School construction becomes big business for Sonoma County designers, builders
This is the era of billions when it comes to quantifying all the construction work in the works at Sonoma County’s public schools and community college.
In recent years county voters have approved more than $1 billion in bonds to finance improvements at local school and college facilities, an unprecedented figure.
It is just the first phase of the funds sought for work that education officials hope one day to complete. Santa Rosa City Schools currently has bond financing for about a fifth of the $1.2 billion of projects in its master plan, and Santa Rosa Junior College has a list of roughly $1 billion in desired upgrades and deferred maintenance.
The efforts follow a significant amount of school construction already completed. The North Bay’s largest design firm, Quattrocchi Kwok Architects in Santa Rosa, counts $1.5 billion worth of education projects that it has designed in Northern California over 30 years in business.
It all adds up to much improved facilities for students and a significant injection of money into the local construction industry, according to school and building officials.
“You’re making an investment in the future of your community,” SRJC President Frank Chong said.
The college, he said, plans in the coming years to upgrade classrooms and construct a new science building to train the next generation of workers in public safety, health care and other fields.
Slightly more than 70,000 students are enrolled in the county’s 40 school districts. Roughly 30,000 more students take classes through the junior college, which has campuses and facilities in five locations.
In 2014 the junior college received voter approval to sell $410 million in bonds to improve those facilities. The first project, the $21 million renovation of the Burbank Auditorium on the Santa Rosa campus, is slated to begin next spring or summer.
Also in 2014, the Santa Rosa school district won voter approval to issue $229 million in facility bonds. The Petaluma school district received approval for $89 million and the Cotati-Rohnert Park district $80 million.
“It’s a sign that people really do care about education,” said Keith Woods, chief executive officer at the North Coast Builders Exchange, a Santa Rosa trade group.
The school work has long provided steady business for local construction companies, Woods said, and proved especially valuable during a lengthy building downturn that began roughly eight years ago.
“It got a lot of people through the recession,” he said.
Around the county, the range of proposed campus projects is extensive. But the work typically falls into two broad categories: the performing arts centers, athletic facilities and other high-profile endeavors that become a source of school pride; and more mundane repair projects - the replacement of leaking roofs, ancient heating systems and other worn-out items - that multiplied in the recession years when school boards prioritized money for retaining teachers over facility upkeep.
The deferred maintenance may draw less public attention but it does improve student learning, school officials and architects said.
“It’s very difficult to teach when it’s raining outside and it’s raining inside,” said Steve Kwok, a senior principal at Quattrocchi Kwok Architects.
The firm, with a staff of 50, has focused almost exclusively on school projects, including the design of Windsor High and Napa County’s American Canyon High, dubbed in 2011 “America’s greenest school” in a Huffington Post blog.
But in this era, new campuses are less common than major reconstruction at older schools.
Kwok and fellow senior principal Mark Quattrocchi last week toured one of their designed projects, the $8.1 million renovation of the K-8 Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts, which sits on the former Fremont School site on Humboldt Street. Construction workers there are finishing a two-story classroom building, with its own art studio, and a separate wing that features a black box theater, dance studio and music room.
Among the changes in school design from a generation ago are more natural lighting, outdoor spaces for study and movable furniture for transforming classrooms into small-group work areas.
“It’s all about creating these quality learning environments,” Quattrochi said.
The arts charter is temporarily housed at the Lewis Road education campus but is slated to move back to its campus early next year. Principal Paul Gaudreau summed up what the new buildings and improvements will mean for his staff and 400 students.
“We’re going to have a flagship, showplace campus where people can come and see what we’re doing,” he said.