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Second study shows schools' bricks perform well in winter conditions

Five months after tests indicated that cracked bricks at two circa-1911 Medford elementary schools meet industry standards for compressive strength and moisture absorption, a second study shows the bricks perform adequately in freezing and thawing conditions.

Jackson and Roosevelt elementary schools were closed abruptly last June at the recommendation of DCI Engineers, a Portland engineering firm. DCI concluded the schools were unsafe to occupy because of the bricks, believed to be defective because of extensive cracking, as well as weak trusses in the gymnasiums and unreinforced masonry construction.

The brick studies by architect Peter Meijer and ABHT Structural Engineers, of Portland, were ordered by the school district last fall at the urging of commu nity members who wanted a second opinion on the condition of the bricks.

The outcome of the brick study is moot, as district officials have already decided to demolish the 1911 structures and the 1930s gymnasiums and replace them with new buildings at both schools because it will cost less than renovating the old ones. The demolitions are slated for the summer. The city historical commission delayed the demolitions by 120 days in hopes of winning a local historical designation for both schools.

The studies by Meijer and ABHT were restricted to determining whether the material properties of bricks are within industry standards. They do not speak to the overall structural integrity of the buildings, Meijer said.

"The engineers are responsible for determining the adequacy of the structural system," he said.

Steve Plunk, a member of a community group called Save Our Schools, said the brick reports show the school district closed the schools without justification.

—¦ the entire episode of displacing kids, worrying parents, and trying to eliminate two schools was based upon the myth that the bricks were bad and the schools ready to collapse and kill students," Plunk said.

"Those kids were moved for no good reason and the schools are being torn down for no good reason," he said.

Harry Jones, DCI principal in the firm's Portland office, said regardless of the bricks' condition, the 1911 schools are constructed of unreinforced masonry, which has been shown to fail in earthquakes.

"The concern with (Jackson and Roosevelt) is because the brick is cracked you might have even more damage in an earthquake than you would have in a building where the brick isn't cracked," Jones said.

Jones noted that Meijer's study mentioned that the bricks are spalling — crumbling from water damage and age — because of the cracks and will continue to do so.

Meijer's study only addresses the bricks' capability to serve as a facade, not the bricks' performance as a structural wall.

Bringing the buildings up to seismic, electrical and mechanical code and making them accessible to people with disabilities — all of which would be required by the city in a renovation — make it more cost-effective to demolish the buildings and build new ones, Jones said.

District officials agreed.

The new design is more conducive to modern instructional approaches, which focus on collaborative teaching and small group instruction, district officials said.

The first study by Meijer and ABHT released in December concluded that the bricks met industry standards from compressive strength and moisture absorption.

The new study looked at how much the bricks decayed under 24 hours of freezing and then, 24 hours of thawing. The freeze-thaw was conducted 50 times and took about three months, Meijer said.

"What it says is these bricks didn't exceed industry standards for material loss," Meijer said. "They have been on the building for 75 years. There is some level of freezing that happens in Medford. Never do you have 24 hours of freezing weather and 24 hours of heat in Medford. But the tests accelerate the decay process."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.