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August 27, 2020

Building schools is about building communities

  • The schools built today are designed for the students of tomorrow and need to function in a way where education is paramount.
    Skanska USA Building


    Schools are big investments for local communities, and that investment goes well beyond the dollars it takes to fund new construction.

    Schools are a commitment to our students; a pledge to our teachers, staff and administrators; a proud declaration to our broader communities; and a promise to our future, even when our immediate future inside of school buildings this fall seems a little uncertain as our communities and school districts focus on distance learning, hybrid models and other challenges.

    The first day at a new school — whether newly constructed and open for the first time, new to a student progressing from elementary to middle or middle to high school, or newly returned to when school districts have moved beyond distance learning — is a special time, full of wonder and potential.

    For students, it’s about seeing old friends, meeting new teachers, finding their way around and, when it comes to brand new schools, exploring the buildings and campus to learn all about this place that each of them will spend roughly 180 days of the year. For teachers, it’s about having the tools and facilities to help them inspire, educate and make lifelong learners of their charges.

    Image courtesy of Bassetti Architects [enlarge]
    Rendering of the new Highline High School, under construction in Burien. The school has a planned opening in fall 2022.

    Working in strong partnership with architects and school districts throughout the process, our job at Skanska USA Building is to ensure that from the moment everyone arrives on campus and steps foot into a new school, they can rely on a safe, distraction-free environment in which to learn, teach and come together. We help turn the larger team’s vision into reality and we take that job very seriously.

    We know we’ve done our job and executed the architect and school district’s vision when we hear excitement from students about being in a school they can learn in, when teachers tell us that it’s a building they love to teach in, when parents say how proud they are to send their kids there, and when the broader community takes pride in the results of their collective investment.

    The schools we build today are designed for the students of tomorrow, and need to function in a way where education is paramount. To do so, project teams (architects, builders and districts) focus intently on providing high-performing learning environments, and reducing long-term operational costs by choosing innovative, efficient and easy-to-maintain building systems and materials, allowing school districts to spend more of their precious budget on education and less on costs to build and run their facilities.

    That focus not only extends to things like natural lighting (which has been shown to have a positive impact on student learning and test performance), but also the inclusion of breakout spaces and flexible learning environments, and even how the exterior of the schools can be used in learning. For example, some schools have used their stormwater bio-filtration systems as a way to engage students about ecology, sustainability and the environment. Helping bring our architect partners’ vision for these elements to life is something about which we’re very passionate.

    Since most new school construction happens adjacent to an existing facility that’s in use while our work continues, our early involvement with parents, teachers, students and the community is essential to helping them understand — and learn from — the process.

    Photo courtesy of Skanska USA Building [enlarge]
    Backpack drive for Rainier Beach High School.

    At Skanska, we make a concerted effort to partner with schools and school districts to transform the concept of “construction” into a true learning opportunity for those seeing it happen on a daily basis. We work with teachers and staff to develop age-appropriate curriculum to help everyone learn what’s happening next door and how it may relate to what the student is currently learning. As construction progresses, excitement grows.

    During construction, we also work to support educational programs at the existing facilities. When working on Browns Point Elementary in Tacoma, our staff came in once a week to read to students. When we built Vashon Island and Central Kitsap high schools, our team went into math classes to help show the direct application of geometry to real world projects and to the new schools we were building. For older students, we’ve developed and taught extracurricular courses on construction technology, and have been a part of helping school districts with career development and skills needed for careers in the construction trades.

    Good schools also help make strong communities, and Skanska understands that. As much as possible, we employ local subcontractors and labor to keep valuable bond money within the community each school serves. A central part of that commitment is working to engage a diverse and inclusive team of individuals and subcontractors. We try to develop work packages that increase the amount we spend with disadvantaged, minority and women business enterprises and regularly mentor small and micro-businesses within the communities we serve.

    As school construction continues, we use innovative reporting technology to keep communities informed about the project. Whether it’s working with school districts to erect site cameras so people can see real-time progress or publishing major milestones and pictures to community blogs, we want communities to understand and feel good about the work every step of the way.

    Just like good schools help make strong communities, strong communities help us make great schools. The importance of true partnership between and trust developed within communities, school districts, architects and builders cannot be overstated. When these groups are all working in sync to ensure successful projects, our educators benefit and our students flourish.

    Over the past three years, Skanska has been involved in 23 K-12 projects in the Pacific Northwest, and we’re currently building schools in the Auburn, Evergreen, Highline, Issaquah and Vancouver school districts in Washington; and Astoria, Lake Oswego, North Clackamas, Portland, Reynolds, Sherwood and Warrenton school districts in Oregon.

    Building a school doesn’t end when the heavy equipment is gone and all the women and men who worked to bring the architect’s vision to life have gone home and moved on to the next project. It doesn’t end on the day when students come back, either. For us, a commitment to building a new school means supporting the communities in which we operate, leaving a positive and lasting legacy.

    The work that we do places us at the heart of many different communities. We are committed to being a responsible member of these communities and to being a good neighbor. Through our structured Community Investment framework, we provide our time, skills and gifts in kind to leave a positive legacy wherever we work. Our focus is on strengthening local economies and championing education. We believe this is where we can have the greatest influence, and it directly supports Skanska’s core purpose to build for a better society.

    One of our favorite activities is helping celebrate the communities where we build. From hosting back-to-school backpack and school supply drives and supporting school district summer lunch programs, to developing and contributing to coats-for-kids programs and career days, our people actively seek out opportunities to become involved at a deeper level.

    With the new school year almost upon us here in the Northwest, we at Skanska are excited about the future and to continue building great schools and great communities, and are especially looking forward to the day when our kids, educators and everyone who makes this industry so special are back in these wonderful buildings, safe, healthy and ready to learn.

    Rob Robinson is vice president of Skanska USA Building.

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