Manchester Energy Efficiency Project: A Special Series
Meet Randall Luther, an architect and partner at Hartford-based TSKP Studio, who designed the new Buckley.
Chapter 3: The Man Behind The Plan
By Jim Farrell
Workers have begun pouring concrete for a three-room addition that will overlook the fields behind Buckley Elementary as a renovation continues that will end with it being the first net zero energy public school in the state.
After two months of mostly demolition and abatement (a general term that includes asbestos removal), the pour signaled a shift toward a construction phase that will last for months.
“All good so far,” said Tom Goizueta, who as project superintendent for Torrington-based O&G Industries keeps track of everything from inside his trailer-office stationed near what for years was the Buckley main entrance. Goizueta uses sticky notes on six large draped panels to indicate which subcontractor is doing what when where -- and to a visitor like me it’s daunting to even glance at all the cryptic scribblings.
A few days after the concrete started flowing, drilling began for the first of what will be 60 separate 500-foot deep geothermal wells that will be tied into the building’s heating and cooling system. Workers will soon start “slingin’ steel” (Tom’s term) -- that is, raising girders for the addition. Meanwhile there’s digging, grading, excavation … action of all sorts both inside and outside the building.
It’s no wonder that the groundbreaking ceremony in early June was just that -- ceremonial -- because a building renovation like this one has no obvious starting point and there are not even distinct milestones during the duration of the project.
The same is true of events that led to this renovation. Sure, there was that day that voters gave their approval, but like other such projects this one took shape over years marked by conversations and speculation and studies and committees and, yes, procrastination.
But while it’s hard to identify key dates in the Buckley renovation timeline it’s easier to identify key players and one of them is Randall Luther.
Luther, an architect and partner at Hartford-based TSKP Studio, is the person who designed the new Buckley and how that came to be takes a little explaining.
So let’s start by going back to how building renovations evolve.
Typically, after public officials agree on a possible project they spend modest amounts of money on feasibility studies. If they decide to move forward, more work is done to determine how much it all might cost so a decision can be made about whether to even have a referendum. If a referendum is set, even more planning and renderings are done so that voters will have adequate information with which to vote, although they sometimes vote ‘no’ making it all for naught.
That’s what happened in 1999, when Manchester voters rejected a $110 million plan that would have renovated Buckley and nine other elementary schools to ‘like new’ status.
Now skip ahead more than a decade, to 2012.
The current Buckley renovation is part of another multi-school campaign known as the ‘School Modernization and Reinvestment Team Revisited.’ SMARTR was formed to figure out what to do with what were now nine elementary schools (the 10th, Nathan Hale, had closed two years earlier.)
I could write at great length on the SMARTR work but here’s what happened, all boiled down:
First, two main factors were identified to drive the planning: Make sure renovated schools would be racially balanced. And keep local costs in check by maxing out state reimbursements.
The SMARTR way to achieve both goals? Have fewer but bigger elementary schools.
The town first decided to move fifth-graders out of the elementary schools and into a renovated Cheney Building (empty since 2007), which would be connected by bridges to the sixth-grade Bennet Academy.
That meant only six elementary schools would be needed to house all the K-4 kids. Highland had just been renovated so that left Waddell and Verplanck to be renovated next followed by Buckley, Bowers and Keeney.
(For those keeping track: Of the other original 10 schools, Martin is slated to become a preschool center and the fate of Nathan Hale, Washington and Robertson is being studied by a Repurposing Schools committee.)
So where does Randall Luther come in?
Almost 10 years ago, TSKP Studio was selected through a request for proposal process to report on the feasibility of renovating the Cheney Building. A larger national firm was doing similar feasibility studies of other town schools but Luther and TSKP wowed SMRTR committee members with the quality of their work and presentation.
After that strong first impression on Cheney and the Town pivoting away from renovating Robertson and Washington, Town Facilities Manager Chris Till asked Luther to provide feasibility insights for Waddell and Verplanck. This is one example where the initial plan took a turn, but kept moving toward the final goal to renovate the elementary schools. The process advanced and after voters in 2014 approved spending $84 million to renovate Cheney, Verplanck and Waddell, TSKP was awarded contracts to design all three. And each project came in on time and under budget with the only real drama connected to the indoor slide at Waddell.
So by 2019, when voters approved the second phase of school renovations, TSKP was known and trusted in town, and although more than a dozen other firms responded to an RFP for the Buckley-Bowers-Keeney work, TSKP was chosen to design the first two projects (with Keeney not yet determined).
Luther, a Syracuse grad, has handled too many projects to count since joining what was then called Tai Soo Kim Partners more than 25 years ago but had never done a net zero energy building, so early on he reached out to CMTA, a multi-services corporation with expertise in energy efficient engineering.
“It was a pretty steep learning curve,” Luther said, adding that it was quickly apparent that Buckley’s large site (35 acres) was a boon because there would be plenty of options for drilling geothermal wells.
