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66-year-old school will get 21st-century overhaul
WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — During Hurricane Florence, Wrightsville Beach Elementary School fared better than many in the region.
Like much of Wrightsville Beach, the 66-year-old building was spared the flooding that devastated many inland areas. But with a changing climate and swelling seas threatening coastal buildings, the elementary school is getting renovations for the 21st century.
The renovations, which will add a second floor to the building and are scheduled to start this summer, are mostly aimed at making room for a growing student body.
But architect John Sawyer, of Sawyer, Sherwood and Associate, said that planning for future, stronger storms was key to designing the new school.
“It is all designed to be rigid and withstand the storm,” he said.
Bracing for sea change
When the school was built in 1953, research into what we now know as climate change was still in its infancy, and far from a national conversation. Sea level rise was not on architects’ radar, and state building codes calling for coastal structures to be elevated were more than a decade away.
As a result, the existing school sits on a concrete slab just a foot above ground level.
Flooding is common on the Wrightsville Beach Elementary playground, though the school itself only sees inundation during extreme storms, like 1999’s Hurricane Floyd. But data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association indicates that by 2040, the sea level around Wilmington could have risen 1.5 feet under an intermediate scenario (an extreme scenario calls for 2.2 feet).
If flooding becomes a more regular part of life on Harbor Island, the new Wrightsville Beach Elementary will be prepared.
“All the new classrooms, the new media center, all the new technology is on the second floor, and that floor level is about 15 feet above ground level,” Sawyer said. For reference, that’s more than double the 6-foot elevation that FEMA requires for new buildings in that part of Harbor Island.
The first floor will be renovated to feature less wood and more masonry, and easy-to-clean sealants and finishes.
The school will also sport a new elevator and lots of wheelable furniture, making it easier to move desks and chairs out of harms’ way ahead of a hurricane. Leanne Lawrence, director of facility planning for the district, said movable furniture also makes for a more flexible classroom experience.
“Kind of gone are the days where the student desks are in neat little rows,” she said. “It’s a lot more collaborative.”
Under one roof
When Wrightsville Beach Elementary reopens in 2020, it will the first time in decades that all the school’s students have been in the same building.
The addition will let the school remove nine mobile units — one of which has been there since 1976 — from the campus. The district can also stop renting classroom space from nearby Wrightsville Beach Baptist Church as it brings students back under one roof.
That roof itself will be rated for wind speeds of up to 150 mph, as strong as a Category 4 hurricane. And in addition to brick to match the existing building, the school’s exterior will feature salt water-resistant stainless steel.
One feature notably missing from construction plans: rooftop HVAC units.
Among the nearly $20 million in damage that Hurricane Florence did across the district was widespread roof damage, including to rooftop equipment. HVAC units will be inside the new school, cutting down on the bracing work district staff will have to do before a storm.
“This building needs to resist the storm in kind of a passive way,” Sawyer said. “Just sit there and do it, and not expect a lot of attendance.”
Reporter Cammie Bellamy can be reached at Cammie.Bellamy@StarNewsOnline.com.