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Soft Soils, High Water Challenge School Renovation

Exterior rendering of Long Beach High School with lifted off the groung featured spaces
The new 18,000 sq ft, three-story addition to Long Beach High School, in Lido Beach, New York, features spaces that are essentially lifted off the ground, creating inviting gathering spaces below . © CSArch

A multiyear, multiphase program to renovate and expand a 40-year-old high school is proceeding despite soft soils, high water, unmapped buried infrastructure—and ongoing classes.

October 16, 2012—Imagine adding an 18,000 sq ft, three-story building—almost entirely open to the air on its ground level—to a 40-year-old concrete block of a building, in soil so soft and so deep you can barely locate the bearing soil. Imagine also adding six tennis courts, a football field, and spectator stands to that marshy site, all without adding any significant loads to the existing storm-water drainage system, which lies only 2.5 ft below grade and drains into a tidal channel that flows to the Atlantic Ocean. And if that isn’t enough, imagine constructing this entire project at an operating high school, where 1,400 students in three grades must work, study, and play—preferably without being interrupted by the sound of construction hammers or the smell of paint fumes.

This is the challenge that is facing a team of architects, engineers, landscape architects, and construction experts as they attempt to completely reconfigure Long Beach High School, a 40-year-old, 380,820 sq ft structure in Lido Beach, New York, that is undergoing a $16.5-million addition and renovation as part of the school district’s $98.9-million school upgrade plan. The aging concrete monolith of a school, with deteriorating concrete sunshades above its windows adding to its outdated appearance, has been deemed deficient in terms of its space configurations, laboratory equipment, technological infrastructure, and circulation paths. But now the existing building is being renovated to bring its layout and infrastructure into the 21st century, and the addition will add light-filled classrooms and labs. A prekindergarten school on the site will be demolished to make room for the new construction, which includes new sports facilities, utilities, and underground drainage systems.

No typical high school remodeling project, the expansion and renovation of Long Beach High is being completed over the course of two and a half years in no fewer than 10 phases, broken into manageable pieces so that relatively small portions of the existing building can be renovated while classes continue in the district’s only high school. Intended to create a modern, visually appealing school with up-to-date science labs, television and media production facilities, and contemporary information technology systems, the project is relying on the expertise of a range of professionals. Albany, New York-based CSArch is serving as the project architect, having designed the open, light-filled addition and interior renovations; New York City and Islandia, New York-based Stalco Construction, Inc., is serving as the general contractor. The structural engineering firm for both the new structure and the renovations is Ryan-Biggs Associates, PC, of Clifton Park, New York; the civil engineering is being conducted by the Chazen Companies, of Troy, New York. HMH Site & Sports Design, of Ithaca, New York, is providing the majority of the landscape architecture and is designing the sports facilities; the construction manager is Savin Engineers, PC, of Hauppauge, New York.

Each branch of the architecture, engineering, and construction profession that has been involved in this project has come across its own distinct challenges. For Ryan-Biggs, the sticking point wasn’t the new building’s design, but the ground it will rest on. “The biggest challenge is the soil conditions,” says Chris Lesher P.E., M.ASCE, a senior associate with the firm. He explains that the tidal river known as Reynolds Channel, which lies just 30 ft from the site’s border, was dredged in the past, and the dredged material was placed on the site where the school was built. “There are a lot of fills, and a lot of organics in the soil,” he says. The new addition must wrestle with that same quagmire.

“So we went to a pile foundation,” Lesher says. “We ended up going down 40 to 50 feet to get to material that we could use to support the building.” Some 128 auger-cast piles were sunk into the soil, which rather than adding support to the foundation is “actually adding load, if anything,” he says. Of the 60 ft long piles, he says, “The bottom 15 to 20 feet are doing all the work.” 

 Another exterior rendering of the new Long Beach High School, in Lido Beach, New York

Traditional reinforced-concrete walls support the second floor of the
new structure. The second floor is framed in precast concrete
planks, and the story above that is framed in a combination of
planks and concrete masonry units. © CSArch

“On top of piles we put pile caps, which support the individual columns and walls” of the new building, he says. “And then almost all the walls are shear walls.” Grade beams that are wider than the shear walls are located between the pile caps to add support to the walls. Traditional reinforced-concrete is used for the walls that support the second floor, which is framed in precast concrete planks. The story above that is framed in a combination of planks and concrete masonry units. “One of the challenges with the shear walls was dealing with the tight space constraints negotiated with the architect,” Lesher says.

Turning its attention to the existing structure, Ryan-Biggs removed the large, obtrusive concrete sunscreens, repaired the outriggers that supported them, and will install new steel supports for the CSArch-designed aluminum shades. “A steel framework supporting custom-fabricated aluminum sunscreens will give the building a lighter appearance,” Lesher says.

