[Zerr Berg Architects]
Story by Tracy Nicholson
Photography by Dan Francis Photography
Renderings provided by Zerr Berg Architects
What was once a school in disrepair, is now one of the newest and largest K-12, single buildings in the state. With over 1,000 students, educators, administrators and staff - all under one roof, their new school is setting a new standard in education. Starting with a patchwork of eight older buildings dating back to 1949, Zerr Berg Architects of Fargo spent roughly three years stitching together past and present, to create a spectacular, unified space focused on elevating the student experience. See inside the $30 million dollar renovation and addition that's built to inspire the next generation.
Splitting at the Seams
Over the years, eight addition and renovation projects had left the Central Cass school in Casselton, N.D., feeling disjointed and far too sprawled out. Three years ago, the school board recognized the need to unify and expand their school, so Superintendent Morgan Forness and Academic Dean Nikki Wixo, got to work spearheading the plans. To find a solution to fuse old and new, the board hired Zerr Berg Architects of Fargo. As with most renovation projects, there were more needs than dollars available, so Zerr Berg was tasked with finding creative and cost-effective solutions, while the school board was tasked with finding the much-needed funding.
The Central Cass school board challenged the design team and the administration to formulate a project that would be funded by an $18 million referendum and an additional $8 million in other funding. A combination of private and public money was used to fund the additional scope. Overall, the project would equate to approximately $30 million, with $26 million in new construction and renovation needs and $5.5 million designated for a new turf, combination football and soccer field, turf softball field and synthetic track.
"The additional funding was a combination of private and public, similar to what Fargo Public Schools has done with having a community joint-use agreement with the park district in Central Cass - this allowed the school to bring a sales tax question to the public," explained Zerr Berg's Principal Architect, Brian Berg. "About $2 million dollars of $8 million in additional funding came from a public vote, funding the wellness center and some components of the community center - the remaining $6 million dollars was privately raised."
Goal: Unify & Upgrade
The goals of the master plan included unifying the design, improving building security, upgrading the building envelope and addressing dated infrastructure and systems. In the end, the newly completed building, with new additions, would encompass approximately 238,000 square feet.
"The big challenge was trying to stitch it all together," said Berg. "The building had been a hodgepodge of additions over the years. We didn't really go into the high school area much, but the elementary area is really cohesive now. The floor finishes tie it all together and it feels like it's all connected, instead of walking through a whole bunch of different buildings. The project involved significant demo and new construction; there's a completely new fine arts area, new commons, wellness center and a large elementary addition."
Elevating the Student Experience
To piece together the architectural puzzle, Zerr Berg's Interior Designer, Amanda Rinke, relied on a mix of vibrant, cohesive and timeless finishes. "When we're pulling together a finished palette for a school, I keep in mind materials that are going to be staying there for the lifeblood of the building; I really like to keep those materials fairly neutral and then bring in accenting pops of color, whether through paint or carpet."
Remodeling some of the elementary areas, Rinke was able to provide the school with a detailed roadmap of the design selections including carpeting, paint and accents. This allowed the school's summer program to take on some of the refinishing and general repairs to a few of the existing spaces. "Central Cass really spearheaded the concept of creating a more vibrant space," said Rinke. "They were a great district to work with because they weren't afraid of using color and being bright, fun and vibrant. They really wanted to give the kids a space that was energetic and entertaining for the students, as well as the staff."
"Through finishes, Amanda was really able to stretch the tight budget further," said Zerr Berg's Associate Architect, John Holten. "The ten new classrooms we did were for kindergarten and first grade. The rest of the elementary, grades two through five, received new carpeting, ceiling and paint. Design details like these were low cost, but high impact additions that really tied it all together. It helps all of the elementary seem new, even though only a very small portion is."
Cultivating a Brighter Future
The school's education areas needed to bring the energy with bold design and bright tones, appealing to both staff and students. "The elementary wing included vibrant pops of color in the flooring, as well as accent walls in the classrooms and group learning areas," said Rinke. "In the community areas, we focused on creating striking visuals with architectural elements, and of course popping in that Central Cass red.”
