Dallas' Alcuin School Expansion Demands Patience and Vision
Crews building an alternative school are working under difficult neighborhood restrictions on a tight site
It’s one thing to construct a new school on a wide-open greenfield site.
It’s another to shoehorn a unique building into an already congested site where the only construction access is one road through campus.
But that’s just part of the challenge faced by Mycon General Contractors as it works to complete a World Language and Fine Arts building for the Alcuin School in Dallas.
“It was critical that the school find a general contractor with successful experience working in tight spaces, not just from a construction standpoint but also from a neighbor-relations view,” says Lochwood Larson, associate head for finance at Alcuin School. “Additionally, safety of the site and prescreening and background checks of any and all construction personnel were high on our list.”
Larson says that Mycon met all of the criteria the school had set. To ensure the safety of the 500 students at the school, Mycon has a gate guard in place when materials are delivered, which occurs on an as-needed basis because of the tight space. The McKinney, Texas-based company also closes the access gate during class changes.
“Children cross through our construction-access road about every hour throughout the day,” says Scott Pitt, project director for Mycon. “There is no way to completely close our construction from the school 100%.”
Despite the additional challenges, the job has experienced no recordables or lost-time accidents.
As the $6-million building nears 35% completion this month, Alcuin administrators say Mycon is “staying true to the commitments they made in the selection process.” The building is on budget and on time, set to be complete by June 17.
But Mycon faces additional challenges. The small footprint allows no parking for its workers—75 at peak construction—anywhere near the jobsite, so the company has leased a lot about a mile away and shuttles workers into the school. An agreement with the surrounding homeowners’ association also restricts construction hours. Workers can start no earlier than 9 a.m. on one section of the parcel—establishing even more stringent limits than what the city of Dallas requires.
The school and its owner’s representative, Building Solutions, also had to negotiate with the Dallas zoning board and the neighborhood to appease other concerns from the nearby gated community before a school building on the site could be demolished in August and construction started in September.
Mycon was selected out of six contractors through a competitive, sealed-bid process to build the structure. Selection was based on qualifications, the team, the proposed fee and general conditions. Mycon was engaged during preconstruction to help the planning and design team with document development, says Bill Keslar, president of Building Solutions.
The contract is being delivered using cost of work with a guaranteed maximum price. “This delivery method presents the best approach, given the school’s schedule needs and the unique character of the building and the associated challenges of accurately forecasting its cost, especially in a very robust construction market in North Texas,” Keslar says. “It’s also the delivery method favored by the owner and the owner’s representative, from their previous experience, as the best means of fostering a collaborative team effort that results in a better project.”
Building Solutions and architect Perkins + Will were also selected through a bidding process.
A Unique Building
Perkins + Will was hired to complete a master plan for the existing campus, including the 15,822-sq-ft World Language and Fine Arts Building. Other components include a 55,000-sq-ft West Campus Building with underground parking, a parking lot, driveway and field house.
The entire campus will eventually be wrapped in a wellness trail.
“It will be an educational model that will be a leading model around the globe,” said Walter Sorensen, Alcuin’s head of school, in a Perkins + Will video about the expansion.
The Alcuin School is not an average educational facility. Founded in 1964 as a Montessori School, it began in 2014 to add high school students to its program. They will graduate with an international baccalaureate degree.
“We took a holistic approach that parallels the physical attributes of the campus with Alcuin’s teaching pedagogy,” says Greg Estes, an architect at Perkins + Will. “The concept Spectrum of Experiences highlights the uniqueness of Alcuin’s educational experience: A student can enter the school at the age of 18 months and continue through high school graduation on the same campus, which presents exciting opportunities for the architecture to complement the age spectrum.”
When all grades are full, there will be 700 children on campus. To accommodate the growth, the school needed more space—but not just any space.
The educational principles of Maria Montessori and the school encourage children to explore their environment, work independently and go outside.
The World Language and Fine Arts building was designed to accommodate those principles. Departing from the traditional architecture and aesthetics of most K-12 structures, the building will have a structural-steel frame. Its steel, wood, stone and glass will blend into the natural area and allow students to connect more closely with nature through several glass doors and windows and a second-floor open air classroom. The elevated building will literally give students a different viewpoint, Estes says.
According to Mycon, about 100 tons of structural steel are being used on the building. As of early December, project crews had placed 1,025 cu yd of concrete and 41 tons of rebar.
“Classrooms expand to open spaces for inquiry and discovery, windows look into classrooms to display their learning environments, opening placements are designed to keep the students’ imaginative minds open to their environments, landscapes are designed up and onto the architecture to strengthen the campus’ natural environment to its built environment,” Estes says.
During design of the master plan, Perkins + Will used virtual reality to allow Alcuin stakeholders to “walk around” the new campus using an Occulus Rift virtual reality headset.
“This technology paid huge dividends for us and the client as they were able not only to see the campus (as they might with a traditional rendering), but also they were able to actually experience it,” Estes says.
“Alcuin has such an intimate campus that is cherished by its community that the virtual reality helped us and the school recognize the scale of the environment. It became a very useful tool as we got to imagine the school’s future.”
The nonprofit school is building its expansion in phases as it raises money through a capital campaign and solicits contributions. For the World Language and Fine Arts building, the school also obtained bond financing underwritten by Wells Fargo and secured by the school’s assets.
The design and construction of the first building is vitally important to make sure that the school can complete fundraising for the remaining expansion, school officials say.
“Implicitly, any project for a client like Alcuin has the goal of delivering a project that is pleasing to those who are funding it and to inspire their continued financial and moral support for additional phases that lie ahead,” Keslar says.
And by the school’s account, Mycon and Perkins + Will are delivering on that promise.
“The partnership between Mycon and our architects, Perkins + Will, is how we believe a project should be undertaken and successfully completed, and we commend them both,” Larson says. “Any and all issues have been handled with the utmost sense of urgency and expediency, and it is most gratifying to see their dedication to the school and the surrounding community.”