Falls Church Schools Superintendent Peter Noonan called Tuesday’s School Board meeting a cause for celebration, and the reason became clear for everyone who squeezed into the School Board conference room when the animated visual renderings of the proposed look for the new George Mason High School were showed off by the team chosen and announced to do the job, Gilbane Construction with Stantec and Quinn Evans Architects. After the show, some comments and questions, the unanimous vote of 6-0 to approve the selection of the design/construction team seemed an obvious afterthought.
The process to select the team began last November and involved a painstaking evaluation of five quality teams that bid for the job. The field was narrowed to three in February and two in May, and Gilbane was selected by a team of City and School Board officials earlier this month. The contract, which began being developed in February, was hammered out and the announcement made today. “It is unbelievably clear that no other team matched Gilbane’s qualifications,” Noonan said, citing three critical areas: the design, the budget and the time line.
Features involve a “sympatico” relationship between the new school (including its integration with the existing Henderson Middle School) and the 10 acres on the campus site set aside for dense economic development. The entrance to the school will face east with all the athletic fields behind it and a “good friend zone” linking the school and the 10 acres ahead of the entrance. The entrance serves as immediate access to the auditorium, competition gym and cafeteria, augmenting the school’s role as an asset for a range of community uses. The open, glass-enclosed five story design of the main building “reminds me more of the Google campus I toured in California than the high school where I’ll go for my 20th year reunion,” Noonan quipped.
Security features, including major lines of sight through the facility and segmenting off capabilities were also spelled out, called “vertical security” centered on controllable stair wells and elevators.
The budget for the project was also a major consideration in the final selection of the winning bidders, with $108 million designated for construction costs, and a schedule that will lead to a “guaranteed maximum price” once the 65 percent threshold of the design has been met.
The timeline is also a major element in the final selection. The winning team, represented at tonight’s meeting by Jennifer Macks of Gilbane and Derk Jeffrey of Stantec, said their plan is to come in ahead of schedule once the construction process begins as soon as the school year ends next June. Instead of being finished by the start of the school year in September 2021, an accelerated schedule projects sufficient progress by December 2020 that some of the winter sports teams could be playing at the new facility by then. The onset of construction will involve the removal of all dirt necessary to proceed, including the construction of a sub-basement on the footprint of the new building on roughly the parking area behind the current high school, sandwiched between it and the football and baseball fields which will remain in use throughout. The project contemplates the demolition of the existing school site in March of 2021.
The instructional space in the new building “will be incredible and flexible for futuristic learning, not knowing what that might look like 25 years from now,” Noonan said. There will be ample collaborative spaces, including in classrooms, hallways and common areas. The auditorium will be configured to allow for alternative uses when not set up for a show, with 100 movable seats in the rear that can be folded against a wall to make room for a mezzanine or separate meeting space. The “Mustang Cafe” cafeteria will be a “grab and go” style sharing the kitchen with the cafeteria for the middle school. Upstairs there will be a media center and two “maker spaces” where special engineering projects will be housed. On the top fifth floor will be an outdoor terrace for learning.
Noonan said there will still be opportunities for significant public input on the final product, with public meetings where interested citizens can register to participate in subcommittees to deliberate on special features of the project. The next public reviews will be August 5, Sept. 6 and 23, with a PTA/PTSA meeting on the subject on Sept. 26 and a final meeting to be determined in mid-October.
School Board chair Lawrence Webb and members Jason Castillo, Shawna Russell, Shannon Litton and Greg Anderson were ready to cast enthusiastic votes to ratify the contract, with Phil Reitinger absent. The City Council will confirm the decision at its meeting next Monday, July 23.