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Build Better Podcast
Greater Atlanta Christian School chooses renovation over rubble
February 05, 2019 Julie Pithers

This non-profit school wanted to give faculty and students better places to learn. They weighed costs, schedule and quality and found they could meet the needs of all three using an existing building and DIRTT. Even for the heavy timber design of a performing arts center.

Watch the video case study of Greater Atlanta Christian School.

Episode Transcript

Speaker 1:0:09Hello and welcome to Build Better. I'm Julie Pithers. This podcast comes to you from DIRTT. We build interiors of buildings. We're the first company to give people the personalization of conventional construction along with the speed and precision of prefab construction, and we use a virtual video game experience to do it. Our podcast is a mix of client stories and insider DIRTT stuff. Plus we pin down industry experts to get their thoughts on the way people build schools, hospitals, homes at even cities. Today we go to Georgia and visit the greater Atlanta Christian school. They're a nonprofit and they're growing to attract and support students, parents and faculty. They needed to solve the challenges of their aging buildings on their 50 year old campus. Dr David Fincher is the school chancellor and a leader in the education world when it comes to pushing new ideas to support better learning.

Speaker 2:1:06The early schools designed in United States, were designed by the same architects who had designed prisons, and so as the first educators who were building more than the one room school house, and they said what they wanted, the architects listened carefully and said, really what you want is prison cells just a little bigger. Well, yes, that's, that's it. And so what do you see when you walk into your typical school that's straight shot hallway, with a peek pull door and one expert at the front running everything. And research shows that's one of the poorest models of learning that can be in place. Because all of us who are adults went through that we think it's the only model of learning. We look forward to a day when we don't simply look backward. We look forward to what good research says.

Speaker 3:1:55We're trying to do that. My name is Brett Harte. I've been on staff at GAC for a little over 12 years. Background wise, I came from commercial real estate, came from CB Richard Ellis, a big commercial real estate firm. And I was kind of heading up their project management for them than Atlanta. We're always looking for opportunities to value engineer to figure out a better way to do something. A lot of times we don't just go the traditional conventional route and we partner up with architects and contractors who, you know, kind of feel the same way and are on board. And so we try to create a team atmosphere where there is driven by the mission of what we're trying to do as we are.

Speaker 4:2:31Hi, I'm John Graminga with Kohl Graminga and associates architects, Atlanta, Georgia. One thing about here at greater Atlanta Christian school. It's a school from kindergarten through high school and they have limited land here, so we have to maximize the use of these buildings and to be really cost effective with what we're building.

Speaker 1:2:52The reason DIRTT got involved at first was the school had sections of their junior and senior high that needed renovating, preferably

Speaker 5:3:00over a single summer. We didn't just want to put a face lift or improve kind of what we currently have. We wanted something much different and so we went and studied all over the nation, both schools at the k, 12 level, college level, and also businesses and trying to think where did we need to go, not just in one year, in two years, but in 10 years, in 20 years, and trying to really leap forward

Speaker 4:3:22the junior high and senior high classroom buildings. We were taking these very traditional classroom buildings. Typical of the way classroom buildings have been built since post World War II. We wanted to transform them into what we dubbed the 21st century, class room, or learning studio. We wanted the classroom to reflect the changing in technology in the way education was being taught today in the digital world.

Speaker 2:3:49We probably have 25 to 30 buildings last time I counted on the campus on an 80 acre campus. So we're used to building. We're used to living in construction all the time. And I was used to projects that were 10 months, 12 months, 18 months projects all the time. And so we lived in construction. There were two seasons in the year, winter and construction.

Speaker 3:4:10We knew the aesthetic look that we wanted and we knew the collaborative environment that we wanted to achieve, but how do we do that and existing building and that was to our oldest buildings on campus without interrupting class.

Speaker 5:4:21When you have existing buildings, you have an existing footprint and so how do you bring all of that you want to bring into that existing footprint so every square inch of the building mattered. There was a time when our students all use lockers, they don't use lockers anymore so that we really could take those kinds of things out of the building and now bring in opportunity for learning in a new way.

