June 29, 2017

Taking Off

The main entrance with zinc-clad “wing.”

The just-opened CREC Academy of Aerospace and Engineering magnet school is a fittingly impressive home for the school that U.S. News and World Report ranked as the highest performer in Connecticut and the 15th top performer in all the country in its 2014 “Best High Schools” edition. Since its inception in 2010 the academy had split its students between two spaces in Hartford; now, after its September 2 opening, some 750 middle- and high-school-age students share the same Windsor facility.

CREC is the Capital Region Education Council. It acts like a board of education when it comes to projects like the Acad- emy, but it is its building arm, CREC Construction, to which O&G Project Manager George Graikoski and team report.

The focus at the Academy is on advanced mathematics, science and engineering with an emphasis on aerospace. Its dedicated student body is drawn primarily from Hartford as well as 35 surrounding towns. (One student, an eighth grader who plans on becoming an astronaut, commutes nearly three hours from Branford every school day.)

The new school is built on the site of a former United Technologies complex. Three of the UTC buildings were demolished, leaving only their elevated slabs and structural steel elements to be repurposed in the new design; a fourth was folded into the new structure. Along with the purchase came a neglected koi pond which has been treated as wetland and restored. It makes an organic foil to the high-tech academy that has risen around it.

George Graikoski has  been  managing  the project since it began in 2013. He’ll be here until late October when he estimates the punchlist of finishing touches will be completed. He’s joined in the project’s final days by Superintendent Brian Pudelka and second-shift Superintendent George Givens, though others in the two-and-a-half-year project have come and moved on to other O&G jobs. Graikoski began with O&G 26 years ago as a Project Engineer and in 1993 began managing school construction projects. This Academy is his twelfth. At 184,000SF it is also one of the larger jobs he’s overseen, and in some regards has been one of the most technically challenging. Graikoski points up to “the wing,” a dramatic 140-foot-long element projecting from the school’s north side that evokes the image of an airplane wing. It houses middle school science labs. “There wasn’t anything easy about building that,” he says with a smile, shaking his head. Not simply a barrel shape, it also has a taper so that as the radius shortens its curvature changes. “It looks phenomenal but you don’t realize how much work went into it. The tubular steel skeleton with its sections every ten to twelve feet each had a different radius. Then we had to engineer and install rectangular pieces of decking as the skin.” Graikoski coordinated multiple planning and progress meetings between project architect Friar Associates, the decking installer and the president of the German manufacturer of the zinc panels that would form the skin in order to arrive at a solution to which everyone could agree. In the end, he says, “it came out beautifully.”

Bryce Sens is Friar Associate’s Senior Project Manager. He oversaw as many as 15 members of an architectural team  that designed and reviewed the project. “It was challenging to design,” he says, referring to the unique architectural elements and the array of mechanical systems employed. “All in all this has been a really rewarding experience. Working with George was easy. He was understanding and very good at enforcing the contract documents.”

The mechanical systems that heat and cool the building incorporate every type of system Graikoski has worked with, and one more. It was the first time he installed chilled beams. Chilled beams are hollow rectangular beams that house copper tubing  to circulate chilled water in warm months and heated water in the winter. Chilled beams in the classrooms radiate cooling and heating, dispersed by low-flow air from air handling units on the roof. There are no moving parts in the classroom. The result is efficient heating and cooling that is very quiet and very clean. To operate optimally, chilled beams require a sealed environment with close control of relative humidity to prevent weeping.

There are five major air conditioning systems here. “This place has everything. It’s very complicated compared to a typical school. Most people don’t realize it. You walk into the building and you’re cool and it’s quiet and you don’t even think about it,” says Graikoski.

Much of the academy’s exterior is clad in a rain curtain. A European convention, four-by-four-foot phenolic (plastic) panels – dark charcoal, grey and white – are mounted off the gypsum and masonry wall. They allow any driven moisture to pass behind and weep down and out at the foot. It prevents moisture from being trapped behind the exterior and allowing mold to develop.

Along with its technical challenges the project has presented a new management twist. One of the client’s intentions, called CREC Equity, admirably looks to split trade packages into smaller units, enabling more small and disadvantaged businesses to participate than would normally be seen on a similar project. In this case there were 46 different subcontractors. It meant more contract and management work for Graikoski. “But it went well, very well actually. These small business enterprises performed very well.”

Other features put the Academy’s engineering and aerospace mission on display. An actual size Apollo space capsule reproduction will be suspended high in the main entry atrium. A colorful pixelated lunar nebula decoration based on a Hubble Space Telescope photograph wraps one corner of the building. Passive solar panels over the parking area, solar “trees” that dot the campus, and wall-mounted motorized solar louvers that tilt at the command of a small “weather station” atop the cafeteria are expected to provide 30% of the power the school needs to operate. The long walkway to the main entry mimics a runway at nearby Bradley International Airport with runway lights in the cobbles that come on at dusk (the school is located just about two miles from the airport and jets routinely pass nearby). Another entryway cleverly uses masonry to mimic a runway where planes touch down and leave behind streaks of black rubber. The school’s entry sign evokes the tale of a jet. Signs of the school’s high-flying mission are everywhere, and students here will soar to even higher heights at their state-of- the-art campus.

top to bottom, left to right: Programmable solar panels move with the sun; one section of the phenolic rain curtain exterior depicts a pixelated photo from the Hubble Space Telescope; fixed solar trees collect energy; a media center desk repurposed vintage plane parts; the gym’s exterior wall mimics the wall of an airport hanga