Construction heats up at Milwaukie High School
If Steve Nicholas were asked his idea of a dream team for a construction project, there's a good chance the senior construction project manager for CBRE Heery would point to the companies he's already working with on the Milwaukie High School project.
The North Clackamas School District has several renovation and new construction projects in the works as the result of what was a $433 million construction bond when it was approved by voters in November 2016. The Milwaukie High School project, on which CBRE Heery is serving as the district's program and project manager, is the most complex of the bunch, according to Nicholas.
"I've done this for a long time and this is probably the most challenging project I've ever done," he said. "It's got so many moving parts, so many phases."
The project, which started construction in summer 2018 and will be significantly completed by December 2020, consists of four phases. In addition to demolishing a circa-1920s main building and replacing it with a new three-story, 128,000 square-foot structure, crews, led by Skanska USA Building as construction manager-general contractor, have been tasked with renovating a Commons building to include an expanded kitchen.
While each phase comes with its own technical challenges, the project as a whole also is faced with market and industry pressures such as unstable materials prices and skilled labor shortages.
Despite those hurdles, work on the Milwaukie project has held steady in large part because of what Nicholas and other members of the project team say has been a full-on commitment to thorough planning and constant communication by everyone involved, a combination that's helped the project stay on track — and on schedule.
"We have not missed a completion date," Shawn Aubrey, Skanska USA Building's superintendent for the project, said.
Summer may mean vacation for students, but for the team working on the Milwaukie High School project it's been a time to ramp up efforts with crews on the site six or seven days of the week.
"It's been nonstop for the past two summers," Nicholas said.
When district officials decided something needed to be done to bring the nearly 100-year-old main high school building into the 21st century, they conducted a study to see if it was feasible to renovate the structure. It was determined, however, that the best plan of action would be to completely replace it.
In order to continue with classes during the two years it would take to construct a new academic building, the district decided to house students and teachers in 33 modular buildings to serve as classrooms, a health center and rest rooms.
The planning for the trailers and their placement on an athletic field on the Milwaukie campus took seven months, followed by Skanska and its crews spending last summer creating a wet zone. Water, electrical and sewer services were connected so that trailers could be outfitted for restrooms. One trailer features a chemistry lab fully stocked, right down to the fume hood.
Meanwhile, other crews removed hazardous materials from the old school building and then demolished the structure along with a smaller boiler building. Before that summer was over, construction had started on the new academic building and Skanska had completed a $6 million renovation of the school's Lake Road athletic fields.
"The summer of 2018 was insane," Nicholas said. "There was a sequence of operations of what we had to do logistically just to get the building down and house the kids."
Construction on the new building continued as students filled the modular trailers for the 2018-19 school year, with crews scheduling work to minimize noise disruptions to students and teachers as well as neighbors in nearby houses and apartment buildings.
This summer, as the main building continues to rise, crews also will expand a kitchen in an existing Commons building, adding an extra 700 square feet to the area, and will renovate other areas of that structure.
The main school building is expected to be finished in about a year. By July of next year, crews will be set to begin moving in furniture so that the building will be ready for the first day of class in fall 2020. The modular classrooms will be removed and the field surface will be replaced. The health center, currently in one of the trailers, will be permanently relocated in the Commons building.
The scope of that last phase of the project also has been expanded to include approximately $1 million worth of painting work for the Commons, an existing gymnasium and performing arts buildings. A seismic retrofit of the gymnasium also is planned before Skanska's contract with the district officially ends in February 2021.
"By the time (the) contract ends, the campus will have been completely updated," Nicholas said.
While the old academic building may be gone, it hasn't been forgotten.
Despite the building's issues — from classrooms too small for today's teaching methods to outdated technology — BRIC Architecture as lead architect still found plenty of inspiration in the structure.
A media center that will serve as a prominent feature in the new building, for example, will boast a double height influenced by the 1925 structure.
"We took cues from the old building," Ian Reynolds, project architect, said. "Some of the proportions, we looked at that and tried to figure out how to make a modern interpretation on it."
