Building from the ground up: NLS construction project starts to take shape
NEW LONDON — For several months after the ground-breaking celebration in August, it was hard to see any progress at all on the $20.6 million, multi-faceted construction project in the New London-Spicer School District.
But kind of like an iceberg where only the tip of the massive structure shows, the underground work of snaking utilities to the site and setting deep footings for the structures to be built upon was taking place.
"We did a lot of work underground that people didn't see," said Josh Schwinghammer, project superintendent with Winkelman Building Corp.
Even NLS Superintendent Paul Carlson said he had hard time looking at the drawings, the trenches and piles of dirt and envisioning exactly how it would all look in the end.
But after the looming precast concrete walls for the stage of the 650-seat auditorium were set in place in December on the south end of the high school/middle school and the walls for the new two-court gym went up on the north end, the project is starting to take shape.
"Everybody's just so excited to see progress on the project," Carlson said.
Although some parts of the project are on, or ahead of schedule, wet winter weather has put the complex performing arts auditorium project about a month behind schedule. It's expected to be ready for use by Dec. 1. The original plan had been for November.
The rest of the high school/middle school project, including the new, secure entrance by the auditorium, the revamped bus drop-off area and the new gym are expected to be done by the time school starts this fall.
Over at the Prairie Woods Elementary School, construction of a new cafeteria/auditorium and two new classrooms is far ahead of schedule. Originally, the classrooms weren't expected to be started until this spring but the concrete block shells are already up and the exterior brick is going up on the cafeteria.
The additions at the elementary, as well as a new entrance and security system, are expected to be completed by the start of the 2017-18 school year.
Overall, the project is going well and staying on budget with about $1 million left in the contingency fund, Carlson said.
Carlson praised DeVetter Design Group — the construction manager for the district — and Winkelman and the other contractors for keeping the project on track.
Although a construction manager is more expensive upfront than hiring a general manager, Carlson said DeVetter has saved the district money in the long run because of the thorough preparations and planning.
"It's been a cost savings," Carlson said.
Schwinghammer said the pre-construction preparations was hugely helpful for the contractors.
"The district is very good to work with," he said. "They're very knowledgable and had their plans together before we started."
Schwinghammer said that kind of preparation and teamwork is uncommon. "The school district is excellent to work with, quite honestly," he said, adding that he appreciates the "open door" policy DeVetter and the district has when contractors have concerns or ideas.
Even with the weather-related delays, Schwinghammer said the project has been progressing well.
"We're lucky we have great contractors on site," he said, adding that many of the contractors are local and several NLS graduates are working as contractors on site.
Current high school ag students have also met with contractors on the school site to learn about construction jobs, Schwinghammer said.
During a recent tour of the construction site, Carlson and Schwinghammer talked about the guts of the construction work and the how the projects will affect students and the community when they are done.
A second-story window in the high school provides the perfect observation deck to watch construction of the performing arts auditorium.
The large stage, which is about 52-feet tall to allow for a fly loft for the scenery and curtains to go up and down, includes catwalks for lighting, dressing rooms and storage area for props.
A deep dirt trench shows where the orchestra pit will be located in front of the stage. When not in use, the pit will be covered to create even more stage space.
So far, all that can be seen of the actual auditorium where the audience will be is an outline of blocks barely above the surface of the soil.
The auditorium will not be a square, box-like structure but will feature curved walls. That design was selected in order to elevate the aesthetics of the building. "We wanted the building to be representative of a classy place to be and not a gym," Carlson said.
The curved design also allowed the land-locked district to maximize available space, said Megan Field, NLS director of communications.
An interior cascading stairway alongside the theater will create a functional, flexible learning space, Field said, and the new, window-filled entrance to the high school/middle school will serve as a gathering space, featuring a cafe-style setting.
The NLS drama and music departments are already gearing up for the new space with plans being made for a musical.
Currently, NLS school plays are performed at the historic, but very small, Little Theater in downtown New London. Choir and band concerts are held in the school gyms.
Construction of the new two-court gym will be used for wrestling tournaments, by the growing danceline program and will create permanent space for the gymnastics program, which has more than 40 participants and is currently housed in a building at an old Bible camp near Spicer.
The gym includes a padded pit that will allow student athletes to try new maneuvers while staying safe.
The gym addition includes a large lobby that will double as a trophy gallery, locker rooms for guest athletes and coaches, a row of windows at the top of the north wall that features mechanical shades to prevent sun from glaring into athletes' eyes and restrooms that can be accessed by fans from the football field that will replace outdoor portable toilettes.
Attention to detail — even how splash of the showers hit the floor — are all part of building a gym, Carlson said.
The gym project is "right on schedule," said Schwinghammer. "This has gone pretty smooth."
The exterior of the gym and theater will have decorative metal panels and the same color exterior brick, which will be different than the brick color of the main high school/middle school. The contrasting look will give the additions a "distinctive look," Carlson said.
At the elementary school, the large windows in the cafeteria/auditorium that give a wide view to the trees, hills and wetlands to the north end of the property that will "bring the woods back to Prairie Woods," Carlson said. "It'll be awesome."
The addition is big enough to seat 650 people. Having a separate cafeteria will allow the elementary students and teachers to have full access to the gym for classes and recess when it's too cold to go outside.
The two new classrooms, which are also built on the north side of the building, will create additional space for the growing elementary student population.
The project also includes creating a new, secure entrance that will provide an indoor space for parents who are picking up children.
Safety on the job site has been key. "We've had zero accidents on the job," Schwinghammer said.
Field said students have also respected the construction zone and drivers have responded well to the rerouted traffic flow.
Depending on how much of the $1 million contingency fund is left when the project is done, Carlson said one idea for spending some of the money is to air condition the buildings "so we're not restricted to nine-month school year and we can actually look at a 12-month school year, which would be an interesting concept."
Carlson said if the district wants to get "really serious" about the achievement gap consideration should be given to a year-round school calendar.