School project partnership in Torrington ready to start construction

TORRINGTON — The architects of the new middle and high school development approved by voters in 2020 are almost ready to begin a three-year presence on Besse Drive this summer.

The S/L/A/M Collaborative, an architect working in partnership with city officials and Torrington Public Schools, East Hartford’s Construction Solutions Group and Torrington construction manager O&G Industries, said they are expected to start in October with will start construction. But before the first shovel hits the dirt, there is a lot to do.

Amy Samuelson, lead architect at SLAM, has been involved in the development of the project since her firm ceased operations in 2021. “It will change the way the city educates its young people,” she said.

SLAM designers worked with the public school district, board of education and school building committee throughout the design phase to ensure the new school’s learning environments and configuration reflected the needs and expectations of the Torrington community. The designers also incorporated part of the city’s industrial past when planning the building.

The project was originally approved by voters in November 2020 for $159 million. In January 2022, voters approved adding an additional $20 million to the project. School Construction Committee co-chairs Mario Longobucco and Ed Arum came to the city council in December 2021, asking for approval to add the $20 million, citing increased enrollment and rising costs for construction and materials.

The biggest challenge for SLAM, Samuelson said, was designing a 310,000-square-foot building that would prioritize the district’s existing educational programs and balance it with the latest trends and innovations.

“For example, we’re providing a technical lab to complement what they already have,” she said. “Balance between new technology and existing technology has always been a big part of this plan, with cost recovery in mind. It’s always a balance.”

Another challenge, she said, is managing the project “to make room for real, transformative design while still keeping the old school going.”

“Right this summer people will see how we separate the construction zone from the high school, which of course will still be open,” Samuelson said. “We’re diverting traffic away from the buses because we’re adding another layer of vehicles and traffic to the site. This summer we will arrange everything so that when the students come to school in the autumn they will be safe.”

The other major hurdle for SLAM and its partners is moving the middle school students into the new building once it’s finished.

“We had to consider additional parking for middle school staff and faculty and more space for their athletic fields,” Samuelson said. “The high and middle school students will share some of the fields, but we were able to build additional fields on the property after the old building was demolished.

“But it’s still a challenge because we have to build in more than what was originally there,” she said. “So it’s not like other places where we replace a building with something in kind. It’s a lot bigger.”

The combined middle school building will be constructed on the existing campus on the 31-acre Besse Drive lot. The old building will remain open during construction and will eventually be demolished.

“It will be up to the school district and middle school administration to decide when the middle school students move in,” Samuelson said. “The high school has to move out, but the middle school students are in their current building and it’s working well for them. They could move middle school in August 2025.”

Preparation of the area is expected this summer, including utility routing, and construction is slated to begin in October, with an opening date of February 2025, SLAM officials said. Demolition of the old building and construction of the new gymnasium and sports fields will begin in March 2025, with a projected completion date of January 2026, they said.

According to SLAM, the building was designed for a three-story middle school and four-story high school, with separate entrances and wings. These wings are linked by common facilities on the ground floor – an auditorium and performance stage, two separate dining halls, two gymnasiums and student-athlete support rooms.

The middle school will have two STEM classrooms and a computer coding lab, according to SLAM. The two upper floors will house classrooms for grades 7-8 as well as some administration rooms and offices for auxiliary services.

Torrington High School has a career program that offers hands-on training opportunities in education, health and wellness, business, military/JROTC, and STEM/technology. The project design includes additions to this program such as a culinary laboratory, health classrooms and a space for sports medicine and athletic trainers. In addition, the school will include several new learning areas for special education teachers.

Other program improvements in the new building include an automobile repair shop, a structural engineering lab, and an engineering lab; a 480-seat auditorium with an inner courtyard; a band room for up to 125 people for high school and middle school students, as well as rooms for orchestra, choir, and music engineering; as well as video production, art and ceramics laboratories.

“Torrington’s industrial and performing arts culture was an inspiration for our design,” said Julija Singer, AIA, SLAM’s chief design officer. “We enjoyed collaborating with the community and sharing their passion for creating spaces for students where exploration, openness and creativity thrive. The new building is a place that offers that and much more.”

The central administration is housed on the fourth floor of the grammar school and has a separate entrance. These offices are now housed in a building on Migeon Avenue.

SLAM Communications Director Marie Bonelli sees the new high school as a city landmark.

“It’s going to be like a flagship,” she said. “I think people will be proud of it.”

Samuelson said she is confident in the timeline set by SLAM and O&G Industries. “O&G controls the construction schedule and I think it’s reasonable to assume that a building of this size can be erected in 30 months,” she said. “If we say ready for occupancy in February 2025, then the high school students move into their new building and then they tear down the old one.”

Factors such as the economy, utility line challenges and the rising cost of living will all play a role in the project.

“We’re hoping for a crystal ball, but we don’t have one,” Samuelson said. “The economy is unpredictable at the moment. … We design and keep an eye on everything. We hope the best.”

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