For a Vashon architect, the VHS project hits close to home

Brian Carter, lead architect for the new Vashon High School campus, said the design is a personal one, as his daughter is a student there.  - Lawrence Huggins
Brian Carter, lead architect for the new Vashon High School campus, said the design is a personal one, as his daughter is a student there.
— image credit: Lawrence Huggins

In a dozen years as an architect, Islander Brian Carter has been involved in designing countless schools. But his latest project is unlike any of them.

“We always like to reach out and talk to students,” Carter said. “But this is the first time I come home in the evening and have dinner with one of the students in the school.”

Carter is the lead architect for the new Vashon High School building. It’s a project that’s close to his heart not only because he has a daughter at VHS and a son who graduated from the school, but because it’s a building that will play a special role on Vashon, a place he has called home for 15 years.

“We believe the high school tends to be the most civic building in its neighborhood,” Carter said. “Most people spend more time at the high school than any of the public buildings. … They’re really important buildings.”

In a wide-ranging interview at Vashon High School last month, Carter, easygoing and thoughtful, spoke highly of his team at Integrus Architecture, the Seattle firm hired to design the school. And he hesitated to take credit for a design that he said was created by many people and shaped by the community.

“There are a lot of hands in the pot,” he said.

Delving into a design process thick with community outreach, Carter has become a well-known figure on the Island and at the high school. As he strolled through the busy high school cafeteria last week, several students said hello to Carter, whose daughter is a junior at the school, and one teacher stopped to ask when the district would break ground.

“I can’t get off the foot ferry or pick something up at Thriftway without talking about the project,” he said with a smile.

Carter landed on Vashon with his wife in 1990 during what he called their “hippie days,” following in the footsteps of some friends who lived on the Island. They moved off for several years so Carter could study architecture at the University of Texas but returned in 1997, moving to a modest home off of Bank Road where his family now enjoys being close to Fisher Pond and keeping a small flock of chickens.

Most of Carter’s career has been at Integrus. The firm applied to design a new Vashon High School in 2004, but was not selected for the project, which ultimately failed to gain traction in the community.

This time around, Carter said, he thought he’d simply lend his expertise as a committee member. However, he couldn’t shake the desire to be more deeply involved.

“I couldn’t get away from the fact that to live in a community like this, each of us gets just a few opportunities where our professional expertise aligns so well with a community need that we’re able to offer,” Carter said “This seemed like my opportunity.”

Since Integrus was hired in 2010 to design the $47.7 million project, Carter has visited the school regularly to meet with an initial design advisory committee that included high school staff, students and community members and to attend meetings with both teachers and the community to hear their ideas and desires for the project.

“Our Island has no shortage of experts on all things, and they’re very engaged,” Carter said. “We believe fundamentally that the ideal solution for a project like this is born out of a community voice.”

What has emerged from design plans that are currently being finalized is a high school building that Carter’s team believes will both serve the high school’s current needs and adapt over time to the changing world of education. He noted that since the new building is expected to last at least 50 years, some teachers that will work inside it haven’t been born yet.

“I want to make sure we’re creating a facility that works well for teaching … and also works well for staff 20 to 25 years from now,” he said. “And that’s a hard thing to do because no one knows exactly what the world of education is going to look like 20 to 25 years from now.”

Carter’s team, with direction from the school district’s executive design committee, has drafted a project that transforms what is now a scattered campus divided among five buildings to a single, two-story structure. The school’s two large wings will be connected by a two-story, light-filled dining commons and an equally dramatic study commons that will double as a space for community meetings and team teaching, a strategy being used more and more at VHS. The building will also have a large courtyard, a clear main entrance — something it currently lacks — and a new 270-seat theater.

High school principal Susan Hanson is thrilled with the design and called it a vast improvement over the current school grounds, an awkwardly configured campus she said was designed based on a misguided educational choice.

“It’s a building that supports our educational mission,” she said. “It’s going to be wonderful.”

MJ Hartwell, director of the high school’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) program, also spoke highly of Carter and the executive design committee, which includes Superintendent Michael Soltman and Eric Gill, the district’s capital projects manager.

The committee, she said, encouraged her to see the high school redesign as an opportunity to also redesign the CTE program, which trains student to enter the job market or a trade school, in light of new trends in employment and technology.

Hartwell said CTE teachers were deeply involved in designing their new classrooms, and she’s pleased the CTE wing — which includes a fabrication lab similar to a shop, a digital arts lab and a wellness lab for health-related classes — will be built to adapt to changing curriculum.

“I think Brian was useful in pushing us to expand our thinking and realize the opportunity we had to reevaluate the program as it was, to challenge our traditional thinking,” she said.

Many are also pleased the high school campus will be a sustainable one, something Carter said reflects the community’s values and is one of Integrus’ strengths. The district even held sustainability workshops that drew local experts in the field to weigh in on the project. It was in part because of input at those meetings, Carter said, that the school board chose to heat the new high school using an air-to-water heat pump, a choice that moves the school away from relying on natural gas and sets it up to one day use solar power.

“Really important to a lot of community members was the idea that on Vashon we should not be building a structure that’s going to last for 50 years that continues to rely on carbon-based fuel as its (source of energy),” he said.

But community outreach is also one of the more challenging aspects of the project, Carter said, because he and the executive committee simply can’t please everyone.

“These are my friends and neighbors, and I care that much more about making it a really great possibility for everyone,” Carter said. “At the end of the day it can’t be all things for everyone, and it’s sometimes hard to be in a position steering some of the decisions.”

The design process is now winding down, with some bid packages already put out to contractors and only small details left to be ironed out. While Carter usually plays an advisory roll on the team, he’s putting a little more into this project than others, he said, often getting involved in the final details.

“I’m probably driving my team crazy in the office. I don’t usually look over 3-inch roof details,” Carter said with a laugh. “I care about this project so much that I’m poring over the sections, and it’s fun. It reminds me that I get to be an architect again.”

While working on the school project keeps him busy — often working late at evening meetings and getting up at the crack of dawn to meet professionals in Seattle — Carter said he still finds time to enjoy life on Vashon. He has a passion for cooking and spoiling friends with multi-course meals, something he often donates to local auctions as well. And while his son was deeply involved in the VHS debate team, he is now busy attending his daughter’s crew regattas — a couple weekends ago he volunteered to drive the boats to a competition in Canada.

At the high school last month, he joked — with what sounded like a tinge of truth in his voice — that he might have to leave the Island after the new high school is complete.

“We’ve been on Vashon for a long time now, and we want to be on Vashon for a long time again,” he said with a laugh.

Still, Carter seemed confident the new building, scheduled to be completed in 2014, will be embraced by Vashon not because he designed it, but because the staff and community shaped it.

“I’ll be able to say I’m really glad that I was a part of this,” he said.


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