The Emotional Connection Between Building and Community

On the morning of November 5, 2009, I woke up to my phone ringing.  It’s never a good sign when your boss is calling you in the wee hours of the morning, and that was the case that day.  Whatcom Middle School (WMS), the seismic retrofit project I had just spent the last year working on and that was nearing completion, was on fire.

Sitting in front of my television watching the news footage of flames shooting out from the roof of the building and a river of water streaming down the front entry stairs, I knew this wasn’t good. A million questions ran through my mind: “How bad is the damage?” “What’s going to happen with the kids?” “How did this happen?” “How are we going to fix this?” I almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing. After picking my jaw up off the floor, I pulled myself together and headed in to the office.

Later that day we were standing in front of the school.  Broken windows, charred framing, and water were everywhere.  This was the start of a rewarding project involving a dedicated and innovative design and construction team all working toward helping the students and faculty get back into their beloved school. As a structural engineer, it can be easy to get lost in the numbers and lose sight that what we do affects the daily lives of the people that inhabit our buildings. The students of Whatcom Middle School had lost the place where they spent most of their days, surrounded by friends and teachers. It was a home away from home for young people at a critical stage of life, and now it was gone.

There was a huge turnout for the first public meeting at Bellingham High School for the WMS staff, students, and parents a couple of days after the fire.  There must have been over 300 people at this evening meeting, with some of them crying and many worried about what would become of their WMS community now that the school was damaged. The district leadership explained how they were going to physically move the various class populations into neighboring schools, but still keep the WMS community connected by rotating staff, faculty, and administration.

Even with the amazing district leadership and vision to keep students connected, it was imperative to reunite them on one campus as soon as possible. This meant opening the school a year earlier than originally planned was the only option.

While standing at the ribbon cutting on September 1, 2011, almost two years after the fire, it was easy to see that Whatcom Middle School was an integral part of the community.  Students, faculty, and the community filled Halleck Street to get their chance to see the new, but very familiar, Whatcom Middle School.

A few weeks later we received a large package of letters from students thanking us for our help in rebuilding their school.  Reading those letters I was reminded again of how emotionally connected a student community becomes with its school, expecially one where their grandparents may have gone.  It was a great moment of personal recognition of why we do what we do.

The video below, produced for Dykeman Architects, Dawson Construction, and Reid Middleton, provides a summary of the reconstruction project from the day of the fire through completion and the school reopening to students and teachers. I feel privileged to have been a part of this project, and it’s one that I will always remember.