Between Master Plan and Construction Come Teamwork and Flexibility

Computer rendering of Newport News school housing

Computers may make a schematic design look final, but that’s an illusion. Renderings courtesy Rancorn Wildman/Perkins + Will.

Even the simplest of projects requires intense preparation and close interactive relationships among the client, developer, and design professionals. But when time is tight, project budgeting is contingent on public and private investments, and programmatic goals are spread among many shareholders, a master plan has to be especially flexible as it sets in motion fundamental design principles that will carry the project through to construction and occupancy.

The Newport News Apprentice School of Shipbuilding is just such a case study in rapid response to complex and fluid programmatic needs. Faced with a desire for more space, consolidation of instructional facilities, and an upgrade of its computer-aided tools, the school’s overseeing entity, the Newport News Shipyard, developed a bid package that included partnerships with the city and state.

Newport News Shipyard President Matt Mulherin says the new school will take its instructional facilities from chalkboards to computerized technology, and its location and mixed-use public/private development partnership will bring new life to the school and, as a catalyst, to the city of Newport News.

Computer rendering of proposal for Newport News school.

Schematics aren’t over till all the pieces fit the client’s needs.

The apprentice school has long been a part of the Newport News Shipyard structure, training the talent on which the shipyard has depended for 92 years. (The latest major project the shipyard is working on is the super carrier USS Gerald R. Ford.) In turn, the city owes a large part of its very existence to the shipyard.

Over the past several years, the City of Newport News has been looking for a means to reinvigorate its downtown, recounts Charles T. Outlaw II, Assoc. A IA, a designer with Rancorn Wildman Architects, the architect of record for the Apprentice School now in development. The design and development team also includes the Perkins + Will Charlotte office as design architect and Kimley-Horn and Associates as the civil engineer.

Among the three sites studied for the project, the one selected is in the city center, situated between a main entrance to the shipyard and a newly occupied, five-acre housing complex owned by the Navy. The site is ideal because it has the potential to become a crossroad between the naval facilities and the shipyard, Outlaw says.

The Apprentice School itself is one part of a public-private development proposal by Armada Hoffler Development Co. and has included the Newport News Shipyard and the city with grant support from the Commonwealth of Virginia. The intent was to support the shipyard’s goal of increasing its production capacity while helping the city bring additional life to the downtown area. The project master plan comprises a parking facility, street-level retail shops with market-rate housing above, and additional housing units behind the school. The housing is intended for students, shipyard employees, and Navy personnel stationed at the shipyard.

It all starts with a plan

The development team hit the ground running in 2010 as the designers assembled various iterations that would be flexible enough to accommodate whichever of the three sites would ultimately be selected, would represent the nautical nature of the educational facility, and would tie it into both the shipyard and adjacent areas of the city.

Newport News School schematic planThe client provided a facility program they had developed as part of their RFP process, which included a preliminary floor plan. Still, as a competition, there was no contact with the client, which required the design team initially to make a lot of assumptions during an intense three-week charrette. “That gave us a week to develop the site concept, a week to design, and a week to prepare the specified competition documents for delivery to the shipbuilders,” recalls Perkins + Will Design Principal Jim Merriman, AIA. “It wasn’t until after we won the competition that we could work closely with the Shipbuilding administration and conduct the formal programming process.” During that early flurry of activity, the design team used a combination of solid models and computer-aided design tools, including Sketch-Up and Revit. “Oddly enough,” Merriman says, “the master plan and the housing are in Sketch-Up and the academic building is in Revit.” The team members worked with what they had available and felt comfortable using, he says. “We are teaming with Rancorn Wildman, so we have their management assistance as well. Because we are pursuing a LEED® certification, we all paid a good deal to that from the outset, too.”

The team has developed four schemes since the beginning of 2011. Over the summer, they completed the final schematic design and were organizing the financing. While the design team was working through the schematics, the developer was able to acquire another half block of adjacent property, which turned the original site concept upside down, notes Merriman. This is the process you get when you combine academic facility design and a developer partnership, which is what makes this project particularly interesting, he says.

The site is bordered on the east side by Washington Ave., an important thoroughfare for Newport News. “At first, we placed the parking lot over the street retail along Washington Ave.,” Merriman explains. “As negotiations continued, we flipped the diagram and moved the school to Washington Ave., with the housing looking back toward the shipyards. We continue to refine the layout of the components to maintain the diagrammatic clarity of the initial proposal. This constant refinement is a fact of life when you have a lot of players.

“A lot of our design thought focused on the complexity of the docks, the linearity of the shipbuilding process, and the overall industrial aesthetic,” Merriman says. “The design team wanted the complex to feel nautical and a part of the shipbuilding process. The design we envisioned also allowed people to see into the day-to-day workings of the school.”

Glass and exposed steel further convey the industrial nature of the area. “The inside layout also derives from the move to transparency and flexibility we see in academic facilities of today.” Merriman says. “We try to get the edges of the classroom to move out of the classroom. These elements of the parti have continued to hold true and have stayed consistent throughout schematic design,” he says.

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