By Vince Little
MONS, Belgium -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is managing a major push into upgrading decades-old buildings on the NATO base here as part of an endeavor that will have a lasting impact on the culture and mission of Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, military and education leaders say.
The centerpiece is a multinational-funded, $146 million construction project at SHAPE International School, the largest under way within USACE Europe District. It'll result in a sprawling international campus by the summer of 2018, represented by 22 NATO nations and featuring state-of-the-art facilities, educational programs and models for the entire community.
"USACE is spearheading this effort for the entire group -- how often does the Corps get to do that?" said Steve Keen, the SHAPE International School project manager for Europe District. "SHAPE is looking to foster the relationship among children of international nations. This was specifically designed for that. As most parents know, if the kids are OK, they're OK. This will be a treasure of a campus."
The phased project includes the building of new American elementary, middle and high schools at the SHAPE site. Those facilities are slated for completion in 2014.
The United Kingdom/Canada and Germany buildings should be finished by the summer of 2016. Two years later, work is expected to wrap up on the new school for students from Norway, Italy, Turkey and Poland.
U.S. officials said the campus overhaul is the first domino in an enhanced quality-of-life package being forged at SHAPE, aimed at making Belgium a destination of choice for American troops and their families.
"It's more of a university-style campus, and the kids will mix and interact. It truly becomes an international institution," said Bob Sommer, Europe District's Benelux regional program manager. "We want to make SHAPE the first post of choice. We want to show that Belgium isn't like other countries. It has everything. It's a great place for kids to learn, great place to live."
Once finished, SHAPE International School facilities will go from 83 percent substandard to 100 percent "cutting edge," said Air Force Maj. Curt Fryman, the lead SHAPE engineer, citing environmental surveys and assessments.
"We want to show prospective SHAPE members that their families will be well supported here with an outstanding environment in which to learn," he added. "You don't want them to fall behind and hurt their future. This is something that's going to enhance their future and education, not hinder it."
Europe District Benelux Resident Engineer Jonathan Carr said school facilities in use now were designed to be temporary when first built in the 1960s. Planning for the new campus began more than a decade ago, and ground was broken in January 2012.
In recent years, the biggest problem facing school administrators has been a lack of space, said Benoit Davin, SHAPE International School's director general. This provides a solution while raising academic possibilities for students and teachers alike.
"It'll be like going from an old car to a Mercedes," he said. "Our space situation will improve dramatically. The quality of infrastructure has an impact on the quality of education. The quality of infrastructure will be much better.
"There's been a clear evolution in terms of technology implementation at SHAPE. We've gone from blackboards to computers in the classroom. This will benefit us with better tools for teachers and students."
Davin said SHAPE International School is a unique model and confederation of various curriculums, languages and elements. It's a complex operation, but part of his job is to promote integration and collaboration among all the national elements, including faculty and students.
"Our school is a small microcosm of NATO," he added.
Balancing the design building codes -- every nation has a different standard -- for the campus construction project has been just as complicated, Sommer said. At a minimum, they must meet the Belgian benchmark since it's being built in the host nation. U.S. standards are being used for a large portion of the design -- Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe is funding the three American schools, while international money goes toward the four additional buildings on campus. Planners made tweaks in the blueprint to satisfy individual country requirements in the other nation-funded buildings.
Europe District's support of mission readiness, quality of life and infrastructure improvements at SHAPE extends beyond the classroom.
In December, the new NATO Special Operations Headquarters was unveiled at a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by top U.S. and international military officials. The facility will allow those forces to plan, coordinate and conduct vital missions around the globe.
"I expect this headquarters to be a venue for ideas about equipment, technology and how we can share that and learn from each other," Adm. James Stavridis, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the head of U.S. European Command, said during the Dec. 12 event. "Every nation brings an idea. This must be a venue for ideas about what we use to accomplish our missions as well.
"Special forces (and) special operations ... are trained to go behind enemy lines, to destroy aircraft, to destroy ordnance, but above all, to force the enemy to watch for them, to devote forces so that they can be diverted from the front lines. This kind of warfare is very effective, and part of the kind of ideas that we look to see from this venue moving forward."
Lt. Col. Michelle Garcia, the district's deputy commander, said all the construction projects at SHAPE are being engineered with the latest technological advances, modernization and environmental cost-saving features. As the military enters an era of shrinking budgets, USACE is placing even greater emphasis on planning, coordination and teamwork.
"Partnership is key to everything we do as the Army Corps of Engineers," she said. "We work with our partners to help them develop their scope, understand the cost of their requirements and help that fit into their budget. And then we work with our partners as we oversee the construction of the projects, like here.
"As engineers, we solve problems. One of the problems we can solve for our partners and customers is to provide them options for how they can best utilize the dollars they have. Sometimes, it's savings upfront, with cost-saving measures during construction. Sometimes, it's a cost savings on the back end, on the operations and maintenance end, where we can help them use some sustainable technologies to reduce operations and maintenance costs at these facilities."
The NSHQ is the first purpose-built facility designed for use by a NATO operational commander since SHAPE moved from France to Belgium in 1967.
"The investment being put into our schools, all our member nations and the SHAPE international community here is phenomenal," Air Force Lt. Gen. Frank Kisner, the NSHQ commander, said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. "The Army Corps of Engineers resident office did some great work for us."