Washougal School District’s new K-8 campus designed with future in mind

By Adam Littman, Columbian Staff Writer

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When planning the new K-8 campus in the Washougal School District, school officials noticed they could fit six additional classrooms on the west of the building that they wouldn’t technically need when the two schools open on Thursday.

Once they knew they could fit it in the school’s budget, they opted to include the classrooms. Superintendent Mike Stromme said there’s a possibility they’ll need the space eventually, and if they would have come back to build an addition on the school later, it would’ve cost more money than doing it at the moment.

“You start looking at space in how you can reach students and teach students, and be adaptable,” Stromme said. “We have an opportunity to get things right, and it’s a lot easier to get things right on the first try than to try and come back and change something later.”

The 122,000-square-foot campus replaces Jemtegaard Middle School and adds the new Columbia River Gorge Elementary School. Funding for the schools comes from a $57.7 million bond voters in the district passed in February 2015. Construction costs for the schools were a little less than $40 million, and the total cost for the project was about $50 million, according to Washougal Facilities Director Joe Steinbrenner.

While thinking about building for the future and making sure there’s room for growth, district officials faced some extra scrutiny, as the campus sits inside the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, which imposes certain design restrictions for any new building project. The campus couldn’t have buildings taller than 35 feet and features a lot of earth tones.

“We used a lot of natural colors and textures on the exterior so it almost disguises the building,” Stromme said. “We were only allowed to have so many windows, but we designed it in a way so all classrooms and learning spaces have them.”

Being in the scenic area also provides some weather-related issues. The new campus includes a covered outdoor play area where two sides have large walls to block out those heavy Gorge winds. There’s an outdoor space attached to the commons area where students can go outside to eat lunch or teachers can take their classes on days when weather allows. That area is surrounded by walls on each side to block out winds, with an opening up above. Steinbrenner said with winds the way they are in the Gorge, he wouldn’t be surprised if any rain or snow that falls is carried over the tiny opening above the outdoor area entirely.

The old Jemtegaard was difficult to heat because of the school’s location, Steinbrenner said. The new campus is set up with perimeter radiant heating, with hot water located below the windows around the school, in addition to a traditional heating system.

The winter provided some issues for the construction, as Washougal lost 11 days of school and had four late starts. Crews tented the roof so they could work on it during the cold winter. Stromme said winds can get up to 75 to 80 miles per hour in the area, and they were so heavy sometimes that the tent ripped at times.

While the new campus was built to handle the elements and fit in with the rest of the Gorge, it was also built with a sense of flexibility in mind. The elementary school has a common space on each floor where teachers can take students to read or work on projects. Stromme said it’ll be up to faculty to decide how to use the spaces. Those areas can also be converted into classrooms at a later date, if needed, Steinbrenner said.

The outdoor common area has eight large boulders which were found at the construction site. They are built about eight or nine inches into the ground, Steinbrenner said, and school officials tried to space them far enough out to deter kids from attempting to jump from one to the other. The area also has string lights strewn above the rock circle.

School officials also decided to try and open up space where they could, like the combined music and drama room, which was originally planned as separate rooms. The campus’s shared media center has a sliding door so it can close off a section for one class to work in, or it can remain open for larger groups.

The school also has a lighting control system that senses how much light is coming into the room and adjusts the lighting level inside. Each classroom also has a 65-inch monitor with an Apple TV and there is wireless access throughout the building.

Jemtegaard Principal David Cooke told his staff to be patient in the new space and to live in it for a while to see what else it needs. He’s excited for the students to see their new space, and hope it inspires them.

“I think it’ll give them a sense of pride,” Cooke said. “It was built for them. The stewardship is being given to them. They’re going to be a big part of the legacy of the school.”