Brewer News

Big, Bright, & Beautiful


3.01.2012 – The new Brewer Community School is the largest pre-K to eighth grade school in the state, and, many argue, the greenest school, too.  

Courtesy of Nickerson & O'Day

In 2005, the city of Brewer had had enough. They needed a new K-8 school and they needed it badly. The schools they were using—Capri Street, State Street, Washington Street, and the Brewer Middle Schools—were severely outdated. The elementary schools didn’t even have on-site kitchens.

They thought about spending money to renovate these schools, but in working with Bangor-based WBRC Architects/Engineers, realized they could save over $40 million by just building one big, bright, new school. The City of Brewer and WBRC worked together to create the most economically feasible plan possible, and to help find just the right site in which to build a “green” school using sustainable design practices.

WBRC drew up the plans for the nearly 146,000-square-foot school that would hold 1,100 students, teachers, and staff members. When working on a project of this size, a lot has to be taken into consideration. WBRC started with the numbers. How many students will be using this school? How many students will there be 20 years from now? How many teachers and staff members need office space in the building? From these numbers, WBRC deduced the total square footage of space needed.

The WBRC team also had to take the law into consideration. For example, younger kids must be located on the first floor of any school near the front of the building—where most of the adults have their offices. “Safety is always a concern,” says Jeff Davis, education studio manager for WBRC. “That’s why the main office and adults are located near the entrance of the building.

They also took the needs and wants of the teachers and community members into account when designing the blueprints. It was a team effort with a lot of input from the citizens of Brewer.

Once they decided what they needed to have and what they wanted to have, the architects began creating the shapes for the rooms, offices, and multipurpose areas—like the library and the gyms—and laying them out in the most sensible fashion.

“Designing a school has its own set of challenges,” says Steve Pedersen, senior project manager at WBRC. “You are designing it so that children of many different ages can inhabit the same space. You have to take all the rooms into consideration—you don’t want the gym or music room to be right next to a room for special education students.”

The city carefully crafted a proposal for funding and sent the preliminary plans for the $33.6 million project to the State of Maine Department of Education, and crossed their fingers.

In October 2007, the preliminary plans for the school were approved by the state. The approval for the funding came a year later. And because the funding was coming from the government, the school was going green. “The Baldacci administration mandated that all new state buildings must use green building practices,” says Karl Ward, president of Nickerson and O’Day, the contractor hired to build the school.

By December 2008, the final blueprints for the Brewer Community School were approved. Construction began on March 24, 2009.

It might have been kismet that Nickerson and O’Day, located less than half a mile from the construction site, was awarded the contract, but Karl Ward didn’t care. He was pumping his fist when the call came in.

“We try hard to choose socially redeeming projects that focus on more than just bricks and mortar,” Ward says. “We like projects that make a positive contribution to the community. As a father, this project meant a lot to me.”

Ward’s favorite part about this project was how his company got the Brewer students involved in the construction process. “The new kindergarteners visited the site before the school opened, and representatives from every class were sent to the site to help set the last piece of steel,” Ward says. Nickerson and O’Day donated a time capsule that the students filled, and placed it inside one of the walls during construction.

The bidding process for construction projects of this size is cutthroat. Contractors have a strict deadline as to when they must submit their bids to the client in a sealed envelope. Many get their bids in mere seconds before the deadline because the process of coming up with their final number includes so many sub-contractors. “One upside to a lackluster economy is a very competitive bidding climate,” says Dr. Daniel Lee, superintendent of schools for the city of Brewer. “We were delighted to have a Brewer-based general contractor and a Bangor-based designer join forces to build the school.”

It was always in the plan for the school to apply for LEED certification on some level. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and both WBRC and Nickerson and O’Day have portfolios chock-full of completed LEED projects throughout the area and the state.

“Getting LEED-certified sends a message to the community that we’re serious about sustainable building,” Pedersen says.

The trend towards green building and design has shifted the way building is done, Ward says. What were once force-fed ideas and principles are now being used in the process as the norm, instead of the alternative. The sustainable design highlights in the Brewer Community School are just plain cool.

The roof of the school is bright white so it reflects energy and negates the use of air conditioning units. Daylight is maximized throughout the school, and the lights in each room adjust to the amount of daylight pouring in through the windows. The concrete blocks that make up the walls of the main hallway don’t need added paint or chemicals, and cabinets are made with recycled wood and bio-based linoleum.

An astonishing 31% of the materials used in the building of the Brewer Community School were made from reusable material—stuff that has been recycled into its current form. The upside is that all of these materials can also be recycled in the future. Both WBRC and Nickerson and O’Day have sent in their paperwork for the LEED certification for the Brewer Community School, but the results of their efforts won’t be known for several months.

One of the most stunning works of sustainable building is the air ventilation units that are located in three different rooms in the school. These monstrous machines bring in cold air from the outside, heat the air, and distribute it throughout the school. Each classroom has a tall, white, cylindrical air vent in the corner where this fresh, warmed air flows from. The air travels across the floor and is expelled through a vent in the ceiling. The warmed air is then pumped back into the large ventilation units, and used to warm the new, fresh, colder air that came in from outside.

Why all the technology when one could simply just open a window from time to time?

“Statistics show that kids in a healthy classroom environment do better,” Pedersen says. “They get better grades, they’re more alert, and they are sick less often.”

Another technology that is helping students learn better is a speaker amplification system called REDCAT. This system, which includes a microphone worn around the neck and a sound panel placed in the back of the room, lets teachers speak naturally, filling the classroom with sound without them having to yell. It also helps amplify the students’ voices when they have classroom presentations.

