With about one-quarter of the construction completed, the steel skeleton of the Loudoun County public school system's new $26 million headquarters now looms over the Dulles Greenway.

Situated on 13.4 acres in the Broadlands subdivision in Ashburn, the five-story building will provide 167,000 square feet of office space for school administrators when it opens in February.

The building will replace the school system's current office building, located in a converted school on narrow North Street in Leesburg. It was constructed in 1925 and has been used for offices since 1971. Administrators have complained for years that it is chronically crowded, with files and boxes stored in hallways and employees forced to interview prospective hires wherever they can find space.

"If you've been to North Street, you know this is needed," said schools spokesman Wayde B. Byard.

Byard said School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III has been highly involved with all stages of the building's construction, visiting the site almost daily to climb ladders and inspect work. He has tested carpet samples by pouring coffee on them to ensure that sufficiently stain-resistant material is chosen, Byard said.

The building has not been without controversy. In 1999, voters turned down a proposal to use bond funding to expand the North Street offices. Convinced that the school system needed more space, the Board of Supervisors in 2001 signed off on a funding mechanism for a new building that did not require voter approval. Funding for the project is coming through the Virginia Public Schools Authority.

Then, last year, supervisors approved the building's design over the objections of the county's Planning Commission, which complained that the design did not reflect high architectural standards, a requirement for public buildings laid out in the county's Comprehensive Plan.

Planning Commissioner John D. Herbert, who at the time told supervisors the building had been designed in the style of a 19th-century penitentiary, said his fears have been confirmed as he watches the structure take shape.

"It's a highly visible spot -- one of the entries to Loudoun -- and it's a terrible loss of an opportunity to demonstrate what Loudoun can be about in the future," said Herbert, who said he reflects on the new building each time he drives by it on the Dulles Greenway. "It's painful."

The building's project manager, Gregory A. Miller, said that although some neighbors have come for a better look, driving down newly paved Education Court, none have voiced any criticism.

The school system's administrative offices are scheduled to be completed by February. Above, Gregory A. Miller, project manager at the site, stands where the superintendent's office will be.