District selects architect for Muldown project

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Students file into Muldown Elementary for the first day of school. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

The Whitefish School Board has decided to stick with L’Heureux, Page and Werner to design the new $26.5 million Muldown Elementary.

The board on Dec. 9 voted unanimously to continue working with LPW, who has been part of the Muldown project since the early days of the Muldown Task Force roughly a year-and-a-half ago.

In addition, the School Board also selected Dow’s Custom Construction to serve as owner’s representative for the project.

The decision to work with LPW, of Great Falls, came from a unanimous recommendation from the team tasked with reviewing the different firms’ request for qualifications proposals.

Despite having previously worked with LPW, Linda Whitright, Muldown principal, said it was obvious that LPW rose to the top of the talent pool regardless of history.

“We went into the process with an incredibly open mind and listened intently and they just were the perfect fit, and I feel very comfortable with the decision we’ve made,” she said.

Whitefish voters in October passed a bond request to construct a new Muldown Elementary School to replace the current building and its failing infrastructure and overcrowding issues.

Since the Muldown Project Task Force began in summer of 2016, LPW had been a part of the planning process, working with school staff and community members to narrow a number of solution options down to just a few and, eventually, a plan for a new school.

School Board Chair Nick Polumbus said he feels more comfortable bringing a sense of continuity to the project.

“All the work they did in the pre-bond phase, and the relationships they established in that process, and our desire to bring continuity to the district throughout the building project — and I think we’ve learned over the years that continuity is a really critical component — all those pieces fit here,” he said.

LPW’s understanding of the district’s needs is what set them apart, Trustee Katie Clarke said.

“The distinction was that LPW brought our vision to life,” she said. “Their whole presentation spoke to our strategy and our vision, and it became so obvious that they get us and they get what we’re doing. It was about collaboration, community and how to involve kids in the process — it was really inspiring.”

Speaking at the School Board meeting, Steve L’Heureux said he and his team are excited to continue working on the project and that they’re also trying to open an office in the Flathead to stay closer to their work here.

The Muldown project has been a top priority, L’Heureux said.

“Frankly, Tim [Peterson] and I have been hopeful and excited about this to the point that we’ve passed on other things so that we’d be available,” he said.

L’Heureux also stressed the firm’s desire to involve students in the planning and building process of the school.

“We talked a lot about having the Muldown kids get involved, [asking] what would this mean to them and what do they think it would be?” he said. “We did that most recently in Great Falls and it was really fun. One of those kids is my next door neighbor and she can’t stop talking about it.”

“We’d also like to get the high school kids in some sort of the building trades and get them interested in being involved in construction either, from the design or from the construction side of things. That’s how I got involved in architecture, I watched my own high school be built.”

During the same meeting, the board also voted to bring on Dow Powell and Dow’s Custom Construction as the owner’s representative during the planning and construction of the new Muldown.

An owner’s representative works with the architects, construction manager and contractors on the district’s behalf. As owner’s representative, Powell will aid with cost estimation, construction scheduling and act as a “referee” between the contractors and architects, Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt said.

Powell served as the owner’s representative during the construction of the high school.

Davis Schmidt said the choice was obvious.

“It was very clear to us that having Dow’s Custom Construction and Dow Powell on site here locally in Whitefish, someone who we have a great deal of experience with ... his presentation in his statement of qualifications just really helped the committee believe he was the best opportunity for us to have an owner’s rep on the Muldown project,” she said.

Powell said he’s excited to come in during the early stages of the project.

“On the high school, I didn’t come in until construction documents were almost done, and that was not that beneficial for us. We spent months getting the budget down to where it needed to be,” he said. “In this one, starting with nothing on paper will be very helpful to the district.”

Powell will help vet contractors and project managers, and said he’d like to get a contracting firm on in the next 30 to 45 days to keep the project moving.

“The design end of this will take a while. We’d like to be able to turn a shovel in the spring of 2019, and that’s probably how long it’ll take with the collaborative design that we’ll be doing,” he said.

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