Speaker 3:4:40We were doing 70,000 square feet and so they only one of the options that we took a look at was the DIRTT product. I'd used DIRTT on some other projects as well and knew the, not only the flexibility but the timeliness of how they can deliver on what they were able to do. So our goal was to meet at a delivery date of starting at the end of May when school got out and have it ready for the first week of August when students return. So it was a pretty aggressive schedule, Conventional construction: There's no way that we could have achieved that. We were going to try to, you know, do our standard one siding of sheet, rock and electrical rough in and inspections and second siding and then taping mudding and painting. I mean that duration alone would've run is already passed the, the August date. Working with DIRTT was really the only way that we could. We could possibly even achieve that goal.

Speaker 4:5:28Going into that I was skeptical. And as an architect you're probably, you're drawing and you're trying to think, okay, what are my alternative solutions if this doesn't work? But once I started working with DIRTT and I understood they were a partner with me in design, and then very quickly I was able to see that the system created a lot of flexibility, a lot of efficiency. In the end, I think we and we get, we're able to achieve a better finished product then could've done with conventional construction.

Speaker 5:5:56ICE is the name of the 3D object oriented

Speaker 1:5:58software developed at DIRTT. It gives you the immersive experience of walking room to room inside a design more important to a nonprofit school. It's augmented with the intelligence required to price and build what you're experiencing.

Speaker 6:6:14You know, it's, it's a neat process because the, just the engineering feat behind it, you know, not only from the design because everything was done. In ICE can actually be turned over to the production team and all the calculations, all the dimensions are all there, so there's no shop drawing steps to kind of go along with it. They just click it from here over to production. And again, fabrication gets started. So when it comes outside, it all fits together.

Speaker 4:6:38As an architect, you know, we, we use all the tools that we have to convey a concept to the client. We had some fairly accurate renderings. That gave us a very realistic view of what the space was going to look like. Throughout the design, you're continuing to create drawings in a cad drawings and whatnot, but the ability to take all that information and put it into a virtual reality and allow the client to literally walk through or fly through the space and look at every corner from every view was, was incredible. It was for the client as much for us.

Speaker 7:7:15I'm John Hoover. I'm a senior project manager for Choat Construction and for the junior high school and senior high school project last summer, I led the team in the field as the project manager. It wouldn't have been possible to do what we did without being able to shop, fabricate the finished walls. We have a client who's pretty knowledgeable about the construction process, and, and he showed a lot of enthusiasm for what DIRTT was able to provide him to give to his stakeholders so that they would know what to expect for the final product. And in the interim, you know, what it would look like while it was going in. I've never been part of a project or very few projects where the end product looks so close to the renderings, but when we start, and in this case I'm yet to find anything that's not identical to what was on that rendering.

Speaker 6:8:05I think it's the future. I've been doing construction management for over 30 years now, you know, my early days there the ammonia driven blueprint, sepias and then you know, everything went to cad drawings and I really think ICE is going to be the design of the future that where you can actually bring that into your team and that only from the design team and the contractors and the superintendent on site and understand what's going to be taken place. But also from all the stakeholders

Speaker 2:8:31we were able to use the virtual reality with donors and I just would want to suggest to our friends out there, you talk about making a project seem tangible and real to people. Invite them in for a special look in advance and it will open their hearts and maybe some other things as well.

Speaker 1:8:48The general contractor for the school is Choate construction. They knew a conventional construction method, couldn't meet the schedule and stay on budget,

Speaker 8:8:56but they were doubtful DIRTT could do it either. Hi, my name's Kevin Baird. I'm a construction superintendent for Choate Construction here in Atlanta. You guys showed up and said, hey, here's our schedule and we put it together. And I said, wow. Wow. That's all I could say. I said, man, we'll thing, you know, and thinking how, how much y'all had to do as opposed to what we were doing. I thought that's going to be a trick. We worked well together, you know, we had to be ready. There was dates, um, and I thought, wow. Yeah, tractor trailers are coming. It may slip a day or two. There was no slippage. They said they would be there. They were there, they unloaded it. It was very precision, like, you know, and I was, I was, I was impressed.

