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'Deconstruction' starts on old Retsil dining hall

It was eerily silent at the sweeps of flattened dirt that are all that remains of most of Retsil Veterans Home’s crumbling campus.

A few residents, cigarettes and pipes clutched between wrinkled lips lingered along the fence, hoping for a glimpse of a growling piece of heavy construction equipment.

They seem disappointed when Retsil superintendent Jerry Towne reminds them that Fridays are no-work days at the site.

“If you get much action going on here, the place is just full of people watching,” Towne said. “The crew will go over and talk to them. A lot of the residents have been in construction. It’s just really nice.”

Last week, crews started “deconstructing” the auditorium half of the dining hall building. Project supervisor Fred Browning hesitates to use the word demolition since no wrecking balls are involved — instead, a backhoe chips away at the building, taking out little chunks at a time.

In contrast, the cluster of old housing and administration buildings that neighbored the hall were taken out in a mushroom cloud of dust and brick.

More than half the main buildings at the Retsil campus are now gone to make room for the $47 million remodel/ up-grade currently underway.

The crews have to be careful with the auditorium half because the dining half of the building will remain in use for another few months. Browning said before deconstruction could commence, a structural engineer had to evaluate the building in minute detail to ensure no major support structures were accidentally taken out.

The raw end of the building, Browning continued, will probably be “shrink-wrapped” to keep out moisture. It’ll probably be pretty garish, he said, but luckily it’s an interim solution at best.

“It’s only for a few months, then it’ll go away,” Browning said.

The steel bones of the new dining hall already straddle the site of the campus’ former main square. The new hall will be done in a very modern style, with lots of glass, wood and asymmetrical design elements. Another new feature — an underground corridor — will run between the basement of the hall and the “backbone” of the new multi-winged residential building.

The residential facility currently appears as only a maze of ditches, retaining walls and partially poured fittings, offering a clear look at the incredible amount of planning that went into linking the two structures.

On the old campus, Towne explained, staff often got a major workout climbing stairs and passing through multiple building levels as they traveled from one side of the complex to the other. Although the new residential facility is huge — 170,000 square feet — it’s laid out in a fan-like pattern so staff only have to pass through a maximum of two wings to get from one resident to another.

The tunnel, which lets out in the middle of the building’s “spine,” simplifies things even further. When up and running, workers will be able to take hot food from the kitchen to the center of the residents’ housing in just a few minutes.

“A large portion of our residents are in nursing so they don’t come to the dining hall — we come to them,” Towne explained.

Both the new dining hall and the new housing facility are notable for their focus on breaking the huge space into smaller, more manageable components. The dining room has a smaller, private dining area suitable for family dinners and small parties — a first for the facility, Towne explained. The residents’ housing is broken up into “neighborhoods” that combine small numbers of private and semi-private rooms with lounges, recreational facilities and kitchenettes.

The overall impact, Towne explained, is that residents will experience a living atmosphere closer to that of home. The institutional aspect, he continued, will hopefully vanish.

“They really don’t get that together if they’re part of (a community of) 100,” Towne said. “This is much smaller. It’s like they’re with their neighbors instead of going to a restaurant.”

Major safety improvements beyond that in the old buildings are in the works as well.

The national Department of Veterans Affairs has strict standards when it comes to areas such as earthquake safety. The old Retsil building were infamous for their more or less total lack of earthquake-proofing. The new buildings, on the other hand, are built to California building codes — the most stringent in the nation.

“These fittings are about three times larger than the ones they usually put in,” Browning said, gesturing to the freshly poured foundation footings. “This place isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.”

Browning said the project has thus far maintained its unbroken record of being on-time and on-budget. If everything goes as planned, the new dining hall will be open for business in April or May. The rest of the facility work is expected to be complete a year later.

Browning said the kitchen workers are looking forward to the chance for a lot of reasons — not the least of which is the air conditioning the new kitchen will have.

“These people have been working for umpteen years without air conditioning and it gets pretty miserable with all the heat,” he said.

The rest of the facility will remain without central a/c, just the way it was in the old buildings. Nevertheless, the structures were designed in such a way as to maximize the passive cooling effect Retsil has been dependent on since it was built.

Large, louvered windows facing Sinclair Inlet will pick up every breath of off-shore breeze — a not insignificant source of cooling power, Towne explained.

“This is unique,” he said. “You almost always have some kind of breeze.”

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