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Soderstrom Architects is designing new educational facilities with modern safety and other health benefits in Columbia County.

SUBMITTED: SODERSTROM ARCHITECTS - A Soderstrom rendering of the upcoming CCEC school.  This page: A rendering of the new St. Helens Middle School.Schools these days aren't designed to pump out obedient manufacturing robots — they're designed to promote creativity so students can build and code these 'bots.

Among other modern shifts in today's preparation for the future Gen Z workforce, safety from school shootings and gender-neutral bathrooms — along with natural light, for improved test scores — are top of education architects' lists for new school designs.

Soderstrom Architects is working on replacing the middle school and Columbia County Education Campus (CCEC) in St. Helens, which has its groundbreaking slated for March 21.

Marlene Gillis is a Soderstrom principal and the leader of its K-12 team, and Andy Bonesz is the project architect for the St. Helen's education development.

St. Helens started working with Soderstrom three years ago on facility assessment and long-range planning on the campus.

"We helped them get the bond on the ballet, and got it passed on the first try, which was great," Gillis said. "There's been a lot of support for these projects out there because it's been awhile since they've done work on the schools."

The CCEC school right now is in below substandard condition: portable classrooms have one tiny window each and poor temperature control.

The middle school is older, with an interior ring of classrooms that don't have windows at all.

SUBMITTED: SODERSTROM ARCHITECTS - The new CCEC school will have an outdoor play area, a plaza to hang out in front, a media room and bully-proof, gender-neutral bathrooms that draw a new line between privacy and supervision.Safety against school shootings

Bonesz said a beautiful facility is a protective strategy, making it less likely for school shooting-type incidents to occur because good design helps with students' happiness.

"With recent events we've taken a big focus on that," Bonesz said. "One of the main strategies we use is a big focus on controlling who's coming in to the school by making sure we have sightlines for the approach. That's handled from the main office area where we've got the reception and front area of the school."

The clear sightlines will give the new office a view of anyone coming up the main drive, and it will have a secured vestibule with auto-door locks before people can check in.

"One of the key strategies is controlled access through the vestibule," Bonesz said. "We also looked at things like making sure there are no places to hide around the exterior of the building, trying to minimize those nooks or hiding spots and looking at strategies for if there is a lockdown event — be able to have in each classroom an area where kids could shelter. Shades come down over every window, and if someone is roaming corridors, they won't be able to see who's in which classroom."

The Soderstrom team researched materials to strategize about where to install protective glazing to keep on budget.

"We really looked carefully at how people enter the site, where critical access point are, where students are gathering and most protected," Gillis said. "In the office we will use a prevention strategy where you don't see razor wire and metal detectors, who wants that in a school, right? This really practices more invisible steps, but I think more effective thinking about behaviors and movement and how people actually access environments kids are in, and making those safe."

SUBMITTED: SODERSTROM ARCHITECTS - The gender-neutral bathroom.CCEC and the anti-bully bathroom

For the last 16 years, the CCEC students have been studying inside temporary trailer classrooms and don't have a cafeteria or shared spaces.

"You can imagine how tired temporary trailers are after 16 years. It's just not a nice environment to learn in," Gillis said.

The new building will be about 10,000 square feet.

"It's a very compact, very straightforward design, but a really nice building that has a lot of amenities that they don't currently have: six classrooms with a common multipurpose room, a media center, they will also have an outdoor area for athletics — which they don't have right now either — and some areas in front of the building like a plaza for them to hang out and spend time," Gillis said. "There's (currently) nowhere for them to be in the school when they're not in class. This provides a lot of that space for them."

The CCEC options high school is an open campus with lots of exterior doors and multiple buildings.

"For us, the CCEC is something where that building is what those students deserve, but haven't gotten for a long time. That to me is really exciting and special," Gillis said, and with the financial support from the school district and community, "The district is willing to put in what it needed, so its cost per square foot is more than the middle school when you look at it, but they're still willing to say these students are important, this is an important population for us and we're going to make this building special for them."

The high school has six well-lit classrooms, because Bonesz said his research shows natural light in a classroom increases test scores.

"Up front we have this really nice, well-lit, multipurpose common room with a (small) kitchen that has the ability to have events with food for the community to use in the off-hours, evenings and weekends," Gillis said.

The options high school has gender-neutral bathrooms, which the Soderstrom team and students had numerous conversations about.

"When we first heard their needs and concerns, some honestly did surprise us, like what other students will do with phones in bathrooms," Gillis said. "It was never an issue when we were in school, it's a very different environment now."

The neutral bathrooms are rooms with doors, locks and full-height walls, but no sinks inside. It's like a toilet room in an alcove off the main corridor, with a shared sink right outside to wash hands.

"The whole idea is supervision versus acoustics versus privacy versus what do high school students do in the bathroom — how do some students put their makeup on when you don't give them a traditional bathroom and sink?" Gillis said. "A lot went in to the current design and how they are going to use it. It's going to be really effective."

SUBMITTED: SODERSTROM ARCHITECTS - The middle school is designed with one main gym and one auxiliary gym the school can rent out, and will have a track and field for the students and the community.St. Helens Middle School

As for the middle school, Soderstrom will integrate the sixth graders with the seventh and eighth grade students by giving them their own wing where most of their classes are, while still having access to the science labs, art room and music room resources with the others. Each grade has its own space, but is still connected in the public shared spaces and exploratory classes.

"You really provide a stronger sense of community by getting all three grades together and also providing in a building a lot of common spaces together, with the building zoned out so there is a very clear public-private delineation," Gillis said.

There will be a main gym and an auxiliary gym that the school can rent out on a regular basis. Soderstrom is adding a new track and field, which St. Helen's middle school currently doesn't have.

"There's a need for both, so the idea was worth it to put that extra cost into the project so the community would have a track and field to use," Gillis said. "The

idea is we're building a school for community resources so everybody feels like they're getting something of value of out it."

The middle school itself is 10 times as big as the CCEC, at 103,000 square feet, and will bring three grades together with increased capacity with an increased focus on safety and security upgrades.

"One of the current buildings is a kind of blocky square that's very dark, and one thing it does have is an interior loop where kids walk laps around," Gillis said. "It's part of the culture of the school, something they do regularly, so we're trying to replicate that in the new building — of course it's narrower to get more daylight in, but that has this connection around the courtyard, so it will still have an interior loop for kids to walk in."

The middle school is intended to be a beautiful, well-lit, easily-organized space.

"The wayfinding in this school is amazing: you can stand right outside the office and see down the two main corridors, through the gym and athletics, or look up past the commons all the way to the stairs and into the academic science class," Gillis said.

St. Helens schools

-- St. Helens Middle School, 354 N. 15th St.

-- Columbia County Education Campus,

474 N. 16th St.

City: St. Helens

Client: St. Helens School District

Designer: Soderstrom Architects

General contractor: Triplett Wellman

Mechanical/electrical/plumbing engineer: Mike & Associates, Inc.

Kitchen equipment consultant: JBK Consulting and Design, Inc.

Structural engineer: Catena Consulting Engineers

Civil Engineering: Locke Engineers

Landscape Architect: Simp .L Landscape

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