Now that the Sandy Hook School Building Task Force has made its recommendation to construct a new facility on the site of the existing school, Public Building and Site Commission Chairman Robert Mitchell believes he can put himself in the place of many of the task force members as they struggled toward their goal.
“A part of me wished they could put off the decision another year,” he told The Bee this week, just days after the task force completed its nearly eight-week process. “But we really can’t wait.”
Earlier in the conversation, he identified with another emotion he imagined task force members may have all felt at some point, or throughout the intensive and sometimes highly emotional process.
“Frankly I’m terrified,” he said, adding that the work his team must accomplish will be scrutinized with “a spotlight under a microscope.”
“I just don’t want to do it wrong,” he admitted.
Despite his immediate and personal concerns, Mr Mitchell and fellow PBSC volunteers, along with a growing number of experts and consultants coming to or advising on the project, are ready to begin. As the sanctioned building committee for the Sandy Hook School project, few if any details of it will escape its members’ oversight as the project moves toward a January 2016 target date for reopening.
Mr Mitchell and town leaders have already secured a position for the project with the primary state agency qualifying and authorizing reimbursement, even though the required plans will be launched well past that agency’s current year deadline for new school project funding.
With that accommodation recently confirmed, the PBSC secured Diversified Project Management of Hartford to manage the day-to-day aspects as the new school project ramps up. Mr Mitchell, an architect by profession, said his interest in using this company was that it does not typically engage in school projects.
But he sees that as a huge advantage, because many firms engaged in school design “just cram it all into a box.”
“Diversified will bring in a school building partner,” he said. But with Diversified’s expertise working on large-scale private sector commercial projects, “they can get the job done at the expedited pace that will be necessary.”
That planned pace is purposeful. Mr Mitchell hopes to deliver a new school that will open in time for this year’s first graders to occupy the building for at least half of their final year at Sandy Hook School. The PBSC chairman said this project will also likely require his commissioners to meet biweekly rather than monthly over the duration of the build.
He said that fast-tracking will not minimize any aspects of the planned quality of the finished product, but Mr Mitchell hopes it will help bring the new school in at or under budget. Within six weeks, he plans to have the entire building and advisory team together and focused on the tasks at hand.
“We have an awful lot of thought time to put in on this,” he said.
Envisioning Finished Facility
With the likely building site chosen, Mr Mitchell said it is time to begin envisioning the finished product.
“We need a building that expresses what Sandy Hook is,” he said, adding that “we need to begin thinking proactively about building and designing for what the IT infrastructure will be ten-plus years out.”
To help assist in that, Mr Mitchell has made a request to bring the Walt Disney Imagineering team in to consult. He is also pitching involvement to some of the world’s renowned architects, hoping they will agree to advise on the project at little or no added cost.
Through his firm’s many contacts, Mr Mitchell said those vendors have been lining up for months, anxious to donate specific hardware and other services specifically for the new Sandy Hook School. He said everything from pricy high-end custom lighting equipment to a fully functioning weather station have been offered.
At the same time, Mr Mitchell said it is critical to retain some aspects of the existing school. Whether it is sections of some of the classrooms where generations of SHS graduates enjoyed lessons, bricks from the existing building that will become part of the exterior or interior of the new school, or perhaps the existing Sandy Hook School letters which can be affixed to the new facility, he wants occupants and visitors to be able to reach out and touch something associated with the original building.
Mr Mitchell plans to bring both town and school mental health professionals into the process, to be sure that design elements enhance the recovery and healing processes the community will continue to promote long after the new facility is open.
He said the new school could also serve as a model for post-12/14 educational and security planning. The US Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Division is among many agencies planning to shadow the design and building process, Mr Mitchell said.
“They are rewriting the book on making schools safe without making them look like a fortress,” Mr Mitchell said. While specific safety and security measures will be kept under wraps, he said the building will be designed with an “all hazards” approach — meaning that besides protecting occupants from unwanted human intrusion, it will also be fortified and contain safety systems to best protect staff and students from natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornados, and fire.
“If we approach it with an eye on protecting everyone from natural disasters, we are 80 percent of the way there providing a hardened, safe building,” he said. “Sandy Hook School may become a [facility] to showcase a lot of safety applications not yet available to the school building industry, or at least not widespread.”
Ultimately, it is Mr Mitchell’s goal to shepherd a project that will deliver a new Sandy Hook School that beckons and welcomes all, but especially its staff and children.
“I like to describe a successful finished project as frozen music,” he said. “In other words, when I’ve finished a building that really works well for all [of its occupants], I like to say ‘this building really sings.’”
This report was updated May 17 on the request of Mr Mitchell revising an incorrect reference made during his interview.