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Jemtegaard School: Overcoming Complexities in Building Design and Permitting

Jemtegaard School sits in the scenic Columbia River Gorge.

When the Washougal School District in Washington decided to demolish the old Jemtegaard Middle School and build a new middle and an elementary school in its place, there was more work to be done than simply designing and creating the new buildings. Though citizens had approved the bond measure to fund building these schools, the school site was within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. This meant that—in addition to the usual design and environmental requirements and permitting—this project needed to comply with a large range of special design restrictions for any structure built in this area.

This nationally designated scenic area was created to “protect and provide for the enhancement of the scenic, cultural, recreational and natural resources of the Gorge; and to protect and support the economy of the Columbia River Gorge area by encouraging growth to occur in existing urban areas and by allowing future economic development,” according to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). It’s not a wilderness or a park, but an area the USFS manages collaboratively with Washington and Oregon’s private owners and tribal and county agencies. Careful coordination between agencies and the school district and building designers had to be done to finish the project.

Situated across Evergreen Highway from the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge and close to Gibbons Creek, designers and planners of the school had to ensure that the new schools did not impact local waterways. The Jemtegaard School will be the largest structure ever built in the scenic area, so the project team had to consider all the requirements and regulations inherent in such a project. To comply with these requirements, an environmental assessment was done, as well as a careful analysis and interpretation of the scenic area’s “visual subordination” requirements for the design of the combined middle and elementary school buildings.

For the visual subordination requirements, designers and planners had to discover the visual impact of the buildings on the site: are they visible from key viewing areas? Are there enough trees and landscaping to screen the building from different elevations in the surrounding landscape? If visible, do they blend with the rest of the scenic area? A rigorous Clark County land use review permitting process was completed for scenic area compliance, and the Friends of the Columbia Gorge organization did not appeal the approval, which is very unusual.

To determine the extent of the visual subordination needed, the permitting team sent aloft 8 foot balloons to simulate the buildings’ height and took photos to discover the lines of sight and the potential visual effect the school would have from elevated viewpoints 3 to 4 miles away. Once the effect was determined, 18- to 24-foot trees, berming, and other landscaping were selected to screen the most obvious areas of the school. In addition, the USFS guidelines were consulted to visually subordinate the buildings through the use of building materials and colors to match the landscape. Special low-reflective windows were also installed to minimize glare.

Despite these complexities, the project team’s careful coordination and planning will allow the Jemtegaard School to be finished in time for the fall 2017 school session.