Speaker 6:9:40It was almost like, a highly coordinated dance routine because we have such specific deadlines that we had to meet all the way through the critical path. I mean, it was typically you have a critical path that kind of weaves through your project here. Every step of the way was on the critical path. And so we had to demo out old concrete block walls and get steel put in so the DIRTT could get field measured and then while everything else is going on on site was down in Savannah fabricating all that in four weeks later, they kind of, they show up and in two weeks time and all the walls ran and it's all finished and it's ready to go. So a lot of coordination, a lot of field dimensions, a lot of whole two dimensions had, were required to kind of make sure. So there's a lot of precision in doing this, but, um, I think for the team that we had with, um, our architects

Speaker 3:10:28for structural engineers, our contractor and the DIRTT team, we're able to pull it off

Speaker 4:10:38when our students and our faculty and their parents came back after that summer. They were blown away with what they saw. This space is radically transformed. It's hard to imagine you're walking down the same hall as you were in the same classrooms. It's that different.

Speaker 3:10:54Is this the building I used to be in and it's, oh, so much more than a cosmetic paint job. It is a radical change in the way learning occurs.

Speaker 4:11:03Yeah. This was one thing I really love when you go into a classroom and use the writeable walls and you'll see a group of kids working out an idea on the board together or even using the glass as a writing surface. So just thinking about all the different ways that every surface of the space can be used to further education.

Speaker 3:11:23When we went to this collaborative environment, a teacher, no longer has her own classroom. They may stay in that classroom for the most of the periods, but then they also, when they have a planning period, we create a collaboration rooms for teachers as well where they can kind of go into their teacher collaboration and where all the English teachers are in the same room and they had their own workstations. And so that creates an environment for the teachers to kind of help facilitate what they're teaching and talk among their English teachers and say here's what we're working on or what we're doing. But also what it does too is it frees up classroom space. So typically in a traditional system where a teacher may have that classroom the whole day, she may not be using it for two class periods, can actually increase our utilization of classrooms, but 20 percent because now we can fill in, other teachers can kind of come in and use that classroom for the planning period that the other teacher may have been able to use it.

Speaker 3:12:14So utilization of classrooms also helps in square footage requirements for additional classroom space down the road. We're able to kind of use what we already have it use them a lot more effectively. Kids really liked the new space because of all the glass. Early on there were some questions about distractability and that seemed to go away after about a week. But for that first week, anybody who walked down the hall, there was curiosity. but the reason we added all of that glass is now those, those hallway spaces, our learning spaces and our teachers are able to now separate the class into groups and some groups are in the, in the traditional space. It's not traditional, but in the space, the classroom space and then other students were in the hallway space and the teacher has visibility of the entire group. We have breakout rooms that are just fantastic and it's really been our students who have welcomed the change and, and parents have loved the change.

Speaker 2:13:06Many industries are being disrupted right now. Education is among those and education should be. And so you ask the question, what are some best practices for kids learning and that should shape your facilities rather than your facility's shape. You. And so with that in mind, when we know that by collaboration and critical thinking and working together and teaming than the old classic sit in the classroom and watch the teacher was the poorest of models and the poorest of designs. So we started from scratch asking again, how should learning be designed in terms of the facility that meant an open environment with students in and out and experientially working together. Teachers watching this group over here, another over here instead of the old traditional design. So the old cinderblock traditional walls, a prison model gave way to a whole new way of thinking, the same kind that you see in the better, newer designed universities and businesses that open collaborative learning will surprise the same learning style works well with 17 year olds and 15 year olds, so it was time to do it.

Speaker 3:14:13You're going to be late.

Speaker 9:14:15Meanwhile there was another challenge. The performing arts programs at a Greater Atlantic Christian. We're growing, but the original spaces weren't big enough for the performances or the audiences. A very plain cinderblock church looked like the only option. The school was torn between knocking it down and starting over or trying to get what they really wanted out of that old building and what they really wanted was something reminiscent of the dining hall of the Harry Potter movies. It was a tall order for an unlikely space.

Speaker 2:14:45This building was built on the campus of Greater Atlanta Christian school. Oh my goodness. Forty years ago it was a church building church that was adjacent to the school and gradually the school used it more and more for chapels and other kinds of things and it served well in its day and as the future on. And we began to ask new questions about how could this building be repurposed instead of raising it flattening and how can we take it forward so we can serve well again in the future. And it's a good question for students to, about how do you take things forward instead of simply tearing things down.

