The lobby of the Mt. Lebanon High School auditorium is silent at lunchtime on a recent school day. That might be unusual anyway, but it’s nearly miraculous given that about 100 construction workers are traipsing through the building tearing down walls, powering through plaster and blasting the requisite construction-worker hard rock music from boom boxes as part of what the Pittsburgh Business Times has named the seventh largest construction project in the Pittsburgh area.
“If you’re in the building, you probably don’t even know there’s construction going on,” said Superintendent Tim Steinhauer.
Workers only broke ground on the high school renovation project in January, but by this fall the footprint of the new athletic complex was set and the beginnings of the steel structure for the new academic wing, named “Building G” rise from the ground. And while the mixed renovation/construction project isn’t supposed to be completed until spring 2015, students will be moved into new sections as early as next year, as soon as the areas are completed, freeing up other sections to be renovated or demolished.
The complete project cost is estimated to be $109,653,724 and includes a $4.3 million contingency fund to handle unexpected expenses. To date, a few things have gone wrong: namely a weeklong power outage and some building damage after a backhoe hit a power line that wasn’t properly marked on a 40-year-old blueprint. The final costs are not in, but district communications director Cissy Bowman said most of the bill will be covered by insurance and other costs already accounted for in the construction estimate. Additionally, some shims that were not properly placed in the athletic building caused a small dip that will need to be leveled on the gym floor, a cost that will be covered by the contractor. Nearly all the excavation is complete.
Steinhauer and Bowman donned hard hats and led a reporter on a tour of the facility, over two-by-fours, across piles of downed plaster and through the mud. What became evident is that the project makes way more sense when viewed in person than it does on a map, when it’s hard to see where walls will connect and how students will travel from one area to another.
Mounds of geofoam—massive blocks of Styrofoam chunks—are mounded against a retaining wall across from “Building C” to help hold the earth back without putting pressure on the wall. Pools of mud and rocks on what used to be the tennis courts give testament to a recent early fall deluge. By the end of the project, Building C will be gone and six tennis courts will return to that part of campus.
Butted against the stadium is the beginnings of the athletic complex, with space for an eight-lane pool, a competition gym and two auxiliary gyms. Notable among the placements are the coaches’ offices and the fitness centers, which will have windows to see out into the stadium. From the middle of the building, an area informally called a vomitorium projects, where teams will emerge (be vomited) from the locker rooms to head onto the turf for their competition. “It’ll be a nice, safe way for the kids to access the stadium,” Steinhauer said.
As he pointed to the stadium’s new pervious pavement parking lot, which will absorb water despite being made of concrete, workmen were hosing off portions of Horsman Drive—a task done three times a day to keep the dust down. School officials constantly check building air filters and do air quality tests to make sure students are safe inside. Asbestos is abated over the summers.
Facing the building from Horsman Drive, it is easy to see where the new student entrance will be, directly in front of the “old” pool. A landscaped two-way plaza will welcome foot traffic into the building. The new loading dock is taking shape along the front by the auditorium. (The auditorium renovation, the tennis court construction and the demolition of “Building C” where the library and center court now are, will be the last things to be done.)
Ironworkers wearing safety ropes traipse along steel supports, a sight that often transfixes Steinhauer, he says. Students with the luxury of window seats in their classrooms also report daydreaming while watching the men at work.
A temporary parking lot sits where the usual large south lot used to be after serving as a staging area all summer. The lot and that side of the building will be the gateway to the school for parents who need to pick up a student at the nurse’s officer or visit a principal or counselor. All “student services” will be on that side of the building. (The north side of the building will house the central office staff.) The practical arrangement of areas grew out of the 2006 workshops, where residents, faculty, staff and students talked about their educational and logistical needs for a renovated school.
Inside the building, the seats have been ripped from the Fine Arts Theatre to be refurbished, and all that remains are concrete risers greeted by the dirty old gold stage curtain. That space will be one of the first areas to come back online. Below it, the former fine arts, dance studios and choral area—hollow on this tour and filled with soldering fumes—will become the technology center. All fine arts will move toward the center of the building.
The sixth floor of “Building B,” the historic structure along Cochran Road, is gutted. Each side of the hallway will have four larger classrooms instead of the current five. As workmen munch on sandwiches during their lunch break, fans ventilate the powdery mess. On the hallway’s dusty Terrazzo floor lies a woman’s peach hairbrush with black bristles, circa 1970. The district is finding many such “artifacts,” keeping them in a large box, Bowman says. As Steinhauer walks by center court, students below are having an activities fair.
“It has so many moving parts,” Steinhauer says of the project. But looking down on it from the roof of Building B, where every adjacent structure has a different roof, you get the sense those parts will fit together much more easily than they do today.
Complete update and background on the project, including live cameras: www.mtlsd.org/highschoolrenovation/.