Tour gives officials peek at fourth middle school construction

"We've been really lucky, the weather has held out for us," Robertson said.

Walls are up and floors are settling. Steel columns tower 35 feet high over the construction site, giving a skeleton preview of the three-story James Blair Middle School.

Holes in the concrete block walls hint at expansive windows, beams hang from cross bars showing where mobile walls will attach.

The concrete blocks behind Williamsburg-James City County Schools Central Office complex are slowly transforming into the district's fourth middle school. Set to open in September 2018, the project has a $26 million price tag.

Opening James Blair is meant to alleviate overcrowding in the three current middle schools — Berkeley is at 111 percent capacity, Toano is at 105 percent and Hornsby is at 99 percent.

Two designers from Waller, Todd and Sadler Architects led about 20 school board members, Williamsburg City Council representatives and James City County supervisors around the construction site Tuesday. They are behind the 21st-century design, crafted with an emphasis on technology, flexibility and group work.

"We think we're at a point now where there's more to see, you can really start to imagine it," said schools facilities manager Alan Robertson. "You really need to see it."

James Blair is planned unlike any of the division's other 15 schools, Robertson said. Everything is open, flexible and mobile — chairs, tables, whiteboards and even walls can be rearranged.

Natural light will brighten every corner. Looking at the building from Longhill Road, there is a glaring three-story gap between two walls. It isn't a mistake; that section will be a stack of floor-length windows in the so-called collaboration center, which will hold instructional classrooms.

Lisa Ownby (JCC Powhatan) asked if people would be able to see in from the outside. Waller, Tood and Sadler representative Maureen McElfresh said no, the windows would be tinted.

The construction tour navigated through the gap, imagining the glass walls and folding partitions that would make up six collaboration center classrooms. They walked past administration and teacher offices, and through the theater room.

From there, the group paused near the center of the site, where the stage will be built months from now. The "auditeria" — a combination auditorium and cafeteria — connects the stage to the main classroom and administrative wings. On the other side, the stage opens to the gymnasium.

Even with only concrete walls in place, Jim Kelly (JCC Jamestown) said he could picture the future building.

"The drawings, and seeing how it's all supposed to go, it's hard to understand the colors and what the architectural finishes are going to look like, but you can see the structure," Kelly said.

Only Kelly was on the board when the decision to build a school at James Blair passed 6-1 in October 2014. Holly Taylor (JCC Stonehouse) and Sandra Young (JCC Berkeley) voted against funding the project to show their opposition to the plan. Both attended the school tour.

"I think it's going to be a beautiful facility, we just didn't need it," Young said. "We spent a lot of money we didn't need — the other building is completely fine. It's heartbreaking that we spent the taxpayers dollars on this."

Young said there's no question she'll be pleased with the new school; she just wishes it hadn't been built.

Erik Kaldmaa, site manager for the construction management firm MBP, estimated that 40 percent of all walls are standing and nearly 80 percent of the ground floor is in place.

The 35-foot, 1600-pound columns supporting the upper floors of the classroom wing arrived two weeks ago. Kaldmaa said installing the steel columns and corresponding crossbeams were a milestone for the project.

"It allows the work to go forward," Kaldmaa said. "You're going to keep on going up."

The next marker will be installing utilities in June, he said. Construction officially started Oct. 18 and with the fair winter, is pressing ahead on time.

"We're slightly ahead of schedule, not a whole lot," Robertson said. "We've been really lucky, the weather has held out for us. Weather is the unknown factor with a big building project."

Robertson said they haven't had any serious challenges yet. Construction is supposed to wrap up in June 2018 and students should file in Sept. 4, 2018.

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

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