Somers Middle School project changes course after soil report

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The Somers Middle School construction project is headed in a different direction months after a soil report showed the structure could be compromised in the event of a major earthquake.

Architect Max Grebe of L’Heureux Page Werner presented the new, two-story plan to administrators and a design oversight committee on Aug. 9.

The new layout incorporates elements of the original plan, but in a tighter, two-story configuration.

“We took all the square footage, pushed it in together and then stacked it into a two-level facility, which gives us a lot of efficiency, and that efficiency is allowing us to stay in the confines of the budget,” Grebe said.

The construction project is funded by a $15.8 million bond issue approved by voters in October 2017 for “... designing, constructing, furnishing, and equipping additions and renovations to Somers Middle School, to include classrooms, a gymnasium, a kitchen and lunchroom, a shop, a science lab, upgrades to the main school office area, building-wide security enhancements, related amenities and improvements at the existing Somers Middle School campus.”

While the square footage of the new design will be reduced, Grebe said there will be just as much “usable space” as there was in the original design.

“[You] had a lot more hallway space in the old design then we do in the new one,” Grebe said describing the new design as a “pinwheel layout,” with a more centralized commons area, shorter hallways and interconnected spaces.

Parent Ross Lackey, expressed concerns that the more compact design would impact how shared spaces such as the commons/dining and amphitheater/stage areas could be used at one time for different purposes.

“We may have lost the distinct spaces between our dining area and what could be a teaching space, student space, presentation space, but now because it’s so intertwined, one will interrupt another,” Lackey said.

Somers Middle School Principal Rose McIntyre said that the new design will make it easier to monitor students and noted that the entire student body eats lunch at the same time, which shouldn’t affect performances, for example.

“Coming from my world, I think it’s great,” McIntyre said, using indoor recess as an example of being able to supervise students in a central location where they could be in the commons, stage, library and gym.

Construction was halted before crews could break ground in June after soil samples taken in the area of the school’s lower parking lot showed the presence of wet, loose, sandy soil that may leave the building vulnerable to damage in the event of an earthquake. At the time, Grebe described the results as a “worse than the worst-case scenario they could imagine,” according to Somers-Lakeside School District Superintendent Joe Price.

A one-story wing built in 1993 is situated south of the school, on land that slopes downward to where the lower parking lot is located. Originally, new construction included renovating the 1993 wing and building a two-story addition into the hillside. Two older wings built in the ’50s and ’60s were slated for demolition in 2019.

Although this magnitude earthquake was described as a one-in-500 years event by Joshua Smith of Slopeside Engineering in a June Daily Inter Lake article, the seismic requirements of modern building codes mean the facility has to be designed and constructed to withstand a 6.0-magnitude earthquake with the epicenter a little more than six miles away from the school.

The question of continuing plans to renovate the 1993 wing has been a challenge. Initially, architects wanted to build an entirely new school away from the problematic area, but that wouldn’t fulfill the ballot language for the bond issue, which requires some level of renovation work and construction of an addition.

“We’re circling back now and talking about how can we make this an addition and remodel and stay within the confines of the bond language,” Grebe said.

Early on in the meeting, it was suggested to remodel the existing gym as an auxiliary gym since it’s located away from the sandy soil and linked it to the rest of the building by a sidewalk or covered walkway. The idea was to then demolish the 1993 wing.

Somers-Lakeside School District trustee Courtney Shaeffer was concerned with how the community would respond to that idea, since demolishing the carpeted gym was a big selling point of the project. There were also concerns over the cost and that it would be the first part of the building seen by visitors.

After more discussion, there was agreement on retaining the 1993 wing, but possibly remodeling it into a storage facility.

“We still have major soils issues and putting kids in there, there’s danger associated with that,” Grebe said about the wing, later adding. “Again, the probability of that earthquake happening is very low, but that doesn’t change that we have to design to it.”

Architects will further refine the new design and work with Swank Enterprises to pin down costs.

Construction is now anticipated to begin in the spring of 2019 with the project completed in the fall of 2020.

The public is invited to attend an open house at the school, where architects will be available to answer questions, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 30.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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