New VHS design puts school in one structure

The site plan shows the way the building will wrap around a courtyard. - Courtesy Image
The site plan shows the way the building will wrap around a courtyard.
— image credit: Courtesy Image

The new Vashon High School will be fully contained in one building, with a light-filled study commons, a clearly identified entrance, an interior courtyard and academic spaces that could adapt to changing curricula, according to the architects’ design plans.

Integrus, the architectural firm designing the new campus, issued its 150-page “schematic design book” last week, a milestone in the design process and one that details the first full iteration of the project — including a site plan for the entire campus, floor plans for the two-story structure and architectural drawings that reveal the building’s look and shape.

The plans unveil a project that will transform what is now a scattered campus divided among five buildings into one two-story structure, with two large wings connected by a two-story, glass-walled dining commons and an equally dramatic study commons.

One wing would contain the academic program, including larger classrooms than the high school currently has, a two-story fabrication center and a second-floor art room that would have windows looking down onto the fabrication center. The second wing would contain a 272-seat theater with a vastly improved and larger stage, a band room and a classroom that would double as a green room.

Much of the building would wrap around an interior courtyard open at one end to the rest of the campus — creating a school that would continue to incorporate the outdoors into the larger academic setting, according to Brian Carter, an architect with Integrus and the project’s lead designer. The administrative offices would occupy one corner of the building, with sight lines extending into the study commons, the dining commons, the interior courtyard and the main entrance.

“I think it’s a beautiful building,” said Michael Soltman, superintendent of the Vashon Island School District. The design, he said, is “simple yet elegant.”

“It’s not like it’s trying to be the next wave of some architectural design but fits in well with what this community already has,” he added.

The design will be presented to the Vashon Island School Board on Thursday, Sept. 8, and presented to Island residents at a community dinner on Thursday, Sept. 15, and at an open house on Wednesday, Sept. 21. The school board is expected to vote on the schematic design at its meeting on Sept. 22. The 150-page book is also online at the district’s website.

The building’s design has been vetted by a nine-member design advisory committee made up of teachers, administrators and community members. Jim Garrison, a builder who sits on the design advisory committee, said he’s particularly pleased by the architects’ decision to incorporate a courtyard into the project — an outdoor space, he noted, that will allow students some much-needed room to release some of their energy.

While a contained, one-building campus means students won’t be outdoors nearly as much as they currently are, he said, it still gives them the breathing room that he thinks they need.

“I still think we’re building a building that puts the kids inside too much, but I don’t have a good solution,” Garrison said. “Given the constraints of the site, I think they’ve done a pretty good job of compromising.”

The new building is actually smaller than what the designers had previously envisioned, due to efficiencies they were able to find after the school board agreed to tear down Building A, the unusually shaped structure that now serves as the primary classroom building, according to Eric Gill, the district’s capital projects manager.

At the beginning of the design process, the design team was planning to build a new 36,620 square foot classroom building and remodel Buildings A and F, for a grand total of 85,585 square feet, Gill said. The new classroom building, which now contains everything except the gymnasium, will be 78,969 square feet, he said.

“I think this is fantastic,” he said. “There were inefficiencies in that (previous approach). By going with a decision to take down Building A, we ... were able to bring the art and music programs into this one building ... and consolidate the academic programs.”

Both Gill, who also is an architect, and Carter, an Island resident, said there’s much that they like about the new design.

Carter, who currently has a daughter at the high school and whose son recently graduated, said that one of the biggest challenges school districts across the nation are struggling with is the changing concept of the school library. This design places the library on the second floor, he said. But a stairway will connect it to the study commons, he said, where some of the activities that now take place in the high school library will unfold — project-based activities, for instance, or other kinds of group studies.

“It’s a really interesting concept,” Carter said.

What’s more, he said, the study commons will spill into the dining commons — transforming what is now a fully contained and separate lunchroom into one that could become the school’s “central hub.”

Carter said he’s also pleased by the “clarity at the entrance,” an issue at the current building, where there’s not a clearly identified main entrance.

Gill said the plan also takes advantage of what are now “left over” outdoor spaces. An amphitheater, for instance, will likely be situated on the tiered land that now supports the theater.

“Under this new plan, these outdoor spaces are actually designed to accommodate pedestrian access, student social interaction and way-finding, integrated with the building and the site,” he said.

Both Gill and Carter also highlighted the size and shape of the new theater, noting that the study commons that connects it to the rest of the structure will be able to double as a lobby or a community gathering space. “I see it as the community’s living room,” Gill said of the study commons.

The stage will nearly double in size, they noted, and the sight lines, now inadequate, will improve dramatically.

“We’re hearing loud and clear from the community that an enhanced theater or anything that moves us toward a performing arts center was gilding the lily,” Carter said. “But if you’re building completely new and don’t improve it, that’s a waste.”

Soltman agreed, adding that the size of the theater “works well for us, and I think it works well for most of the community productions that will go in it.”

But Garrison, with the design advisory committee, said he remains concerned that the high school is building a new 272-seat theater at the same time that Vashon Allied Arts is hoping to build one of about the same size less than a half-mile away. He fully supports the dramatic arts, he said.

“But I’m sad there isn’t a pooling of resources with VAA and a reduction of costs and an effort to make something more in scale with what’s appropriate,” he said. “We should be able to put aside our individual desires and come together for the good of everybody.”


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