Opportunities and challenges at the two elementary school building sites becoming clearer

By Sarah Marshall

At a virtual Community Forum held last night, hosted by the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC), Donna DiNisco of DiNisco Design led the audience through major aspects of the work undertaken so far to generate a specific proposal for a new elementary school combining the Wildwood and Fort River schools.

This update from the architectural team and its consultants comes as the ESBC works to develop the “preferred option” for a school by June 27. The preferred option, which is yet to be decided, will specify the location of the school, whether an entirely new school will be built or a renovation and addition project undertaken, and whether a new school will be two or three stories.

After a quick review of the feedback received from educators and the public at a series of community outreach events, the DiNisco team summarized the subsurface challenges posed by each potential building site. The Fort River property, very close to the Fort River, is widely recognized as wet, with much of it within the flood plain or wetlands and therefore not buildable. At that site, the groundwater table is within one to four feet of the ground surface. Interestingly, the Wildwood School, while markedly uphill of the Fort River school, also has a high water table (two to five feet below ground surface). The buildable area at Wildwood is limited by the steep slopes to the north and east of the current school. Both sites have relatively impervious but squishy soils that will not support multistory construction without improvement.

Existing Fort River school, showing wet areas

The engineering consultants described the site conditions at Fort River as not unusual for the Pioneer Valley, and pointed to the Easthampton High School, constructed about eight years ago on similar soils. Some of the engineering measures used there – which might also be called for at Fort River or Wildwood – have performed well. Options include sinking deep columns of aggregate to stiffen the soil, or pre-loading the site to compress the soil before pouring a foundation. The soils underlying the flat area behind Wildwood – created by fill cut out of the front of the property – would also require modification in order to support a building. However, the best way to manage water at Fort River is to elevate the new building, parking, and play areas by adding a layer of earth throughout.

The developable area at the Fort River site is larger than at Wildwood, but Fort River includes several athletic fields, which Wildwood does not have. Nevertheless, each site can accommodate a new multistory building or an addition to a renovated existing school, as illustrated by several conceptual designs.

All designs address numerous objectives, such as grouping spaces that the community might use (on Election Day, for example, or for a School Committee meeting) together so that access to educational spaces can be restricted. Maximizing natural light, integrating special education, and grouping classrooms by grade with shared project space are additional design goals. And all designs must incorporate the spaces for each room and function already proposed to the funding authority.

Here is one of three concepts for a 3-story building, which could be sited at either location in an east-west orientation to maximize natural light indoors. Since students must remain in the existing school during construction of the new school, the new building must be located elsewhere on the property.

Conceptual design for a 3-story building at either site. Outlines of the current schools are shown in black

Options for a 2-story design were also presented. Necessarily, such a building has a larger footprint, takes up more of the site, and must be oriented to fit. Students need to walk farther, construction cost is likely more, but more roof would be available for photovoltaic panels.

A 2-story building must be fitted to each site, away from the current buildings.

Finally, an “add/reno” concept was shown. The current Fort River and Wildwood buildings are identical, with classrooms in quads along outside walls and a windowless library in the middle, so the design envisions removing the library to make a courtyard and allow more daylight into classrooms, and putting a two-story addition at one end. The addition would contain the cafetorium (combined cafeteria and auditorium, standard now in elementary schools) on the first floor with the gymnasium above it. The old gymnasium would become the library/media center.

The vertical black line in the left drawing separates the renovated existing space (left) from the 2-story addition.

None of these designs is “the” design – we are not choosing among them. They are possibilities that satisfy the requirements of the project and can be fitted to the two sites. Over the next several weeks, these three concepts (or variations thereof) will be submitted to cost estimators, along with some construction requirements pertaining to insulation, windows, etc. and the information about site conditions. Estimates for constructing such buildings at each of the two sites, so six options in all, will be generated. Using this and other information, for example about traffic impacts, the ESBC will then choose the site and basic construction option – new or add/reno, 2 or 3 stories. There will be another Community Forum, on June 9, before the preferred option is chosen.

4 thoughts on “Opportunities and challenges at the two elementary school building sites becoming clearer”

  1. When the time is right, I hope each option will include its total price tag, including demolition of the old building.


  2. A consideration will be where do you put the students during construction. With the old design, the one the voters approved (two schools in one), they planned to build one side, move the students over, and then tear down the old school and build the other colocated school, and move the rest of the students in. With either of these designs, the question “where do you put the students during construction” will come up. So let me ask, in any of these proposals where do you put the students during construction?


  3. From Cinda Jones: In my experience the more simple and square the building and parking lot foot prints the more economical the builds. I hope estimates are done for simple square parking lots and buildings that don’t require complicated edge forms. Let’s make smart and learning start with construction not just in resulting classrooms.


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