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Elementary school design unveiled

Innovative building plans passed unanimously
This aerial map provides a basic layout of the initial design for North Liberty’s upcoming elementary school, slated for completion fall 2019. (image provided by Duane VanHemert)

NORTH LIBERTY– Residents of North Liberty and the surrounding community can anticipate a stylish new elementary school in their near future. During the Oct. 10 Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) Board of Education meeting, a unique building design was presented for the upcoming elementary school in North Liberty.
“We really wanted to do something different,” said Director of Facilities Duane Van Hemert.
The committee that worked on the schematics included principals of Penn Elementary, Garner Elementary and James Van Allen Elementary, as well as other faculty from said schools. They chose FRK Architects and Engineers out of Des Moines to bring their ideas to life. The firm’s portfolio includes schools in Waukee and Johnston.
“They’ve got a pretty good reputation, do a lot of projects,” Van Hemert said. “We’ve had a lot of plans that get kind of repetitive in the Iowa City, so we wanted to come up with a different plan on a different site.”
Vassil Petrov, architect with FRK, presented the schematic design for the new school which included a proposed site plan, floor plan, and a massing study. He credited the committee for helping make the design more forward-looking.
With no road to the north, no commercial access to the west, and restriction to a future North Bend extension to the south, Petrov cited the unique and in some ways challenging puzzle the school posed.
The 22-acre plot is located near Centro Inc. and South Slope Communications in northeast North Liberty. The southeast part of the hilly property marks its highest point, with the grade gently sloping down west and north.
The unconventional, multi-level building is a product of the unique terrain on which it is to be constructed. Petrov assured that his firm chose to make good use of site topography.
According to schematics, the main entrance will be located at the south end of building. This area will provide space for parent drop-off surrounding visitor and staff parking. The west side of the building is expected to have service access and bus drop-off.
A future extension of North Bend Drive leaves a small portion of the site on south side of the road which Petrov said could potentially serve as overflow parking space.
The north will be dedicated to playgrounds and water detention. Three pairs of playground areas are to be strategically located around the building with one dedicated to the kindergarten and pre-K classes while the other two serve upper grades.
The new school will house preschool through sixth grade classes. Although it will have space for 600 students, its attendance zone is to be determined next year.
The principals in the design committee asserted the need for collaborative spaces, a modern architectural concept employed liberally in the initial school designs.
As opposed to traditional eight-foot wide hallways with lockers on both sides, the committee chose collaboration spaces for the sake of social interaction among students. So as the hallway opens up, circulation paths form a series of terraced collaboration spaces tstepping down with the terrain.
According to the initial designs, two administrative and classroom wings are located on the north slide of building. The wings are connected by the building’s “central spine” which will contain common areas. The music room and gymnasium sit on a two-and-a-half-foot recessed platform. The art room, seven-and-a-half-feet lower than the main level, will extend into a collaboration space. Amphitheater seating which sits between the art room and media room collaboration spaces provides more room for open activities. The multi-level design meets ADA requirements through its employment of ramps as opposed to elevators. A geothermal system and energy-efficient lighting will also be incorporated.
The school’s construction will be funded by the $191.5 million bond Iowa City school district voters approved in September. With a budget for the project running $18, 893,616, and a construction estimate of $14,858,000, as of October, the school design is under budget. A ten percent contingency was also built into this budget. The City of North Liberty recently adopted the International Building Code which will require a storm shelter to be built into the school. This was not factored into the design, and its inclusion could add another $500,000 to the project.
Not everyone attending the ICCSD schematics presentation was enthusiastic about the unusual designs. During the Oct. 10 meeting, Board Member Phil Hemingway offered skepticism, described it as an “X-Wing fighter design” and contended its unconventional approach under the question of future costs. This led to an opposing exchange.
“A compact site that had four corners would be cheaper to form up and build than a sprawling, 45-corner foundation,” he said.
“But no fun to build,” Van Hemert retorted.
Hemingway emphasized the benefits of a more traditional design, insisting the building should be functional.
“It is functional,” Van Hemert shot back.
Hemingway went on to cite future budgeting hurdles the board may face in light of such an unorthodox design.
“I think we’ve missed a tremendous opportunity to build generational buildings, decide on a plan… standardize it,” he declared. “Because then, every time you upgrade it, you know the cost going in.”
Budgeting debate notwithstanding, the school board unanimously passed the new design.
It’s important to note, the designs presented are not finalized and have been revised since the Oct. 10 presentation, including a two-story addition.
“We had to simplify some of the spaces,” Petrov explained on Nov. 9. In particular, he cited an alteration to the terraced down, shared collaboration spaces.
“Now we have more of a conventional hallway on one level and a two-story building at the far north end,” he added.
The name of the new elementary school has yet to be determined. Committee members plan to recommend a name to the school board at its Jan. 23 meeting. Completion is scheduled for fall 2019.