Vashon school district selects architecture firm to design new high school

The Vashon Island School District has selected an architectural firm with ties to the Island to begin preliminary designs of a far-reaching makeover of Vashon High School.

A school board-appointed advisory committee selected Integrus, a Seattle firm, as the architects to take on the project. The school board is expected to approve the district’s request to sign a contract with Integrus at its next meeting on March 25.

The board has already given the district a green light to begin initial work with the firm, pending approval of the contract, said Superintendent Michael Soltman. Once the contract is signed, Integrus will begin a three-month effort to define the project’s “educational specifications” — the kinds of spaces and configurations VHS’s academic program requires, from the size of its science lab to the arrangement of offices and classrooms.

Those specifications will become the basis of the architect’s design of a new campus, work it won't take on until voters approve the district’s request for a $47 million bond in November. The project, should it win voter approval, will lead to the construction of a new 40,000-square-foot classroom building as well as a wholesale remodel of Building A, the octagonal-shaped structure that now houses most of the classrooms, the main office, the library and the cafeteria at the sprawling campus.

Integrus was selected from a field of seven finalists because of its experience designing high schools, its ability to listen to community groups and its pragmatic approach to design, according to members of the advisory committee, which Soltman chaired. Committee members were also pleased that a principal in the firm, Brian Carter, is a Vashon resident and parent; Carter, they said, will lead the design team on Vashon.

McGranahan Architects, a Tacoma-based firm that has been working with the district since 2004 on crafting a master plan for the project, competed for the design contract but was not one of the finalists.

“We all agreed enthusiastically that Integrus is not only a great fit for their marvelous capabilities in terms of design; they also have the ability to work within a community’s comfort zone,” said Emily Wigley, a parent and community member who served on the advisory committee.

McGranahan, she added, “was just not as strong.”

Bob Katica, an architect who also served on the committee, agreed, adding that Carter’s role will more likely ensure that the project reflects Vashon’s values and style.

“It’s important to understand the community,” he said.

“What I was looking for was practicality with design skills and the ability of the people involved to communicate their thinking to us and for them to listen to what we had to say, … because sometimes architects don’t listen very well,” said Jim Coulson, another member of the committee and a former Mercer Island School District teacher and administrator.

Integrus, he added, is “familiar enough with the school district and the Island to take what the Island says and move it into an actual concrete and glass structure.”

The district decided to have Integrus begin working immediately on developing a set of educational specifications — rather than waiting until the bond passes — because it means the district will be able to give voters a clear sense of what it is they’re being asked to approve when the ballot measure comes before them in November, Soltman said. It also means the firm will be able to begin design work quickly, should the bond win approval: Construction could begin as early as June 2012 and conclude in 2014.

The board has told the district it can spend up to $100,000 on Integrus’ preliminary work.

The 12-member advisory committee met three times before choosing Integrus. The group selected three firms as finalists, then spent nearly an entire day touring schools the three finalists had designed, including Meadowdale High School in Edmonds, an Integrus project.

Wigley said she was impressed by what the firm had created at the Edmonds school, especially a large, light-filled commons that served a number of roles.

“I could just imagine ‘Open Mic’ in there,” she said, referring to VHS’s monthly talent show.

The firm will soon begin meeting with several groups — including teachers, students, community members and administrators — to determine the kinds of spaces and configurations that will serve both the high school and the community for decades to come, Soltman said.

By June 15, when the firm is expected to wrap up that part of the project, “we’ll have a clear definition of what’s going to go in the building and what the associated costs are,” he said. “We’ll be able to go to the voters with clearer information.”

The November ballot measure will mark the district’s second attempt to convince voters that a makeover of the high school is needed; an effort to secure a $75.5 million bond failed last year.

Members of the advisory committee said they plan to continue to work with the district and the architects on the proposal and will act as emissaries for the project, once a preliminary design is completed and the measure is before voters.

Katica, who works for BCRA, an architectural firm based in Tacoma, said not all districts involve a community group so early on in the process. “Based on our luck on the last bond issue, it’s probably a good idea,” he said.

“We’ll be able to assure the community that we’ve looked at it, we’re comfortable it’ll meet our needs and that we feel this is a wise use of our money,” he added.

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