Monday, December 15, 2014

St. Michael's School modernization plans unveiled

Judy Lane, Chris Smeaton, Daniel Westwood, Don Kuchison, Lisa Palmarin
with illustration of planned commons area at St. Michael's school
Chris Davis

An open house was held in the mall at St. Michael's School on Tuesday evening December 9. A small group of interested parents, students, and educators came to see the approved final plans for the upcoming modernization of the school. In attendance to answer questions were Daniel Westwood of Ferrari Westwood Babits Architects, Holy Spirit School Board Superintendent Chris Smeaton, Holy Spirit Ward 4 Trustee Judy Lane, Holy Spirit Secretary-Treasurer Lisa Palmarin, and St. Michael's Principal Don Kuchison. "It's an exciting evening for the parents to come and see the visuals," said Trustee Judy Lane.

On January 28 of this year then Alberta Minister of Infrastructure Ric McIver appeared at St. Michael's to announce the school was greenlit for Provincial funds for the project.

St. Michael's celebrated its 110th anniversary this year. According to Holy Spirit School board documents "Its enrolment has remained fairly static over the past several years and is projected to remain at between 330 and 372 students in the long term. St. Michael’s School is unique in that it offers a K – 12 program in one facility and houses the only divisional French Immersion program outside of the City of Lethbridge". It was originally constructed in 1954, and additions were made in 1962, 1966, 1986 and 1992. "The most recent building facility audit, conducted by Alberta Infrastructure in August 2010, indicates that the building is generally in marginal condition." Total cost for the upcoming "right-sizing" modernization was projected to be approximately $11.5 million, with a completion date of September 2017.

Ferarri Westwood Babits Architects (FWBA) is headquartered in Lethbridge.  FWBA designs schools, post-secondary institutions, arts and culture facilities, dwellings, and healthcare, religious, office, government, and commercial structures.  Among their many recent/current projects: Holy Spirit Board Office, Claresholm K-6 School Modernization, Crowsnest Consolidated High School, Raymond High School, Lethbridge College New Learner Residence, University of Lethbridge Health and Wellness Center, University of Lethbridge Student Union, Lethbridge Community Arts Centre, Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Lethbridge City Hall, and Lethbridge Police Headquarters.

FWBA co-principal Daniel Westwood explained various aspects of the project. The company, founded in 1928, lays claim to being the oldest continuing architectural practice in Western Canada. In answer to my query as to the length of a design process like this one he said it took "Usually about six months from the beginning of the design to the end of working drawings. We are looking at the end of design drawings here, and we still have until about March before we will issue for tender. Once the design has been approved we go into the working drawings, that is the blueprints. That takes almost twice the design time. We figure out all the nuts and bolts that are going into it." Westwood explained that it was things that aren't shown in the basic drawings of the plan that take the most time, such as mechanical systems, electrical design, and plumbing, to name a few. 

Proposed elevations of St. Michael's School modernization

Westwood outlined the changes coming to St. Michael's.  "Architectural finishes will be upgraded... and we are changing the planning of the school. The exterior is going to get some changes to it, obviously including the demolition of the old gymnasium. Other than that there will be the removal of a pitched roof on the second story wing, a change in the metal cladding on the gymnasium that remains (the Dale Wentz Memorial Gymnasium), and more natural lighting by increasing the window area." He said the existing windows would at least double in size, and additional windows will be added to the library and drama rooms. "That will become CTS  (Career and Technologies Studies) space , and more windows for the music room. "There will be natural lighting for all those spaces."

Gathering space/learning commons
"There is a multiple use CTS lab. It does have three kitchen stations for Foods. Also there is a lot of cabinetry and storage for other CTS. They're going to be doing everything from light woodwork, and other clean CTS equipment." Westwood also explained that regular woodworking and automotive studies is not part of the plan for the new CTS space. There will be a suite of high end computers near the library "For CAD (Computer Aided Design) and that sort of thing."

"The whole idea is to create a central gathering space where students and teachers can come together on a daily basis, and produce a social aspect of a personal education. It really enhances community development within the school."

