An all-too-typical problem had surfaced in the Somerset Independent School District in South Central Texas: the junior high school built in 1986 for 350 students now housed 600. Enter a $13 million bond issue, Gamma Construction, OCO Architects and Ceco Building Systems, and now the students are comfortably housed in a spacious, extremely striking metal and glass facility.
Located in the counties of Bexar and Atascosa, Somerset Junior High School and its seventh and eighth graders settled into their new home in the fall of 2012.
The $127/square foot project was completed in an almost-unheard-of 11 months.
"That's pretty remarkable in this area and at this time," commented Ceco District Sales Manager Mark Fox on both the cost and the timeliness.
Gamma Construction of San Antonio served as general contractor. Ceco products used in the new school included a Ceco metal framing system; $1.8 million of steel; insulated panel (3" R19) walls in Pacific Blue and Tan, applied horizontally; and a Double-Lok Galvalume roof, described by Fox as "absolutely gorgeous."
Before work began on the project, some site work was needed, according to Mark Hodges, associate/architect/project manager with OCO Architects. "Site drainage had to be done," he explained. "The FEMA map indicated a flood plain existed, but there really wasn't one. The soil was sandy loam - a very stable soil, so it was a simple foundation. A slab was used. We didn't have to use as many intermediate beams as we initially thought we would…mainly perimeter beams."
Design details were taken care of in person. "The Ceco design team from Columbus (Miss.) was a critical link in bringing in the actual drafting team to San Antonio," commented Fox. "There were face-to-face meetings to help with the final changes, coordination between materials and scheduling to make sure it all came together smoothly."
Time was of the essence in getting the school built. "This is usually an 18-month project," Hodges said. "It was a big risk to build in 11 months." He went on to say that he and his co-workers began the design in January 2011. Then they moved to design and bidding by July. "We consolidated all this to 7 months," he commented. "That was a challenge."
"Ceco deserves big applause for speedy construction at a low budget and for nice exposed steel features," commented Scott Tak, president of Alpha Consulting Engineers, structural engineers on the project. "It wouldn’t be possible without close coordination from Ceco."
Additionally, Somerset Junior High School is in a rural area with no sewer system to tie into. A new sewer treatment facility required a separate package on which to bid, and also because of the rural setting, the two-lane road on which the school is located had to be widened for acceleration and deceleration lanes.
Due to utilities issues toward the end of the project, move-in was slightly delayed, so students spent the first two weeks of school in their current buildings. Once the new school was ready, the transition took place over a weekend.
The school is a beautiful study in angles, glass, stone and steel, as well as an outlet for the designers' creativity. "We are primarily a design firm," explained Hodges. "This project allowed us the challenge of continuing that, even with a pre-engineered metal building - to push the limits of design." Mark Fox with Ceco said he was excited “because we did some unconventional things with a conventional building."
Some of those unconventional aspects included tapering columns from base to top frame connection to the outside instead of to the inside as more typical; varying the uses of clerestories for windows to allow light into the major corridors; using exposed frames for the canopies; and using the insulated metal panels alone for the school's exterior walls.
Using a custom metal building by Ceco Building Systems allowed Hodges and the design team to meet the compact timeframe and remain within budget. "Our firm has a history of using custom designed metal buildings," he said. "We also have designed many schools. This type of school project lends itself to metal. The cost is the biggest driving factor. The engineering part is reduced on the design side. We used a lot of insulated metal panels, which reduced the drywall, so we were optimistic that we could meet the schedule."
Architect José Balboa, project designer at OCO, elaborated on the school's unique design. "Due to the fact that we were extremely limited in our budget, we knew we had to make some very crucial decisions early in the design to help minimize cost and get the most bang for our buck," he said. "We decided to explore the use of a custom designed metal building, which we have used many times before and are aware of its cost savings. Except this time, we wanted to push the envelope with our design and create a building that would try to fall outside of the norm of what most people think a metal building is."
Balboa said the designers focused the majority of the design emphasis on the front of the building, main gathering places and entries. He said a key design feature on the building is the expression of the steel frame on the exterior facade and entries. The legs of the bent frame were flipped around so that instead of the legs getting larger on the interior of the building, they increased in depth on the exterior of the building, creating "fins" on the facade and giving the illusion of the building leaning out toward the street. The outward leaning facade, stone wainscot base, deep overhangs and use of roof purlins on the outside of the legs for shading led to the design of the front entry that resembles the school's mascot, the bulldog, with his low brow and protruding lower jaw.
"Many of the entry canopies we designed and that were engineered by Ceco," Balboa added, "stand on one column and reach back to the building, reflecting this idea of the outward leaning leg and have a unique look that compliments the building design well."
The natural height of the metal building frame and the addition of clerestory windows and windows at the beginning and ends of every hallway create a bright and welcoming feel throughout the building. Hodges, Balboa and the design team used insulated metal panels for the majority of the exterior walls, which Balboa says is a unique system that is very underutilized, to increase savings on labor and decrease construction time.
"We've used the insulated metal panel system before," Balboa said, "but it is something that is fairly new to us in this particular building type and has proven to be very beneficial. The insulated metal panels are prefinished on both sides, which creates a savings on finishes, creates a well-insulated building, and in the classrooms gives the teachers an entire wall where they can use magnets to hang posters, artwork or other learning material. It was through creative design from OCO Architects, and the willingness of Ceco to work with us out of the box, that led us to this great design that pleased the client and stayed well within the budget."
The new school is aesthetically pleasing, but perhaps most of all, teachers and students have more room in which to teach and learn, and behavior is better because students are no longer bumping into each other.
"Students and teachers are enjoying the building," commented Principal Shannon Boyd. "Coming from where we were to this building has been a big change and a big improvement for everyone. Just the overall environment in the classrooms is different. Kids have access to materials and equipment they need. There's room now for instruction in the front part of the room, and their labs are in the back with easy access to equipment. Space-wise, we have a lot more room in the hallways, so transition between classes is a lot smoother. Discipline-wise, we don't have nearly the amount of altercations we've had in the past. We have room to get from place to place."
Photos by Dror Baldinger, AIA