Speaker 2:15:20It's funny thing. I was in a wedding, about three or four years ago in a classic facility with all kinds of beautiful woodwork above and a structure around it, looking at it admiring and saying, you know, we need one of these on our campus. We need one of these and where can we plant it? And we're about to fill up our campus. And I thought, wait a minute. We have the bones of that building. It's plain vanilla now, but it could be taken forward in beautiful ways with good thinking and there were some challenges with it too, like how do you add a balcony to a facility that doesn't have one? How do you take something that's so plain vanilla and take it forward, but I knew we could do it and we could do it in a way that we'd be proud of for decades to come.

Speaker 3:16:10The challenge was to take an existing 40 year old church building and transform it into a performing arts center that would be a wide variety of performing needs from orchestra to dance and so we had to increase the stage size, increas the percentage of width from 30 feet or 50 feet to accommodate these different kinds of performances. Our initial design actually was, was using light gauge metal studs and framing and kind of wrapping that with wood or wrapping it with a metal that looked like wood to kind of keep it as light as we can and kind of. But still try to get the effects of wood beams and we got pretty far down the process. We had construction documents done, we'd already gone through pricing with gcs. When we

Speaker 7:16:54put the initial proposal together, uh, the plan was not for real wood up on those beams. It was going to be an aluminum facade. We were skeptical about that and whether or not that would actually create the atmosphere and the look that was really. It was demonstrated by those drawings. So when we heard that that DIRTT had a timber division, it would be participating in the project. It kind of gave us hope that we would actually capture the field that the architect was looking for.

Speaker 6:17:19I think we were just having a casual conversation about, hey, there's another project we're working on them. We're trying to figure this out. And DIRTT had said, hey, we've got a timber product that we're,

Speaker 3:17:28that we're doing now that might be a great fit for that.

Speaker 9:17:34DIRTT Timber uses the power of technology and combines it with old world craftsmanship curves and angles are calculated and the information is fed directly into the factories. On site everything slots together and fits perfectly. The is something that looks handcrafted by artisans over several years. Yet it was designed and built in a matter of weeks. We caught up with the head of DIRTT, timber at the factory

Speaker 5:18:01Hi, I'm Chris Friedlos and the timber-frame engineer and dessigner here in Calgary on the main office. The building was all out of square, nothing was level nothing is straight. So we actually scanned the building with the Licra camera and imported that modeling, to our software, and so we had the existing building exact and the CNC machines and the technology were able to cut it exactly precisly to the existing building size. I think without technology. It would be impossible.

Speaker 8:18:31My name is Mike Justice. I am the superintendent that was onsite working with Choate Construction. I'm doing another tenant build out and, it's a walk in the park compared to what we were dealing with here. The schedule, the time constraints and basically the quality of work. It had to be just top notch. We tore everything out of here, basically down to shell and left a little bit of framing up top. But uh, there was nothing in here. It was concrete floor, cold, nasty. And then the wood started coming in and it started to get warmer.

Speaker 6:19:05It's hard to imagine that there are people that gifted who understand how to do this and can kind of create that. And then, you know, that's one of the things we learned about DIRTT. I mean, they do a great product and a great finished product, but we understand too that really their expertise is just in the technology,

Speaker 5:19:21We had to cut the whole structure on five different CNC machines. Some are curved. some are straight. Some are oversized timbers we couldn't do in Calgary. So we used our two calgary machines and 3 different machines in Switzerland. Everything was driven from one model and then cut on a CNC and shipped to Atlanta and it fit perfectly.

Speaker 6:19:42So it's not like you're just bringing in a bunch of timber and having to cut it on the field. And you, you know, a lot of leftover wood. I think we literally found about three pieces that were about three foot long. And that was the entire amount of scrap on the entire project.

Speaker 8:19:54The timber beams, they come in prefabbed and fit inside of this space. I have no more reservations about it, not whatsoever.

Speaker 4:20:04One of the initial program requirements was to increase the seating from 700 to a thousand, nearly a thousand. In order to accomplish that, we needed to add a balcony in this existing building. We have occupied spaces below the auditorium, so the. The question was how do we incorporate these elements into the building design without being disruptive. Initially we designed that balcony with conventional construction, steel columns, beams, concrete structure. Once we started talking with DIRTT, they were involved in the timber solution for the trusses. As they were involved in the wall system, we began to talk with them about the possbility of building the entire balcony out of timber. The beauty there was that because of the lighter weight of the wood structure and the adaptability and the ease of construction of being able to bring materials in and build without, you know, a crane or coming through the roof was of great value and we found that we were able to put the new wood columns on existing columns and not have to go through the lower floor with additional steel columns and footings which helps speed construction.

