Highly-anticipated safety upgrades to protect Edison Elementary School are well underway this summer. And though students and staff might not see them when they arrive back in the classroom this fall, new wood and steel reinforcements will better protect the 103-year-old building from earthquakes while keeping occupants safe.
The Centralia school, which serves around 360 students, will be the first building in the state to receive structural upgrades under the state-funded School Seismic Safety Retrofit Program.
The program allocated $13 million in 2019 and $40 million in the 2021-2023 biennium through the state Legislature and Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). State departments leading the charge, including OSPI and the Department of Natural Resources, say the program is the first of its kind and is a critical step in repairing the oldest and most vulnerable schools in Washington.
The upgrades are expected to last the lifetime of the building.
Alongside district staff and project architects, The Chronicle got the chance to tour the building and see the work done so far. The retrofit is largely focusing on two areas: installing steel beams vertically within the gymnasium to reinforce the roof and act as a failsafe for the unreinforced masonry, and installing wooden beams within the exterior-facing walls where the foundation of the building lies.
Families, staff and students likely won’t be able to notice the changes when they return for class.
“Really, one of the goals of the project is to make it seem like we were never here,” said Sam Schafer, architect with Seattle-based Integrus Architecture, which is planning and designing the project.
But leaders on the project aren’t just hoping to be effective and sneaky about their work. Theresa Daniel, a structural engineer with Integrus, said they’re also up against a tight deadline to get students back in the classroom in the coming weeks and are also focusing on retaining the historic character of the building.
“We know that the community has a real affinity for the historic nature and the beauty of the building, as do we,” she said.
Delicately-carved crown molding and stained wood railings on the second floor remained untouched and recognizable as a half-dozen fans blew dust out from the nearby gymnasium. Piles of long wood bisected the entrance area.
Inside the combination cafeteria-gymnasium, long strips of wall were carved out, exposing the school’s dusty, delicate and elderly brick wall. This is where the 20 tons of steel beams will be erected.
“What we’re doing is taking the steel columns up the face of the walls and then, under the end of each wood truss, we’re doing a short steel beam. The idea being that if there’s damage to the brick wall during an earthquake, the steel column and that little steel beam keeps the roof from being damaged in a way that is not safe for occupants,” Daniel said.
Hallways, offices and more than a dozen classrooms have been vacated of all desks, decorations, computers and personal belongings. In the library, bookshelves are wrapped in plastic and set against a corner away from the windows.
Looking directly up from the windows, wooden beams reinforcing the exterior wall are visible, which is where the architects say the largest amount of structural integrity lies. This work is being done not just in the library, but along all exterior-facing walls.
“I think the day that we signed the contracts with the contractor, we bought the last 750 feet of beams that are available on the western half of the U.S.,” Schafer said, referring to the rising cost and demand of construction materials in recent months.
Integrus staff say the work so far between the school district and contractor Schwiesow Construction has been really collaborative and fast-paced.
“We’ve had to really work hand-in-hand with the contractor to figure out not just what works for the building, but what is constructible,” Daniel said.
Contractors with the district have been on site since the week after school got out. Now, the 12-week project is facing a hard deadline to get the work finished before students and teachers return to the classroom on Sept. 2. The punch list — or final checks — is expected to be finished by the end of September.
“It was a really tight fit to get everything out and get these guys in,” said Principal Andy Justice.
Most of the work will be complete when school starts, but Schafer noted the gym walls won’t be finished until the middle of September. That’s a relatively minor hurdle, Justice notes, and just means PE classes and lunches will have to be done in other spaces such as classrooms and outsides.
The process has kept them on their toes, Justice said.
“We don’t want to get to Sept. 2 and say: What are we doing for PE? How are we having lunches?” Justice said.
Edison Elementary Seismic Retrofit by the Numbers
• The nearly $3 million project is being funded with state dollars.
• 750 linear feet of wooden structural beams will be utilized to support the structural support of the building.
• 4,000 square feet of newly-installed reinforced stud walls will be installed.
• 40,000 pounds — or 20 U.S. tons — of steel reinforcement beams will be utilized in the gymnasium and in the school. That’s a little heavier than a modern diesel school bus.