Built in 1929, Reynolds Middle School was once well-suited to the needs of the children of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But after 90 years of growth and evolving educational needs, renovation had lagged and the school needed major upgrading. That’s what a far-sighted school district is doing now.
Arriving in 2007 as Chief of Finance and Operations for the School District of Lancaster, Matthew Przywara found the school board’s prior administration had already conducted several feasibility studies and except for building a second high school in 1996 and expanding another high-school building, it had been years since any major renovation work had been done, district-wide.
“In terms of the other 20 buildings in the district, we hadn’t really been keeping up for various reasons, including a lot of funding shortages,” Przywara says.
The school district immediately embarked on what was then a 10-year plan to renovate and improve the buildings. The project is now in its twelfth year, and realistically has another decade to go. Put into phases, the School District of Lancaster is now in Phase 3 of the process, with each phase comprising about four buildings. “So when we need funding, we go out and look at a budget based on four projects at one time” Przywara says.
Working in any occupied space presents hurdles. The team involved – Przywara; Rodney Glick of Fidevia Construction Management and Consulting; Partner and Principal Architect Donald Main of MAROTTA/MAIN ARCHITECTS; and Director of Strategic Communications Adam Aurand – has done a tremendous job of keeping the Reynolds Middle School project on track, and keeping stakeholders and members of the community informed.
With the school project itself in phases, and presently in Phase 6, one challenge was where to teach children in safety, since there was no place to move the students within the school. The solution: divide Reynolds into small sections, renovate those sections, and domino through the building by opening classrooms, renovating, and reoccupying classrooms. “It has been a slightly slower process because of that,” says Main. “We have to go out and do small phasing, because there isn’t additional space on the site.”
Presented with other challenges, including rock obstructions while digging and asbestos removal, the most challenging was water. Last year in mid-December an exterior water main broke, flooding the school over the weekend. Finding its way along a pipe, the water entered the school, flooding the basement and ruining new switchgear and other items just installed. Most concerning was that other electrical gear and brand new boilers were also in place.
Addressing the issue immediately with crews working around the clock, the School District of Lancaster issued a statement that the structure would be closed for the rest of the week, with electricity shut-off. “We realize this may be an inconvenience for families. However, we simply have no other option, as we have been informed the building’s mechanical systems will not be safe for students and staff to return. The district is assured that the building is structurally sound.”
Although the flood caused almost half a million dollars in damage, it could have been much worse. Fortunately, the boilers were salvageable, being installed in one of the highest points of the building, and no water entered the electronics.
Diesel pumps, and fans to prevent mold, were brought in immediately and run for three straight days. Damaged equipment was quickly replaced. “We all rallied together, including contractors and suppliers who came to the rescue very quickly,” says Glick. “We were able to have that school up and running within a week and a half of the event.” Despite the flood, Reynolds Middle School remains on track to meet its completion date this October.
Unique raised play deck
While reviewing zoning requirements for parking on the school site, project coordinators saw that most of the site had been black-topped, and cars were not parking according to current zoning code. This was compounded by the tight urban site, and the need for a play area for children.
The solution? Create a play deck on top of parking, so cars will be parked on-grade. Shaped so students have some parity with the other three middle schools in the school district, which have adjacent fields and outdoor acreage, the elevated play deck will feature synthetic turf and a running track, a walkway leading to stairs, a wheelchair-accessible ramp, and low-level night security lighting for exercising students.
The deck measures 225 by 110 feet, with 68 parking spaces. “The tricky part of it is, normally a synthetic turf field is located on-grade; here we are putting synthetic turf and an elevated concrete structure, so how do we combine those methods of construction?” says Przywara.
For future generations
The Reynolds Middle School was originally designed by well-known Pennsylvania-based architect C. Emlen Urban, who was also behind the Lancaster Trust Company building, Stevens High School, the Hager Building, the Hershey Community Center Building in Hershey, and other iconic structures. A historic building, Reynolds Middle School also has the distinction of being Urban’s final work, with parts of his original design being painstakingly preserved for future generations.
“So we are actually rehabilitating the exterior so that the original exterior main facades of the building are being restored to the way it looked when it was originally constructed,” comments Przywara, “and all the windows are being replaced with units that reflect the original building design.” The main lobby, existing auditorium with balcony, and other historic features not typical of contemporary architectural design are also being preserved.
Other elements of the structure are being dramatically transformed. The third floor cafeteria has been relocated to ground level, improving accessibility and practicality. There is now a true library / media center at the back of the building – relocated from the second floor – together with expanded space for physical education at the back. While the media center will continue to have books and resources and serve as a library, it is being modernized to accommodate current learning practices, with more open room and movable ergonomic furniture for classrooms, so students can transform it into their own learning space.
A new grouping
Another unique aspect of the Reynolds project is the way students will be grouped – in clusters of four classrooms – rotating between primary subject areas which include math, science, social studies, and language, so students don’t have to move extended distances within the building. “The whole building was reconfigured to support that pedagogy, the education within the building, so there is parity there with other middle schools,” says Przywara of the work.
At an estimated construction cost of $19.6 million, the school’s reconfiguration provides an appropriate number of classrooms for current educational requirements. Reynolds has come a long way with a building constructed in 1927-29, dating from a time when there were no pressing requirements in special education, and other areas of instruction that we take for granted did not exist. Now, all are being accommodated.
With at least 60 various trades on site daily, locals are being kept informed of progress through email, flyers, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Once completed, the Reynolds Middle School will serve as a suitable and entirely adequate home for students for generations to come.
“This is a project that brings out the best in everyone,” says architect Main. “When we come together, everyone is involved. It’s not just about contractors building or renovating a building, it’s about a neighborhood. It’s about teachers, students, administration, contractors, architects, engineers, construction managers, everyone pulling together and going through every obstacle that could come up, whether it’s a lot of rain, manpower issues, whatever, we all make it happen.
“It is a testament to the great willpower of human beings coming together to make something happen. So it’s been very exciting to see the amount of demo and work that has gone into bringing this project to life.”