Officials eye 2014 opening of U.S. schools in Belgium

Published Aug. 23, 2013
MONS, Belgium – Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe is inching closer to unveiling brand new elementary, middle and high schools here.

Progress continues on the three American facilities at this NATO base, which is home to Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. Work is expected to wrap up on the elementary and middle schools next July, in time for faculty and students to move in before the academic year kicks off that fall, said Jonathan Carr, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District’s Benelux Resident Office engineer. The high school should be finished by December 2014 – and possibly open up for use shortly after that Christmas and New Year’s holiday.

It’s part of Europe District’s largest current construction project, a $180 million endeavor to build an expansive, state-of-the-art campus at SHAPE International School. Officials have targeted the summer of 2018 for completion of the whole campus, represented by 19 NATO nations.

When fully functional, the international school will feature the latest in cutting-edge infrastructure, educational programs and models that’ll sharply enhance the learning environment and standard of living for the entire community, said Air Force Maj. Curt Fryman, the lead SHAPE engineer.

“The original buildings in use now are from 1967 – they’re temporary structures that were built with an eight-to-10-year planned life span. … They never got replaced,” he said. “So they’re way too small, they’re extremely old, 83 percent of them are substandard. And now, we’re coming in with modern, world-class, state-of-the-art buildings that have 50 percent more square footage. We’re also going from dull, dark and dreary to bright, new, airy free spaces.

“These new facilities are going to increase quality of life for the kids. Show me a service member or parent who isn’t interested in that. This is going to enhance NATO and SHAPE’s mission, too, because parents will understand their children are in an awesome environment. They’ll be able to focus on doing the jobs they’re here to do instead of maybe worrying about the kids at school.”

Combined, the three new DODDS schools cover almost 287,000 square feet and are being built for a capacity of 1,400 students, said Orlando Ortiz, the SHAPE International School senior project manager for Europe District. About 1,100 children currently attend DODDS at SHAPE.

“The advantages would be that the schools are going to have much larger facilities than what they have now,” Ortiz said. “Our designers were able to take advantage of what’s available at the site.”

The construction contractor, BESIX, has taken several significant steps forward on the DODDS project this summer, Europe District officials said. In July, workers installed massive prefabricated support trusses atop the gymnasium that sits between the U.S. elementary and middle schools. The wooden beams serve as both structural and aesthetic elements.

Carr said progress also has been made on the multipurpose room and library that connect the two institutions. The DODDS high school is planned for a separate location on campus.

Work is under way on the brick building facade and roofing, he added. A distinctive, mortarless brick system is going up on the exterior of the middle and elementary schools, while flat sections of both roofs are designed to be “green.”

A courtyard will lie between the gym and middle school, along with athletic and sports venues, including basketball courts and tetherball poles.

“We have the challenge of building a whole new school complex on top of an existing school complex while keeping everything open and operational,” Fryman said. “Any delays in the U.S. part of the project have such a ripple effect to other nations, so we’ve got to keep these projects moving. So far, it’s going well. … We’re doing some wonderful things. Jonathan and his team are working great.”

Lisa Bobotas, the DODDS-Europe program manager at USACE, says the vast majority of American schools on the continent date to the 1960s and ’70s. The Navy built the last new facility two years ago in Vicenza, Italy.

Wireless capabilities are among the technological advances coming to all three DODDS schools at SHAPE, Ortiz said.

“You’re basically taking the latest in teaching concepts and integrating it with a modernized facility, so these kids … are going to be at the high end [of the competitive scale] in U.S. schools when they go back,” Bobotas added. “This is cutting-edge education.”

Fryman said SHAPE International School has the potential to strengthen global relations by establishing a forum that enables the sharing of customs, cultures and personal friendships at the adolescent level.

“It’s an opportunity you don’t get anywhere else in the world, and these new facilities are just going to make it that much better,” he said. “It can’t do anything but help improve world relationships, because these kids are probably going to be influencing international political leadership in the future. … They’ll be able to carry these positive experiences and interaction into adulthood.”

The buildings, designed using Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, Silver criteria, should yield significant future cost savings by lowering energy and water use around campus, officials said. The total package incorporates sustainability and renewable-energy strategies into the engineering and construction.

Due to various funding channels by the multiple partner nations, it’s difficult to pinpoint any projections, Fryman said. But reductions in maintenance and utility bills are anticipated.

“We’ve got 1960s technology for heating and ventilation that will now be going up against modern [equipment]. The efficiencies will be just incredible,” he said. “We’ll have improvements to the boilers for heat generation, insulation and other infrastructure. They’re just so much more efficient that we can go 50 percent more square footage and actually reduce energy costs. The windows and natural lighting will be better, too.”

This upgraded international campus – with its purpose-built facilities – is of vital importance to the U.S., SHAPE and NATO communities, Fryman added.

“These are phenomenal buildings. This campus, when it’s done in 2018, is going to rival universities around the world,” he said. “It’s so unique, but that’s what gives it such opportunity. The kids who go to school here will learn so much more than a textbook could ever teach them.”