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Mars interviews first architect firm Thursday

School board approves student population study to inform $24M project

ADAMS TWP — As the school board of Mars Area School District moves forward with planning its $24 million elementary school expansion project, board directors interviewed one of three architectural firms that could design the renovations.

Jon Thomas, president of consulting group Thomas & Williamson, facilitated the interview and question-and-answer session following a presentation by DRAW Collective at a special meeting Thursday, May 23.

Daniel Engen, who is the organization’s president and a working architect, joined his partner, Mark Scheller, in presenting renovation options and answering questions about the company.

Lauren Parker, vice president of Civil & Environmental Consultants, and John Weiland of engineering firm H.F. Lenz, also addressed board members as part of the team that, if selected, would lead the project in collaboration with Thomas & Williamson.

The preliminary options presented ranged from a one- to two-story scheme, a compact three-story scheme and a compact two-story scheme. Different features discussed included a collaboration atrium that would give teachers open space outside of their classrooms to pool out their students for projects and activities, an outdoor classroom and a STEAM classroom, as well as a designated space for parent/student drop-off that would separate parents from buses.

Engen said a team of interior designers at DRAW Collective also would work closely with architects on designs.

“The environment for kids is important,” Engen said. “(School) is the first place children actually really spend any time away from the home … so this place should be something that they’re familiar with and is stimulating to them.”

“Changes happen over time,” he said. “But when your changes get done here, it’s going to be for the next 30 years, what you built.”

Engen also brought up potential project challenges, which included topography and soil conditions, getting municipal approval and designing a play area.

“It’s almost like you’d have to come up with something that works in multiple modes,” he said.

In terms of pricing, Engen said costs can be negotiable. Fees are capped at the end of design development, he said.

According to Josh Schwoebel, the district’s director of communications, the board will interview two additional architectural firms at its next special meeting at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, May 28.

At present, DRAW Collective is working on middle school and high school renovations at Slippery Rock Area School District. The organization worked on renovations at Mars Area Middle School in 2019.

Student population study

Monday morning, board directors also unanimously approved a $19,500 yearlong student population study with Davis Demographics that could help inform the design and construction of renovations at Mars Area Elementary School.

Thomas & Williamson previously conducted a study projecting student growth in 2017.

“Since the district has grown so much, (Jon Thomas) is pretty confident in his formulas, but just to be safe, we discussed (this),” superintendent Mark Gross said.

The data would provide a snapshot of growth from kindergarten through 12th grade, Gross said, and could be used to inform renovation projects beyond work at the elementary school.

“This is our due diligence,” board director Anthony De Pretis said. “We’re talking about … taxpayer money. It would be literally insane to try to spend that money without making sure that we have done our due diligence and are making sure all of our numbers are correct.”

Gross also said the study would not delay the elementary school design or construction process.

The study will be conducted concurrently to the project.

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