HAMPDEN, Maine — With a $49.2 million price tag, the big test in designing and building the new Hampden Academy was getting the most bang for taxpayer bucks.

As Sargent Corp. and Massachusetts-based J and J Construction workers put the finishing touches on the 175,000-square-foot facility situated just off Western Avenue, school officials and others who have toured the new, under-budget high school already are giving it high marks.

“To say people are excited about this building would be an understatement,” Emil Genest, assistant superintendent of schools for SAD 22, said Thursday. “We’ve had faculty, some students, and Kiwanis Club members tour the place already. Members of the Class of 1952 are coming in [Friday].

“Teachers have been very excited. They can’t wait to start.”

That starting date is Aug. 29 for freshmen and Aug. 30 for all high school students.

The school also is poised to earn a silver or gold star because of its environmentally friendly, efficient and sustainable planning, construction and operational execution.

“We’re already silver and we may have a chance to be gold, which is amazing for a facility this big,” said Genest, referring to the construction industry’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design ranking and award system.

While the school will be used by students in grades nine through 12, the new Hampden Academy will be a lot more than just a high school.

It will be one-third of a “campus” system which shares its facilities with Hampden’s elementary and middle schools. It also will be a community center boasting one of the largest performing arts centers in the state; multipurpose rooms; a $1.2 million, 1,200-seat gymnasium; eight-lane track and field facility; tennis courts; a fitness center; and a cafeteria that could be the envy of some culinary programs.

“This facility was designed for community use, from birth through the elderly years,” said Genest. “Our three communities paid for it and they’re entitled to use it, within reason of course.

“We want our buildings open. We don’t want just 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and we’re all locked up. We’re looking at more of an 8 to 8 or even 8 to 10 concept.”

The concept and blueprints for the school were borne largely from about 200 hours of brainstorming sessions held weekly over a six-month period.

“We had about 80 residents from all three communities [SAD 22 members Hampden, Newburgh and Winterport] take part in eight-hour weekly sessions to come up with designs and features they wanted to see incorporated in the facility,” Genest said. “And it’s not just the athletic and community facilities.”

Genest went on to say that the new school will provide greater educational opportunities, outreach and exposure for community members.

“Education is lifelong,” he said. “We’ve expanded our adult education program in cooperation with Orono and it has grown almost sixfold in the four years we’ve had it.”

With the possible inclusion of students from another community as Frankfort residents weigh switching affiliation from SAD 34 (Belfast) to SAD 22, this forward-designed school appears well positioned for expansion.

“We can even knock out a wall on the second floor and add six to eight more classrooms,” said Genest.

Energy efficient

Despite its size, the three-story school is poised to become almost self-sufficient and sustainable when it comes to electricity and heat.

The entire facility, which consumes no fossil fuels for power or heat, will use both solar and geothermal power. Solar energy, which will come from 30 roof-mounted solar panels and a black, transpired solar wall on one side of the building, will provide hot water as well as electricity.

A closed-loop geothermal system featuring 156 500-foot wells, water-to-water and water-to-air heat pumps and air-side energy recovery systems make the new Hampden Academy the largest geothermal system in Maine, according to the Bangor-based WBRC architectural and engineering firm.

Propane will be used as a backup for the primary heating and energy systems, according to Genest, who estimates approximately $150,000 in fuel savings annually with the new systems, which also will provide air conditioning in warmer weather.

“We’re estimating that the geothermal system will pay for itself in five to seven years,” Genest said.

Natural lighting was used whenever possible through skylights, light shelves, reflective paint, well-type recessed light shafts, glass walls and white- or bright-colored walls.

WBRC handled the school’s groundbreaking design and architecture. The Minneapolis-based Cuningham Group also handled much of the school’s predesign work.

Blending old and new

The emphasis designers placed on making the new school’s architecture and style similar to the old — Hampden’s original school is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is known as the 1843 Building — is evident right from the moment you enter the new academy.

“We also wanted to keep and bring over the great architectural features of the old high school from the 1840s era,” Genest said.

Along with the traditional nuances, the school features more cutting-edge conveniences and features including a 900-seat performing arts center — the second-largest in the area behind the University of Maine’s Collins Center. The cafeteria can be converted into a cinema with a giant lowered screen and a 125-foot-long, 24-foot high, 10-inch-thick glass wall — the only one of its kind in the state — maximizes natural light in the cafeteria and surrounding areas.

And although the school will feature a new Bronco statue outside the main entrance, tradition will be maintained with that as well.

Monroe resident Forest Hart — a 1961 Hampden Academy graduate who made the school’s original bronze Bronco, which sits outside the 1843 Building on Route 1, in 1992 — is making the new one, which instead of rearing up on its hind legs like the original will be be running on a granite base.

The Connecticut Corinthian granite base also is being made by a Hampden Academy alumnus. Jamie Leonard, a 1964 graduate, is less than two weeks away from finishing the hand-made base.

“They asked if I wanted to do something for a new statue for a new school. They didn’t have to ask because they knew I’d want to do it,” Leonard said with a slight chuckle. “I would’ve been disappointed if someone else had done this.”

Leonard has been at it for six or seven hours a day, five days a week. He thinks he’ll be done a week ahead of his two-month estimated schedule.

The new Hampden Academy has been a long time coming, but Genest and others say it’s already well worth the wait and cost for a building that broke ground in September 2008 and will cost Hampden residents $6,175,000.

“We first applied for a new school in 1993 and we finished 100th out of 100 schools that applied,” said Genest. “We applied again in 1997, 1999, and then in 2005 we finally got accepted.

“I couldn’t be happier with how this school has come out, and I know the community will have the same reaction.”