awarded a $6.2 million state bond matching grant. It also was able to sell the first $160 million in bond debt at a $28.7 million premium. Those funds have all been set aside for cost overruns.

Anthony Rimel covers education and can be reached at, 541-758-9526, or via Twitter @anthonyrimel.


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