Piece by piece, schools make room


Of the 160 or so construction workers bustling about the grounds of John Adams elementary school this week, only 12 were concerned with what could turn out to be the future of school construction in Alexandria.
The West End school is the site of Alexandria City Public Schools first foray into permanent modular construction. At once less invasive and far quicker than conventional building, the technique can add much-needed space to the citys crowding schools in a matter of weeks.

As far as Im concerned, its the future of the direction we have to head in as a school system because it allows us to build enough capacity during the summer to accommodate the rapid growth of our student population, said David Conrath, ACPS construction supervisor.

The technique was presented to the School Board last fall as one of several options to accommodate for the recent enrollment increases that are expected to continue.

In a matter of months, permanent modular construction has gone from idea to implementation at John Adams and at James K. Polk elementary school. Polk is getting a new prefabricated gymnasium.

That the John Adams addition required only a dozen workers belies the audacity of the concept.

Shipped from Ephrata, Pa., to Alexandria in 18 sections 12 feet wide and about 26,000 pounds on the back of flatbeds, the modular rooms were then hoisted over the existing school and set into place by a 350-ton crane.

The on-site construction was done at a record-setting pace for ACPS, Conrath said. The bulk of the John Adams project, part of the schools $1.1 million effort to add space for the coming year, was completed in less than a week.

Concrete foundations went in on July 24, the modular pieces arrived three days later and were all in place by last Friday.

What remains is peripheral work to sync the new classroom space with the original school structure; because the portable pieces went into the schools two courtyards, existing walls of windows were taken out to connect to the new rooms.

I could pretty much build an entire school in a month, Conrath said.

While the price is comparable to traditional building methods, the modular construction does offer similar green benefits and can be built to the LEED standards mandated in the citys Eco-City initiative, according to Don Engle, general manager of NRB builders, the Pennsylvania company tasked with making the John Adams modules.

And despite the seemingly hasty construction process the Alexandria project began in April the new additions are built to last.

On a tour of the modular units at John Adams on Tuesday, Conrath explained that each section is actually over-built to survive the 100-mile trip across two states.

Their concrete-and-steel construction is a far cry from the makeshift classrooms more accurately called trailers that have dominated the modular construction industry until recently.

Thats one of the biggest problems that we have, Engle said. When you say modular, people have that mindset that its a trailer.

Its a concept that took time to gain traction in Alexandria, too.

Saying pre-fab modular as soon as you said modular, everybody goes, Oh my God, trailers, and they panic, just totally mentally shut down, Conrath said.

Projects similar to the one at John Adams are already in the works for future expansion efforts at Charles Barrett and several other elementary schools. Conrath said modular construction is also being considered for the new school building at Patrick Henry in two years time.

Engle cited the Reading, Pa. school district as one successful example of the new modular industry, which makes up about three-quarters of his companys business. There, NRB assembled two brand-new schools and added 60,000 square feet to another.

I think schools are starting to recognize that during the summer months they can add space without safety concerns for the kids and staff, without disruption to the school system, Engle said. It seems to really be catching on.