Almost a year after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that killed 20 students and six adults, Robert D. Mitchell couldn’t enter the Newtown Conn., building prior to its demolition. “I’m an architect—you just walk into buildings, but I couldn’t do it,” recalls Mitchell, 70. 

But Newtown’s volunteer public-building and site commission chairman was a pillar for the community during an emotional three-and-a-half-year project to build a new school. The 29-year town resident related to everyone on the project, from tradespeople to the community. Owner of a 10-person architecture firm specializing in hi-tech research and hospital facilities, he paid for college with a summer side gig as an ironworker. His now-adult children also attended Sandy Hook.

Mitchell was the perfect liaison between the project team and the town’s 55-person building subcommittee. “He was that rock that kept everything moving forward, and people could look to him and say, ‘Bob is cool and calm. I’m going to be cool and calm,’” says Jay Brotman, principal for architect Svigals + Partners.

The $50-million, state-funded fast-tracked project had to be completed by August 2016, when the school temporarily housing students would no longer be available. Mitchell said the town will return about $2 million to the state.

Mitchell helped guide every aspect of the project, from the town’s agonizing decision to rebuild on the site (but not on the old school’s footprint) to hardening the 88,000-sq-ft structure without retraumatizing survivors and parents with heavy-handed security. Mitchell also helped state and federal officials write new guidelines for school security and has lectured on the project’s challenges. He fielded hundreds of calls from reporters and still takes inquiries from school administrators across the country. Mitchell always tells them their school doesn’t have to keep intruders out entirely but at bay until first responders arrive. 

While hidden cameras, motion sensors and impact-resistant windows and walls are used strategically, Sandy Hook Elementary relies on passive security measures. These include a 400-ft-long bioswale in front of the building to keep people from driving into or approaching its windows. 

But more important than a new, secure school, the building process itself was part of the town’s healing. “Personally, my own feeling is that, in three to five years, we are going to say, ‘Boy, we overdesigned the security.’ But we needed it when we did it,” Mitchell says. 

Mitchell pushed for a qualification-based bidding process that bucked the state’s typical process, which preferred the lowest bidder. The qualification-based process also allowed Consigli Construction to be hired early enough to participate in design meetings. Mitchell said Connecticut is considering adopting the qualification-based process for more projects.  

He also ensured the community had a voice in the process. When designers omitted $20,000 worth of steel, Mitchell let the town committee complain to designers before he explained to them that change orders are natural in accelerated projects. “Sometimes the committee wants to hear from one of their own,” Brotman says. 

Mitchell always made himself available to the project team too. “He was always saying, ‘Meet me down at the Sandy Hook diner for breakfast,’ ” says Aaron Krueger, Consigli project manager. Often spending 40 hours a week on the school, Mitchell hired three architects to keep up with his own firm’s workload, including an $80-million hospital.

Mitchell also depended on committee members, who took work off his plate without being asked. “They were there, automatically,” he says.

Joe Erardi, Newtown schools superintendent, says the project came full circle for Mitchell when, just before classes started in August, three large wind chimes were installed. Mitchell paid for them out of his own pocket, Erardi adds. Says the architect: “I felt concerned for what I would feel like when I walked into the [new] school, and it was closer to elation.”

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