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Despite challenges, Wuerl campus set to open

| Saturday, July 12, 2014, 3:34 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
In a typical classroom, Mike Arnold, the chief facilities officer with the Diocese of Pittsburgh, points out the natural light during a tour of the new Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School in Cranberry, Wednesday, July 9, 2014.Construction on the facility is nearing completion and will open to students this fall.

As the $70 million Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School in Cranberry nears completion, officials say it did not come together without some challenges.

Problematic soil and extreme topography made the 71-acre site a difficult one to develop, said Mike Arnold, chief facilities officer for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

“This site was not easy,” Arnold said.

John Francona, project executive with the Pittsburgh design firm Astorino, said that when he first saw the land that sits beside Route 228, he wasn't sure what to do with it. He was hired in 2010 to provide architectural and engineering services for the new construction, for which ground was broken in 2012.

“It was all hills,” Francona said.

The school also sits on a soil type — Pittsburgh red bed clay — known for easily deteriorating and causing landslides. The Pittsburgh Geological Society says “red beds are a red shale and claystone rock layer that weathers to a clay. Groundwater can saturate the clay to such a degree that it cannot maintain its slope and begins to move downhill.”

The first step in developing the high school site was clearing and grading the hilly and heavily forested land. Astorino developed a design to suit the constraints of the site.

It's common practice in school design to develop a standard layout and replicate it on various sites with little regard to site features, said Darren Lloyd, the project's chief designer with Astorino.

In contrast, the design for Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School is a custom prototype developed to fit the challenging site.

“For example, the school is sited on and built into the highest point on the property to both maximize views and limit the amount of excavation required for costly foundations, retaining walls and footings to ease the site grading effort,” Lloyd said.

The school, which had been located in Pittsburgh's Troy Hill since 1939, is set to open at its new location on Sept. 2.

The design team used the outdoors to inspire the inside of the 185,000-square-foot school by bringing in lots of natural light and earthy building materials. The school's hallways allow light to spill in.

Reclaimed wood from six barns in Pennsylvania and Maryland lines the walls in the school's lobby areas and main corridor, Arnold said. Earthy greens and browns are painted on the walls with natural-looking brick and stone interspersed throughout.

“It's a really unique and special place,” Arnold said.

Astorino held workshops with current and future students to see what they wanted in a new school as they began putting together plans for the facility, Arnold said.

Many of the design elements, such as natural light, are a result of those meetings.

Classrooms reflect the need for light and openness with windows on the inner hallways and on the outer walls. The windows create more “transparency” in the classrooms, something students requested Arnold said.

“It feels more like you're on a college campus than high school,” Arnold said.

Finishing touches remain, such as books in the library, desks in some classrooms and landscaping. After the school opens, however, a 13,380 square-foot space on the second floor will remain unfinished to be built to suit the school's needs as enrollment grows, Arnold said.

Built to serve as many as 1,000 students, the school will be the first Catholic high school in Butler County. The Diocese of Pittsburgh has closed or merged dozens of schools in the past few years because of shrinking enrollment, but it realized an opportunity for growth in Cranberry. The township has about 30,000 residents and is expected to have 50,000 by 2030, according to census projections.

When the final school year at the Troy Hill campus ended in June, enrollment was 202, said Ann Rodgers, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Enrollment for the upcoming school year is at 262 and grows each day, she said.

“There's a demand in the Cranberry area for good, high-quality Catholic education close to home,” Rodgers said.

The school is named for Cardinal Donald Wuerl, head of the Archdiocese of Washington and former Pittsburgh bishop.

Rachel Farkas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-779-6902 or

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