For the Chazen Companies, it wasn’t so much the softness of the soils as the closeness of the water table and the locations of existing infrastructure that caused problems. Chazen needed to take into account the fact that all the new impervious surfaces—tennis courts and artificial turf on the football fields, new sidewalks and bike-parking facilities—would add runoff to an already overstressed storm-water system. At this site the sanitary sewers and storm-water conveyance facilities are separated, but the existing storm-water system drains into the channel, which empties into the ocean. The new construction could neither add to that system’s burden nor pollute the river.

 An interior cross section rendering of high school building  

The new classrooms will be modern and flexible, with upgraded
infrastructure to advanced technology and laboratory equipment.
© CSArch

The solution is a series of new storm drains, primarily French or trench drains, throughout the site. “We tried to separate the new storm-water system, which was capturing and treating flows from the new impervious system, from the (flow from the) existing impervious surfaces—to let those flows continue as they historically had,” says Roger Keating, P.E., M.ASCE, a director of civil engineering for the Chazen Companies.

The next problem, says James Rymph, RLA, the director of landscape architecture services for Chazen, arose from a bulkhead. When the site was first developed, he says, “the entire northern boundary of the school site was bounded by a steel pile with a concrete bulkhead,” essentially to keep the fill soils from sliding into the river. The only way for the new storm drain system to discharge into the river would be to penetrate that bulkhead. But the school had no desire to do any construction on the bulkhead, which is buried up to 5 ft into the river bank. So the new storm-drain system had to be designed so that it would discharge through penetrations that already existed to accommodate the existing system—a feat that required careful pipeline alignments.

Complicating the alignment determinations was the fact that many utilities already existed underground, and they were all located at the same elevation—2.5 ft below ground—to avoid the site’s high water table. Typically engineers can make room for new utilities by placing them above or below existing ones, but due to the water levels, Rymph says, “Here we did not have that luxury.”

And like most older sites, the exact locations of those utility lines were sometimes a mystery. “And there was no surface feature to indicate where those were at all,” says Keating. “But a detailed subsurface investigation was conducted,” he says, and those challenges were overcome.

But perhaps the single most daunting challenge is being faced by Stalco, the general contractor that must ensure that all of these changes are made—all these renovations built—without disrupting the high school’s classes. “They can’t shut down the entire school to do construction—or even half of the school,” says Chris Caulfield, Stalco’s construction superintendent for the project.

 The new addition, which is under construction, is connected to the existing building physically and visually

The new addition, under construction, is connected to the existing
building both physically and visually. High water tables due to the
school’s proximity to a tidal channel vexed the structural engineers.
Tom Sibley/Wilk Marketing Communications

So the first phase of the project focused on constructing the new building, which is now essentially complete except for some interior fittings. Once the new structure is ready later this year, some classes will move to the new building while renovations get under way on the existing structure. “When this phase, designated 1A, is completed, they will move math and chemistry rooms into the new addition, and this will free up a block of classrooms for us, ” Caulfield says. “We will completely gut and rebuild them into brand new ones.” A subsequent phase will turn the current science classrooms into earth science rooms; existing earth science rooms will become physics labs, and so on. Some of the freed areas in the existing structure will be used as “swing” spaces, allowing the school administration and construction team to move educational activities into temporary spaces while the permanent classrooms are being renovated. “Phase 3C, the site work, starts next summer, with the new football field, bleachers, and tennis court,” Caulfield says.

Keeping such a complex project on track has required close coordination with the school, Caulfield says. “We have an entire job schedule, so the school leadership knows when we’re doing things,” Caulfield says. “And every week it gets updated to show the two weeks coming up.”

Caulfield says Stalco will alternately use each of the school’s 12 staircases as the dividing line for each phase of construction, so that crews can come and go on stairwells that don’t interfere with student movements. “Each construction zone will be airtight from the next section,” he says. “We have to make a complete separation.”

Noise must stay within a certain decibel range, and some work will be conducted at night, Caulfield says. “To keep separation and maintain safety are the biggest challenges I have,” Caulfield says. “They don’t want to smell the fumes; they don’t want to know we are there.”

The entire project isn’t scheduled to wrap up until 2014, but Caulfield says when it does, it will be a project he and his team will be especially proud of. “This is a very large school district with only one high school,” Caulfield says. “This will be very beneficial for the future of the school district. Essentially they are going to have a brand new school.”


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    Usually multiple reasonable solutions exist, so engineers must evaluate the different design choices on their merits and choose the solution that best meets their requirements. Genrich Altshuller, after gathering statistics on a large number of patents, suggested that compromises are at the heart of low level engineering designs, while at a higher level the best design is one which eliminates the core contradiction causing the problem.

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