One of the more delicate features is the decorative glass, thoughtfully placed throughout the building and blending in with the striping that runs through the terrazzo. "The glass coordinates so well with the beams. It's really beautiful as the sun moves over the space throughout the day - it creates different visuals, so the space is constantly evolving," said Rinke. "It's hard to wrap your head around the intensity of what this space really brings, but when the beams were put into place, it really brought the design home." The Douglas Fir glulam beams, extending 30 feet high in the commons area, were assembled on-site and hail from Manitoba's Western Archrib, located just ten miles North of the Peace Gardens.
While the west addition includes 10 new kindergarten and first-grade classrooms with a separate secure elementary entry and bus drop, the east entry needed a more communal approach. This entry would serve the existing main competition gymnasium, theater, auxiliary gymnasium and new community wellness center.
"I grew up in a Class B school in this part of the state and I've spent a lot of time in that gym over the years, so I knew what the major issues were," said Berg. "They went from having a pre-function area that was an eight-foot hallway with a table to take tickets, to now having a commons that enables them to host so many things that they couldn't do before and even have concurrent events."
The STEM Lab
At the center of the existing space, located directly off of the commons, you'll find an innovative space known as the STEM Lab. "The STEM Lab is a maker space and it's a technology-infused environment with movable glass walls that allow it to grow and shrink depending on the size of the group," said Berg. "We reconfigured four old classrooms, then added a big skylight to bring natural light into the core of the building - it's just a really fun and collaborative environment for kids to practice applied learning."
To properly utilize the space, Central Cass partnered with Cultivate 21 to develop innovative approaches to curriculum delivery. Integrated technology, writable surfaces and multi-function furnishings are all features of the dynamic area designed to pique the interest. "This space has fundamentally changed the way that students engage with each other, providing a fertile ground for discovery and exploration in large and small groups," said Berg.
Although accessible to everyone, the STEM Lab is primarily used for grade-level kids and some middle school classes. "It's so fun to go in there and see kids using that space - it's like an exploration lab," said Berg. "It's really visible to the public, and when students bring their parents into the school it is an area that spurs discussion. They also use the space for training their own educators and for community projects; it's really become a good community space for everyone."
Set the Stage + Start the Game!
A standout feature in the building's design was the beautiful stage and theater. Even more intriguing than its cherry and maple wood aesthetic, is how it was conceived. After the school's old gymnasium was removed, the site became a unique shared space for the new theater and adjacent gymnasium.
"This was totally different from anything we'd done before," said Berg. "We wanted to be able to scale the theater seating up from 400 to 750 occupancy, so we used a reverse retraction platform bleacher system. There's a movable wall that pushes back into the gym behind it. The reverse retraction bleacher backs up into the gym and creates a riser that provides seating for another 350, totaling 750. In our time-lapse video, you can see that it takes about 20 minutes to convert the space."
Visit Youtube or click here to view the time-lapse video:
To ensure the transitional space would be sensitive to sound level concerns of a gym and theater, Zerr Berg recruited the expertise of acoustical engineers who oversaw the acoustic panels and baffles. "Auxiliary gyms that have a big stage and a bleacher that projects out to create a theater within the gym, are definitely more common," said Berg. "But, this is the first time we've ever done it in reverse. We had to get creative because we didn't have enough programmed square footage to do a separate 700-square foot theater and a separate auxiliary gym, so we overlapped the two and took advantage of the extra space."
Working in a fully operational school with nearly 1,000 occupants on any given day, presented the team with significant challenges. "Kraus Anderson provided outstanding leadership and communication throughout the construction process," said Berg. "The safety of students and educators was always their number one priority while managing a complex construction site with large additions surrounding the existing building."
A Community on the Grow
With close proximity to the Fargo-Moorhead metro area, small communities like Casselton are on the grow. Central Cass' school is seeing most of its growth through extensive residential developments being built just to the west of the school. Right now, the school encompasses five other townships and can also accept students optioning from Mapleton. Their K-12 classes total around 900 students, but with the renovation, they are finally prepared to accommodate future projections.
"The Zerr Berg staff did a remarkable job of designing engaging and innovative new learning spaces into already used and tired old buildings. Their attention to detail in meeting the academic programming needs, designing energy efficiencies, utilizing community resources, and creating dynamic teaching and learning spaces to best meet the collaborative needs of education in 21st-century schools is second to none! They are professional, creative, and customer and student-focused. We couldn't be more pleased! “
Meet the Team!
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