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High school building nears completion

Superintendent Michael Soltman, right, stands at one of his favorite spots in the new school with tour guest Andy Johnson. - Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo
Superintendent Michael Soltman, right, stands at one of his favorite spots in the new school with tour guest Andy Johnson.
— image credit: Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo

Just weeks before the contractors of the new Vashon High School are scheduled to turn over the building to the school district, the project is on time and on budget, according to school superintendent Michael Soltman.

“It’s gone amazingly well,” he said.

After nearly a decade of planning and work that has included a year and a half of construction, the building is nearing completion. While some areas of the roughly 80,000-square-foot structure are finished or nearly so, visitors must use their imaginations in other areas as roughly 70 Skanska crew members ready the space for the Nov. 25 deadline.

The light-filled school, with abundant windows and several overhead garage-like doors that lift open to the outside, is built around a central courtyard and includes classrooms and other spaces that can adapt to a variety of student and teacher needs, considerable technology upgrades and several green features. One of the hubs of the building is the dining commons, a two-story space accented by a Douglas fir ceiling and a row of tall wooden columns. A large mezzanine above will hold additional seating and provide — for the first time — enough seating for all the students at lunchtime.

“Personally, I think it’s an amazingly beautiful and highly functional building,” Soltman said after he and VHS principal Danny Rock led a small group on a tour last week.

After walking long distances among several buildings on the current campus, students will soon find all of their classes except physical education in one building, with the lower floor holding primarily science and career and technical education (CTE) classes — including a fabrication center and design space — and the upper floor given over mostly to academic classrooms. The library, on the second floor, is considerably smaller than the current library, but will include 15 computers, VHS principal Danny Rock said. Students will be able to spill out of the library and use a large nearby study commons as well.

“The whole idea of a library is shifting,” he said.

Each classroom is outfitted with a voice amplification system as well as a projector that the teacher will control via a laptop, Rock noted. Instead of sitting at stationary desks, students will sit in chairs with wheels, something Rock said has been proven to help with the learning process.

“Students who have the ability to move have a better ability to concentrate,” he said.

A new 264-seat theater is also part of the new school, with good acoustics, improved sight lines and a stage floor built for a variety of uses.

“It’s really built for dancers,” Soltman said, inviting tour guests to walk on it and see for themselves.

Nearby backstage, there are bathrooms and dressing rooms with makeup counters, features long desired by community theater users.

Eric Gill, an architect and the capital projects manager for the district, has been working on the new high school since the 2004 planning phase and is pleased with the nearly complete building, including its environmentally friendly features, he said last week. Among those features is a large underground cistern in the courtyard. It will collect rainwater, which will be filtered, used to flush the toilets and then be released into the septic system, where it will eventually recharge the aquifer.

“Our water is making a full circle,” he said.

Gill said the district also selected an air-to-water heat pump to heat the large building. One of its benefits is that it can run in reverse and provide some cooling, which will be particularly helpful in the theater in the summer, he said.

The district also chose to insulate the roof and walls more than required, and the building was built 30 percent beyond the current energy code, he said. A lighting control system is also in place, which will dim the lights automatically as more daylight comes in. This is called “daylight harvesting,” he said, and reduces the electric load.

One of the elements of the building that Gill said he appreciates the most but was also an extremely challenging component is inclusion of wood harvested from the school district’s own forest. The Vashon Forest Stewards cut and milled the trees, which will be used in several ways, including alder in guardrails and theater panels, maple in countertops and Douglas fir in wainscoting in the hallways.

“It is such a great story — wood grown on district property,” he said. “It’s nice to see that wood coming full circle.”

The school building  was made possible by a $47.7 million bond Vashon voters approved in 2011. When construction is finished this month, the  project will not be complete, however, as the actual move will need to take place and three school buildings will be torn down.

All the building systems and the technology will have to be running smoothly before students return from winter break, Soltman said, and the theater elements in place and new furniture unpacked. Over the break, a moving company will move the library, classrooms and kitchen.

“It’s a massive move,” he said. “There is a 12-page list of transition items.”

Come January, Soltman noted, there will be two public events.

On Jan. 5, the day before students return from winter break, the community will be invited to an open house. The next day — the grand opening — 40 high school juniors and seniors will give student groups tours of the building, and those same 40 students will provide the public with tours throughout the remainder of the school year.

“We’re going to be inundated with visitors all the time,” Rock said.

Before the demolition of the remaining old buildings begins in mid-January, Soltman said, the district will invite islanders to a demolition event, giving them “the first opportunity to take shots at building A.”

In May, once the other buildings are down and the landscaping is in, there will be a formal dedication of the new school.

While that might conclude the end of the major work in the short term, Soltman said he and others have their eyes on longterm facility needs as well, including upgrading the old gym and the school’s football stadium, track and field. Soltman noted that he hopes the new high school will serve as inspiration for the community and that islanders will find a way to do the work that remains.

Rock, new to the district this year, has high praise for those who set the project in place.

“I’m very lucky to inherit the hard work of people before me,” he said. “It’s a very impressive design.”

The new building will be open for community uses, Rock noted, and its environmental features are impressive, but more than that, he said, “It honors learning.”

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