Even with a nod to the original main school structure, students will still likely find plenty to be impressed with when they walk into the main lobby of the new building when school starts in fall 2020.
A new glass-faced lobby will feature seat steps. While the steps are a feature that has become popular in public spaces in recent years, the approach also helped solve a challenge posed by an eight-foot differential the design team ran into while trying to figure out how to connect the Commons building with the new main school.
"That's what kind of created the whole lobby with the seating steps — making sure we could connect into the Commons like (the district) originally wanted to while making do with the existing grades on the backside of the site," Reynolds said.
In addition to an entryway between the Commons and the new building on the left side of the lobby, a new maker-space area will sit directly above the seat steps. On the right side of the lobby, the media center, featuring glass and wood, will sit above new ground-floor administrative offices, which had been located in the Commons building.
The new design also features an abundance of spaces flooded with natural light and modern heating and ventilation solutions that emphasis a steady flow of fresh air to create a healthy, vibrant learning environment.
"It's going to be a completely new experience for (students)," Reynolds said. "The freshman and sophomores (now), going from the old building to the modular classrooms to (the new building), I don't think you could get any three different experiences out of your high school career."
While the Milwaukie project hasn't come with the tight site challenges that plague many construction efforts in the Portland metro area, it has had its share of unique obstacles. One of the earliest popped up even before the first shovel of dirt was overturned.
The 125-year-old three-story main school building had been modified over the years, so there was little left of the initial art deco design, according to Nicholas.
"At one time it was a really beautiful building. But the reality was that the building was remodeled so many times, there really wasn't a lot of the original structural (left)," he said.
The site, however, was deemed to be historically significant. So, the district and the project team had to follow a list of requirements to receive permission from the State Historic Preservation Office to demolish the building. Those steps included placing the building up for sale for 30 days, providing a detailed plan of how asbestos in the structure would be mitigated, and outlining how any contents of the building that did have historical significance would be handled to preserve them.
"There were not a lot of artifacts in the building, per se, but (BRIC Architecture) still got creative when it came to salvaging lumber from the structure," Nicholas said.
Inlays on the seat steps, for example, are made from wood salvaged from the building as well as a wall accent that will be located in the administrative offices on the ground-floor of the lobby. Wood trim from the south entrance of the original building will be incorporated into the south entry of the new structure.
Creative reuse of materials even extended to one of two large cedar trees, both estimated to be at least 90 years old, that stood outside the main entrance of the old school. Although one of the trees will remain in place, the second tree had to be removed.
"The base of that tree was huge, and it took them about 45 minutes just to fall it," Nicholas said.
The girth of the tree and the size of its limbs allowed the architecture team to come up with several unique ways to repurpose the wood.
A slice of the base of the tree will be turned into a timeline for the school, with significant events marked by the tree's rings. Another section of the base was sent to Salem, where a woodcarver is turning it into a carving of a mustang, the school's mascot. When completed, the statue will find a permanent home in the new ground-floor lobby near the main entrance.
The hefty limbs will be cut into slabs. Students in the high school's tech classes are making iron letters that will be used to brand the slabs so that they can be sold or raffled off for fundraising efforts.
With construction activity still running at a crazy pace in the Portland metro area and the pool of available skilled workers at an all-time low, Nicholas and Skanska's team decided to bring subcontractors together to give them greater buy-in on the project. The approach also helped ensure that workers would be available when it came time for them to show up to work on their portion of the project.
We spent a lot of time ... with our subs, getting them to buy into what we're doing," Aubrey said. "We're kind of changing over from this is us, this is the schedule, you've got to live and die by the schedule. We're bringing them in to have a little skin in the game and take an ownership of their duration."
The ability to keep the project on track also was helped by district officials.
"I've worked with a lot of (school) districts, and (North Clackamas School District) is really savvy," Nicholas said. "This client understands that decision making is very important to keeping the project on schedule ... that they need (to provide) timely responses to the contractor to keep (work) ... moving forward."