ABERDEEN, S.D. (AP) — The new South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired is going to have stairs.

That's a feature that's almost completely absent in its current building, except for the few that lead up to the top of the stage, said Marje Kaiser, superintendent of the school for the blind and South Dakota School for the Deaf.

"The idea was we're going to make this really easy for kids to travel," Kaiser told Aberdeen American News . "But our kids — the real world environment includes stairs."

So the new building will have two staircases — one winding, one straight — as well as an elevator to its second floor, Kaiser said. A second floor is something that's also missing from the current building.

The budget for the project is $13.7 million, with construction expected to cost just under $12 million, although the work won't go out for bid until the final plan gets approval from the South Dakota Board of Regents.

Sioux Falls-based TSP is the lead architect, Kaiser said. There are two experts assisting TSP.

One is Chris Downey, a California-based architect who lost his sight at age 45.

"It's not about not having sight, it's about having an abundance of all this other information," Downey said about designing spaces for the blind and visually impaired. "It's really about designing for all these other senses and being aware of it so they're intentional, not just accidental."

One of Downey's biggest criticisms of the current building is its expanse.

"It's sprawling, long, there's some things that are good about it, and there are some things that are challenging," he said. "When all spread out on one level, it's an incredibly long place. It takes a long time to get from one place to another."

In 10 years as a blind architect, and about 30 years in the field, this is the first school for the blind Downey has gotten to design.

"There will be fewer options and less space to get confused," he said. "(There will be) more manageable and memorable types of spaces and relationships of spaces to work with."

Losing his sight as an adult, Downey never attended a school for the blind, opting to learn things like orientation and mobility from his home city of San Francisco.

"There was no school that I could go to that could help me answer the question of, 'How the heck am I going to be a blind architect?'" Downey said.

The other expert is Julie Walleisa, a New Mexico-based architect who drew up the preliminary plans that went to the regents in October.

"She's worked on maybe 10 different projects on schools for the blind," Kaiser said.

In a conference call meeting Friday, the school for the blind building committee approved final plans, which will go to the regents for approval during an August meeting in Pierre.

The new building will sit on the corner of South State Street and 14th Avenue Southeast. The academic part of the new building will be two floors, with most of the classrooms for younger students on the first floor, and most of the second floor taken up by the older kids, Kaiser said. The library and music rooms will be on the second floor.

The school for the blind serves about 200 students each year, but thanks to expanded outreach programs many of those students don't come to Aberdeen. About 30 students live on campus during the school year, while a summer program is busier, drawing 40 or so.

The dorms in the new school will be on one floor facing the recreation and athletic fields to the east, Kaiser said. They're arranged around the perimeter of the building, with restrooms and a kitchen on the interior.

Rather than having one big bathroom for girls and another for boys, the dorms are arranged in pods, with a handful of rooms sharing a bathroom.

"The idea then is that we can close these off at various intervals," Kaiser said. "It gives us a lot more versatility."

There's also a media room for computers and TV, a teen lounge for older students and a playroom for the young kids.

There are also two independent apartments planned for transitioning students, Kaiser said.

On the academic side, most of the classrooms are the same as any other school, with science, math and a library, Kaiser said. What's unique are classrooms dedicated to orientation and mobility courses, Braille, and one dedicated for Northern State University classes, especially those focusing on teaching blind students.

Recreationally, the new gymnasium will be set up for goalball, a sport designed specifically for people with visual impairments, Kaiser said. Occupational and physical therapies will be in that space, planned for south of the dorms, facing May Overby Elementary School, as will a dedicated fitness center.

Outdoors, a bike loop and sensory garden are planned, as is a playground, Kaiser said. It's still being worked out whether the 10-year-old equipment at the current school will make the trip across the street, or if new equipment will be installed.

Either way, the fenced-in space will be open for everyone in the neighborhood, just like the current playground, Kaiser said.

One other feature lacking in the 1960s building that will be in the new school is central air conditioning, which is important not only for the relief it brings during summer months, but in the sound it doesn't create, Kaiser said.

"One of the things we do now, in those classrooms that we're using during the summer, is use window air conditioners," she said. "You know how noisy those are, and you're working with kids who rely on their hearing to stay tuned with what's going on. That's not a good combination."

The new building is scheduled for completion in fall 2019.

Exactly what move-in looks like depends on the completion date, Kaiser said. If it's sometime in August, move-in will happen before the school year starts. Any time after the start of school, and plans get a little fuzzier.

"There's a lot of quality control things that have to go in and be monitored to make sure that, at the end of the day, we have the building that we need," she said.


Information from: Aberdeen American News, http://www.aberdeennews.com