Speaker 5:21:18It took DIRTT coming in to say this is what it could look like and to add wood and the add the wood beams that perhaps we hadn't imagined before. It's what we wanted. But then they put it in place, it could not be a better fit

Speaker 4:21:32100 yards away from here and we have a small kids in the nursery and you've got a construction site. So you know, the ability to store materials offsite and be able to ship them in without being fully disruptive to the existing environment. And the ability for the school to continue to exist around the construction was very important. And then in terms of just the sustainability, the importance of working with a partner like DIRTT who has as at their core values and to be able to tell the story that these timbers came from sustainable forests in Europe is as a remarkable story to tell.

Speaker 6:22:11Just the beauty of having a hard big timber wood, you know, and the site helped us kind of from the early visions match enough that getting that old look like this is built over 200 years ago. Hopefully it's going to be here 200 years from now as well, that other people will be walking in and thinking, boy, this has been here for a long, long time.

Speaker 5:22:28The day I came over and got to do the visual reality and walk in the space or imagine walking in this space to go up to the balcony and a virtual way to look over the balcony and just to see that stage and what it would be was just such an impressive experience.

Speaker 4:22:43Yeah. It's an incredible blend of modern technology and old world craftsmanship to to see this thing evolve in electronic drawings, in and visualizing it that way, and then to actually come out here in the field and watch Christophe build this and put it together like a true craftsman is just amazing,

Speaker 5:23:06It is all just gorgeous. Unbelievable. And it was really nice to deal with the clients at the school actually. They're really nice people. They appreciated the quality and everything.

Speaker 2:23:16Schools like greater Atlanta, Christian are always asking what should be next, what should be right for students, not just what we as adults are comfortable with or have always done. There are growing number of schools, the United States who asked that best question first. What I love is that there are now companies like DIRTT who think about those kinds of questions with us. Not simply react passively to what we propose, but come forward proactively with ideas that accomplish what we want to accomplish.

Speaker 3:23:48We were looking at 18 to $20,000,000 to build a brand new facility or renovating an existing facility. I think our costs were around $4,000,000 to do that. And then also just a, you know, a beautiful facility. If you walked in, you would think that this was custom built for this from day one. I think it's very important to understand that DIRTT really becomes your partner in this process

Speaker 7:24:09It can't be ignored, that traditional construction practices probably will never be replaced, especially when it comes to renovating older structures. But I do think that this is kind of on the cutting edge of integrating the two traditional construction methods and shop-built construction or prefab, if you want to call it that. This, this is totally customs. I don't know that prefab really applies, but it can revolutionize the way we do interior projects for sure.

Speaker 3:24:33What it did is it just changed our performing arts for us, you know, being able to have a stage does that much depth in that much width to it so that we can get a full orchestra on. We can have our full band ensemble on dance, can have all the room that they need, that we even had some folks from some other venues come over and take a look at and want to host some events here because the size of the stage, it's just unusual

Speaker 5:24:54the change from what it was to what it is now is astonishing. How about a month ago, we dedicated the space when we had our students here at group by group and we had the curtain closed, and it was kind of like a school assembly and the students came in and we had a couple of speakers on stage and then at one point the curtain opened and behind the curtain was our orchestra and choir. And there was a gasp that came across the crowd. The students were elated and could not believe what they were seeing,

Speaker 2:25:21taking facilities, not just being stuck with what was done 30 years ago, well intended, but done 30 or 40 years ago. Take them forward and sustainable fashions taught our students much about using what you have. Finally, aesthetics, believe it or not, aesthetics matter as much to kids as they do to us as grownups in a place of beauty furthers your thinking. It pulls your mind up, your heart up, and causes your dreams to expand. We want to expand dreams in our kids because they are the designers, the dreamers, the shaper of becoming world, and we want them to see how it could be done and their surroundings to pull them up and what we did with DIRTT certainly has done that.

Speaker 9:26:04If you'd like to see what everyone is talking about in this show, just go to DIRTT dot com and check out the project section. Let us know if there's any other topics you'd like us to do a show on. Thanks for listening. I'm Julie Pithers and this was Build Better.

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