"Off this central area, we will have the drama area," which incorporates glass walls and curtaining. The current administration area will remain in the same place but will be redesigned and will be adjacent to the new central gathering area. "They will be able to monitor that area from there."

Daycare, pre-K and Kindergarten will have their own enclosed exterior play area. "That will be fenced off from the rest of the play area."

I asked him if it was more difficult to retrofit an existing structure compared to building a new one. "It's not too bad, as long as we have funding, which this school has done better than some of the other modernizations in terms of dollars per square foot. We are able to do what we were setting up to do at the beginning of the project. There hasn't been undue pressure on this project, budget-wise."

The result will be a smaller school in terms of square footage with better usage of the space remaining. At the present time St. Michael's School has an official capacity of 626 students and is approximately 58% utilized. Once the renovations are completed it is expected to be utilised in the 70% range. "This school will still be able to handle 450 students, the student enrolment is more like 365 right now, so it is still going to be bigger than it needs to be."

One of the biggest changes to the profile of the school will be the demolishing of the old gymnasium at the north end of the structure, which has a beautiful mural on it that faces the new playground. The removal of the old gym hasn't been significantly lamented, but the eradication of the mural has been. Plans are apparently afoot to possibly save it.

Holy Spirit School Board Superintendent Chris Smeaton said the modernization has been a long time coming. "It has been a top priority of the board, for many years," he said. "It's pretty exciting, but now it is a long process. It is going to be exciting when it gets done."

"We are hoping that the tender will probably go out in April."

"Because it is a modernization, we will look to the construction management team for how are we going to do that. I'm guessing it will be close to 24 months from the time we get in the ground to the time we can open."

St. Michael's High School students will be housed at the currently vacant Foothills Community Church building, located on the crest of the northwest hill next to Vista Village.

"We will do the modernization in phases," Smeaton explained. "You have to have a whole lot of patience, but in the end you will have a beautiful building."

St. Michael's isn't the only Holy Spirit school on the renovation list. "We actually have three," explained Smeaton. "This modernization, a new school that is in West Lethbridge (with construction to start in May 2015), and we've also been given a modernization project out in Taber that will start a number of years down the road. This shows the astuteness and advocacy of the trustees."

Smeaton was unequivocal in his support of the plans for St. Michael's. "This is an exceptional design. They really listened to the school community, and were able to put something together that everybody is going to be very happy about. It doesn't get everything on Santa's wish list, but it is pretty darn close."

St. Michael's Principal Don Kuchison started as the Associate Principal before moving into his current role in 2011. "I have worked on all the stages of the project," he said. What's the most exciting thing about the modernization project for him? "I think it is the new plan and the new design because it fits a 21st century learning environment," he said. "It allows for a lot more creativity, in terms of designing learning spaces, as opposed to classrooms.

"We are changing the whole concept of library. That's changing around the world, anyway. They are becoming more of a learning commons, where you can have access to a whole lot more different approaches, not just read and take out books, but have access to technology."

New library

"It fits very well with the whole concept of a maker space, that I know libraries and learning commons are also trying to do as well. It also opens up for adult learning that is a partner here." The Pincher Creek Adult Learning Council is currently located at the school, where it is intended to remain, adjacent to the commons area. "It opens up that space for them for things that they might want to do in our building as well."

"It makes learning a little less about a classroom. It is not that the classroom will disappear, because I don't believe that will happen. We will be designing spaces where kids can learn in different kinds of environments." Kuchison said the new design will allow for more individualisation of education.

St. Michael's is, of course, a faith-based educational institution. The Holy Spirit Catholic Schools vision statement is "Christ-centered learning communities where students are cherished and achieve their potential." That purpose has been incorporated into the new design. "That aspect is still there," Principal Kuchison explained. "Instead of a chapel, we will have a faith wall in the commons area, and we will be able to gather more as a school for celebrations."

"The faith base is still there, and it's not going to disappear. We believe very strongly."

Related story:
Modernization plan for St. Michael's School announced

Related links:
Holy Spirit Capital Plan 2015-2018
Ferarri Westwood Babits Architects

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