Along with this cool, classroom-friendly technology, there’s a lot of back-door technology that you don’t see. For example, all of the heating and lights are automated by computers. Teachers who want to show a video in class no longer have to wheel in an audiovisual unit—all the classrooms are equipped with flat screen televisions, and the librarians can schedule and send a video to any class from the media center whenever the teachers need it.

There are also 55 security cameras mounted throughout the school. With a 30-day archive, they are meant not as a minute-by-minute surveillance, but as a backup, just in case there was ever an incident that needed to be cleared up—whether it’s a fight between students or a security breech.

“People are used to being able to go in and out of schools,” says Daniel Lee. “We have about 952 students here. We don’t know if someone is going to snag a kid and go out the back door.”

Security and comfort for any school, and particularly a school of this size, is an issue that was not lost on the team at WBRC and the adults whose job it is to get kids in and out safely over the course of the day.

What the Brewer School Department decided to do was to institute a staggered school day, meaning the older kids and younger kids would arrive at school and leave from school at two different times. The older students have a school day that starts at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 2 p.m., while the younger students start at 8:30 a.m. and leave at 3 p.m. Having nearly 1,000 students move in and out of the school at the same time was not only disorganized; it was impossible with the school bus system.

The new school was designed with five wings that house students aged 4 to 13. “Who wants to send their child to a school with 950 students?” says school principal Bill Leithiser. “That’s why we created the wings. No one’s child is in a wing with more than 200 other kids of the same age. This way, the youngest kids are completely separated from the older kids.”

The wings are named after chapters from Brewer’s landscape and history. The colors, patterns, and design themes change from wing to wing, giving students the feeling that they are moving up each year, even though they aren’t moving to a different school.

The youngest children, pre-K and kindergarteners are located in the River wing. Students in grades one and two occupy the Ice wing with third and fourth graders in the Paper wing. The Maritime wing houses the fifth and sixth graders while the oldest kids, the ones in seventh and eighth grade, are located in the Brick wing.

“The themes help younger kids find their way around the school,” says WBRC senior interior designer Lynda Casteris-El-Hajj. “For small children, this is the first building, besides their home, that they will spend a majority of their time in. It has to be a welcoming environment.”

Each wing, except the pre-K section, has brightly painted lockers for each of the students, and wide hallways that allow students to pass by each other in lines without interference. There are also benches where they can change into their winter boots that double as a quiet place for students and teachers to have some one-on-one time outside of the classroom.

No net jobs were lost when the city of Brewer decided to close down all of their elementary and middle schools to move into the Brewer Community School. “We have the same amount of students as we did before,” Leithiser says. “Now they’re just all under one roof.” The school department did make one change. They now subcontract the cleaning of the new school, realizing a $200,000 savings using a private company.

And there’s a lot of space to clean in this new school. Besides all of the classrooms, there is a cafeteria that serves breakfast and lunch, a gym, multipurpose room, library, and an auditorium that seats 482 people.

“Last week, the third graders were in the auditorium having a Skype conversation with former First Lady Barbara Bush,” Leithiser says.

While the cost to build the school—

$33.6 million—was funded directly from the federal government, the people of Brewer decided to foot the bill for the $2.6 million community-use auditorium. “The auditorium was built with all of Brewer’s students in mind,” Lee says. “Brewer has a very successful K–12 drama program, and the new auditorium will bring added theater classes to the high school curriculum.”

Another state-of-the-art area incorporated into the Brewer Community School is the medical clinic run by Penobscot Community Health Care. There are two fully-equipped examination rooms with all the bells and whistles, and a dental room that was installed over February school break. Students, as well as teachers and staff members, can take advantage of the clinic. Penobscot Community Health Care works with the patient’s health insurance and bills them accordingly.

“Low income families with parents who can’t afford to take time off from work to take their child to the doctor for an ear infection can have them checked out at school,” Lee says. The clinic handles everything from flu shots and strep cultures to drawing blood for blood tests. For some of the students, their primary care physician works right in their school.

The clinic also has a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC) on staff. Emily Barrington sees, on average, five or six kids a day for counseling.

“It’s practically impossible for some kids to get immediate access to mental health care,” Lee says. “Kids here can meet with a counselor, get medical attention beyond what our school nurse provides, and have access to dentistry.”

But Lee, Leithiser, and Barrington are concerned that, in the near future, the clinic could be closed for good. The clinic is funded by grant money from the Fund for a Healthy Maine through the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The fund was created in 1999 to receive and disburse Maine’s annual tobacco settlement payments and is Maine’s primary investment in public health. The fund’s intended purpose is to prevent costly chronic illness and promote healthy living, but the LePage administration is currently discussing the idea of reallocating the money from the fund to fill the DHHS budget gap. This has many people across the state—and at the Brewer Community School—worried.

“There is data to support that what we are doing here is working,” Barrington says. Time will tell if they are allowed to continue to support the healthcare needs of their school community. But while this debate rages on in the legislature, kids at Brewer Community School are still going about their day in a place that was built to promote a healthy community and environment.

“This school is a feather in the cap for the city of Brewer,” Karl Ward says. And even though it is the largest pre-K through eighth grade school in the state, it doesn’t feel like it.

Students move seamlessly through their wings from class to class. Upper class student council representatives volunteer to help the younger kids at lunch, putting straws into juice boxes and ketchup on their hamburgers. The air is clean and the rooms are bright. The bathrooms on every wing are spacious and the science labs in the Brick wing rival those in any high school. Students in wheelchairs on the second floor don’t have to worry about rushing out of the building during a fire alarm—there are areas of refuge in the stairwells that are flanked by windows and surrounded by automated sprinklers. Art installations are still being added to the building, but student art is prominently displayed in the hallways—just like at any other school—except that this is not just any other school.

A copyright article from the Bangor Metro, Thursday, March 1, 2012 by Melanie Brooks.

Photo is Courtesy of Nickerson & O’Day.