The Almira Story
By Troy Bishop & Ryley Siclair
October 6, 2023
On October 12th, 2021 at 4:00 in the afternoon, smoke was spotted billowing from the Almira K-8 School. The volunteer fire department responded immediately, but it was already too late. The school had been lost to the flames. With the building being made mostly of wood, it spread quickly, going from bad to worse in a matter of seconds. Thankfully, no one was in the school during the time of the fire due to a power outage that caused classes to be canceled for the day.
In a rush to find space after the fire, churches, community centers, the court authority building, and neighboring school districts volunteered their spaces for the students to use. By the following Tuesday they were able to get students into these shared spaces, resulting in only one week of online learning. They never missed a single day of school.
As the kids adjusted to their temporary environments, Gene Sementi, the Almira School Rebuild Project Manager, searched for portables to be utilized as a short-term solution until the new school could be built. Once they acquired enough LNI-certified portables, classrooms, offices, bathrooms, the cafeteria, and the kitchen were all transferred into these units. After the portables were installed on the football field, which was the only large enough flat surface available, the school reached out to Avista to move the existing playground from the original school to provide the kids with an area to play. Within 2-3 days the playset was moved and reassembled to give the students some sense of normalcy. Time was of the essence when it came to finding solutions, which set the precedent for the rest of the project to follow.
As the students settled into their portable school, the district realized early on that insurance would not cover the cost of the school they wanted to build. To accommodate and prepare for different circumstances in terms of budget allocation, ALSC designed three different schools. The first design was an exact replacement of the school that had burned down, the second was a new school that could be built with the allotted insurance money, and the third design was the high-end school they hoped and dreamed to build. They reached out to the governor’s office just in time to be added to the budget for $10 million; however, five months into the project inflation exploded causing insufficient funds. The senator awarded an additional $3 million, resulting in $13 million total, allowing them to pursue their dream school design.
Throughout the entire process, they worked under unusual circumstances with a brand-new principal who was new to the position, as well as a new superintendent who was new to the district. Instead of having a full year for bond planning and creating a structured list of priorities, they started at ground zero with almost no experience. The weather conditions added another layer of difficulty with snow, freezing temperatures, and 2-foot tall wind drifts, making it challenging to progress construction and pour the concrete sidewalks within the temporary compound.
With all difficulties set aside, they knew that had to move quickly. Due to its vast reach to surrounding communities, which is an approximate 100-mile radius, a school like Almira is essential to the area. Schools with 1,000 students or less have an extremely low chance of rebuilding a new school due to high tax rate, no bond capacity, and other challenges. “In addition, I would say that a child from a less affluent neighborhood not only deserves a high-end school as much as the other children, but argue that they may need it even more,” says ALSC principal Ken Murphy. It has been their top priority to keep the students involved and engaged throughout the entire construction process. With student curiosity and inquisition, there is potential to inspire a future generation of craftsmen/women and designers. These students require an equal sense of stability, importance, belonging, and opportunity.
This project is surrounded by many inspirational and moving moments, with one in particular that stands out. The floors had not been poured until after Christmas, which meant that the students had to wear mud boots when they toured the school. There was an eighth grader named Aiden, who is disabled and uses a walker, making it difficult for him to tour the school without the new floors. In an effort to get Aiden involved, the new principal, Kelsey, asked if there was any way they could get him into the facility to see the construction progress. Ryan, a foreman, then volunteered to pick Aiden up on a 4-wheeler and drove him into the building to tour the entire project, making Aiden feel included in the excitement. Moments like these, impacting lives, are what design is all about.
Not only was this the fastest school design that Gene had ever seen, it was also three projects at once. It was Gene’s first Design-Build project and he felt from the very beginning that the entire team was on the same page from day one. ALSC Architects and Garco Construction worked together to be good stewards of the allotted money, while remaining mindful and working towards the same goal. There was no sense of competition or confrontation between the architects, contractors, or client which was refreshing for Gene and the school district. It was a seamless partnership between ALSC and Garco.
Toward the end of our discussion with Gene, he mentioned a quote from the famous UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, who said, “Be quick, but don’t hurry”. Everyone involved in the Almira K-8 School project has been extremely quick through each step without rushing. Quality has not been compromised, which means the end result will be nothing shy of excellent because every detail and step is accounted for. In the end, the school leaned hard on the selected team which brought out the best in everyone. “The light is not just at the end of the tunnel, it’s now light enough to where we can all see each other in the tunnel,” says Gene.