“Every great design begins with an even better story.”—Lorinda Mamo
The Chartiers Valley Middle school and High School have been under construction for almost a year now, and the opening of the Middle School this Fall is just around the corner. In that year, the hilltop site along I-79 has transformed in an effort to design a student-centered educational facility unlike any other in Western Pennsylvania.
On Monday, April 24th, the project reached a new milestone that not only held significant meaning to the flow and function of the new schools, but triggered a pause for me to reflect on the numerous changes that I have experienced over the course of this project. In response to parent feedback during a community session, we reworked the intended design of two, physically separate buildings to install a bridge that will connect the new middle school to the existing performing arts wing of the original high school. It was at that point, overseeing the installation of this connecting bridge, that I could see and feel the unexpected connections I’ve built to this project that will last long after the ribbon is cut.
I am not from Chartiers Valley. I grew up in Alberta, Canada, graduated from Washington State University, and moved to Pittsburgh to pursue a career in architecture. I met my wife here (once you marry a Pittsburgh girl, you are not allowed to leave) and we landed in Scott Township without any real analysis of school performance or consideration of academic viability. We loved our neighbors, made great friends, and by the time we had kids that were old enough to utilize the school system, it seemed only natural to put them on the bus with their friends and send them off to Chartiers Valley Primary School. Our daughter’s first day of kindergarten was our first day of really thinking about the schools here.
That changed in the Spring of 2014. I met a fellow dad and new School Board Member at a pool party for one of our daughter’s friends. We made small talk, which generally includes the following prerequisites:
“Where are you from?”
“What do you do?”
“Are you a Steelers fan – no Seahawks – whats wrong with you?”
We quickly discovered a number of common interests including a love of hockey and our professions in the the A/E/C industry. It went so well, he invited me to an information session about the school district’s master plan the following night. I was excited! This was the first that I had heard that Chartiers Valley was considering some construction projects, and I certainly wanted to hear more.
As I got more involved in the study, I was confused by the approach taken by the architects of the original master plan. I asked A LOT of questions, and I annoyed many people committed to the existing plan. I met the district superintendent and quickly discovered that he liked and appreciated questions.
He liked my questions so much that he asked me if we would be interested in competing for the design commission:
I said, “no.”
He asked again, I said, “no”.
He asked me to think about it, I talked to my boss, we said, “no”.
He asked again and I finally told my boss that at some point this might affect my kid’s grades, so maybe we should give it a shot.
Competing for this project was not business as usual. I met an incredible school board made up by highly successful business men and women, contractors, developers, professors, lawyers, small business owners, and parents all working together, volunteering their time to give our kids the best shot at academic success. I was fascinated by their technical arts program, with classes in mass production, robotics and engineering. We had an award winning dance program, a hugely entertaining show band and some of the very best teachers anyone could hope to have for their kids from K-12. Most importantly, I discovered that all of these amazing programs were housed in wholly inadequate facilities. By studying the needs of the community and flipping the script on traditional school design, our team proposed a different way to approach the design of these schools. The bolts connecting me to the district were turned a little bit tighter.
My role as architect for this project has required spending countless hours collaborating with teachers, with students and administrators. I now call these people friends. I get approached at swimming meets, band concerts, basketball games, hockey games and school plays. They usually ask:
“Why is the school black?” It’s not.
“Is it falling down the hill?” It’s not.
“Is it over budget?” It’s not.
“Is it going to be done in time?” It is!
Some people think these questions annoy me. They don’t. They are part of the connection, part of why I love living in this school district, and all of why I love my job.
Chartiers Valley opened new territory for me and IKM in the construction of innovative schools. More importantly, we are building places where students can freely connect with their peers, with teachers, with tools, and with ideas. This connection finds its way out into the community, and who knows what opportunities will stem from a connection made at a school musical, a science fair, or over a beer at a summer picnic.
I am from Pittsburgh. I’m from Chartiers Valley.
Guest Author: Matt Hansen, Associate, Project Manager
Designer, maker, rule breaker. Harsh critic of coconut water
Mantra: “Keep no company around that you cannot build with or learn from.”