Still, getting to net zero meant seeking every opportunity for efficiency and that process included holding a series of ‘design charrettes’ -- intensive workshops bringing together people from different disciplines to problem-solve and brainstorm options. One such charrette focused on food service and systems.
“Commercial kitchens are huge energy users,” said Luther, who along with consultants including one from CMTA met with Nick Aldi, the district’s food services manager to review needs and options.
To eliminate the use of fossil fuels, Buckley will not have natural gas and all the new kitchen equipment will be electric and highly efficient.
They also came up with a plan that will eliminate the need for electricity to power the small coolers where milk and other items are temporarily stored so kids can grab them as they go through the line. Reusable freezer packs will instead keep items cool and then be returned to the larger electric-powered freezer.
Aldi said people will be excited by all the new equipment when Buckley reopens but added, “I don't think they’ll even notice some of the other things that will be going on behind the scenes.”
Discussions of this sort took place regularly after TSKP was officially awarded the Buckley job in March of 2020.
Luther and his team spent the next two-three months coming up with a schematic design, which included figuring out things like where the entrance and parking lots would be, what mechanical systems would be needed and so on. Some of the commitments made during this phase had been floated earlier, the main one being moving the main entrance (and an expanded visitor parking lot) to the south side of the building. That will solve a problem that has long haunted Buckley -- an entrance that was a floor below the main office.
While the capacity of the school will not change (it will still be designed to accommodate 380 students), the square footage will increase from 56,400 to 65,500. The old Buckley had a single combined music/art room while the new building will have separate art, STEM and project rooms and two music rooms. That's all in addition to two more classrooms and many smaller support spaces “At the end of this phase you know where everything is going to go,” Luther says. “But you don't necessarily know what it will all be made of.”
That happened during a phase called Design Development, which took another three or four months. During DD, the TSKP team finalized the design, making much more detailed decisions (for example, window and door locations) and deciding what materials would be used. The rough drawings that had been produced in the schematic design phase were refined to produce a more detailed set of site plans and floor plans with elevations and section drawings with full dimensions.
“This is all about degrees of specificity,” Luther said.
And things get even more specific during the third pre-construction phase, which is called construction documents. Drawings that include specifications for construction details and materials were done and then shared with O&G to be further shared with contractors for pricing and bidding and for use in the pursuit of required permits and so forth.
So those are the stages but what about the work itself? How do conversations and ideas become drawings and documents?
In days gone by, architects worked with a mechanical pencil, a scale ruler, a T-square and tracing paper and so on but now almost everybody works exclusively with powerful, versatile 3D rendering software.
“Of about 30 people in the office I’m one of two who still has a drawing table,” Luther said. (Tai Soo Kim himself is the other.)
Luther says he does much of his preliminary work by hand but then moves everything into a state-of-the-art program (examples are Lumion, Rhino, Sketchup and Revit) to modify and tweak and alter and refine the project endlessly and instantly.
Automated rendering software means architects can develop ideas more accurately, identify problems earlier, easily communicate design ideas with clients and partners, etc. It also means their work is just a click away no matter where they are.
Luther has a TV in the basement of his Durham home and sometimes goes downstairs and syncs up the design app on his phone so he can virtually walk through a project and make notes.
He recalled going to work one Monday and getting a quizzical look when he started talking about observations he’d made while walking through Buckley over the weekend.
Because state-of-the-art software makes work so much more efficient, architects can handle more projects at the same time.
Right now, Luther is following closely as work wraps up on a new middle school in Middletown that he designed. He’s also doing feasibility studies on a possible elementary school renovation and shepherding a few “accelerated repair” projects in Massachusetts.
And then there’s Bowers, which has moved through Design Development.
And what major changes are in store there?
“In some ways Bowers is like Buckley because of the entrance woes,” Luther said -- referencing the lack of visitor parking on the main entrance side of Bowers.
The plan for Bowers includes adding a visitor lot on the Princeton Street side of the building and putting an addition on the north side where the parking lot is now and relocating the staff parking area and … well, that’s a story for another time.
Back to Buckley.
As is the case with other projects, Luther doesn’t visit as much when work is actually being done on a building he designed, although staff from TSKP keep track and make visits about once a week. As for Luther, he came to the ribbon-cutting in early June, returned when Gov. Lamont used Buckley as a backdrop for a press conference highlighting the state’s investment in and commitment to school infrastructure projects, and will continue to visit the site from time to time to monitor the progress and quality of the project.
“To casual observers, school renovations appear to be a seamless process,” said Till. “But there are literally thousands of small details that Randall’s team pulls together throughout the design and construction process.”
About this series: Buckley Elementary School in Manchester is being renovated to ‘net zero energy’, a project that is expected to take about 14 months (from ground-breaking to ribbon cutting) and during that time there are a series of other ambitious sustainability projects underway in public buildings throughout town. Jim Farrell, who is the school district’s communications director and a former career journalist with The Hartford Courant, is writing about the work in monthly (or maybe more) installments. We hope you follow along.