Cuts push projected Amherst elementary school cost below $100M

  • Fort River Elementary in Amherst.

Staff Writer
Friday, January 27, 2023

AMHERST — A series of cost-saving measures, along with lower anticipated expenses for contingencies and furnishings, are bringing the latest cost estimates for a new elementary school to below $100 million.

Projections for the total cost of building the new school for K-5 students at the Fort River School ste on South East Street are at $97.97 million, according to a Monday presentation to the Town Council, Finance Committee and Elementary School Building Committee by Donna DiNisco, president of DiNisco Design Architects, and project manager Margaret Wood of Anser Advisory.

The town’s share is expected to be $55.27 million for the 105,750-square-foot, three-story building, planned to open in the fall of 2026 with a maximum $42.7 million reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, based on Wood’s numbers.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen, who chairs the building committee, told her colleagues that efforts have been made to reduce costs, noting that the selection of the Fort River site was a factor as construction there can occur without disrupting the existing building, something that would not have been possible at the Wildwood site on Strong Street.

“Throughout there has been a focus on costs,” Schoen said.

Voters are expected to decide a Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion override vote on the project on or around May 2.

District 4 Councilor Pamela Rooney complimented the design team and the building committee for creating a beautiful building, as well as getting cost projections below $100 million.

“I like the fact that it’s under $100 million and that you’ve worked hard to get it to that range, and I would like to go to the townspeople for a debt-exclusion override knowing that we’re under that number,” Rooney said.

Flexible design

The project includes 35,050 square feet dedicated to core academics and a design that will allow the school to adapt to changing curriculum requirements. The main floor includes a gym and cafetorium — a cafeteria with a stage — near the entrance that can be closed off from the rest of the building for community events.

Two grade levels will be on each floor of the building, starting with kindergarten and first grade on the ground level, second and third on the second floor and fourth and fifth grades on the top level.

“It just allows for flexible learning, collaboration and the appropriate special ed spaces,” DiNisco said of the design.

The building also meets the town’s climate goals, being extremely well insulated and with all-electric power sources, rather than fossil fuels, including ground source heat pumps and on-site photovoltaic solar, both on the roof and parking lot canopies. After closing the two existing elementary schools, Schoen said the town could save $250,000 a year in utility costs through the consolidation.

“We’re building the first public net-zero energy design building, and this complies with our bylaw, and it’s a highly energy-efficient building,” Schoen said.

DiNisco said the building is on a path to achieve LEED Gold status.

Design tweaks

The latest cost estimate is down from an earlier projection of $86.69 million for hard costs that, when factoring in contingencies on direct costs, might have pushed the full cost to $108 million. So-called value engineering by the Elementary School Building Committee has cut $5.35 million in expenses and gotten the base price down to $81.34 million.

Among the changes approved by the committee were changing concrete sidewalks around the building to blacktop, removing blue stone from rain gardens, using grass instead of a play surface below play structures and reducing floor-to-ceiling heights inside the building.

Wood said the so-called soft costs are well below the 25% figure that she had been working with. The soft costs include $9.7 million for fees to the owner’s project manager, designer and consultants; $2 million for furnishings, technology and equipment; and $4.87 million for contingencies, based on a potential 5% increase for hard costs and a 1% increase for soft costs.

Part of Wood’s reasoning for cutting the contingency cost projections is the straightforward schedule she anticipates to build the school and have it ready for occupancy on time.

DiNisco said she spent several weeks looking at opportunities to reduce costs without impacting design and thanked the building committee for identifying the savings.

With a company that has worked on educational facilities for 40 or more years, DiNisco said it is typically the unknowns of a building site that can lead to cost overruns.

“Our documents are extremely solid and we have a vast experience in Chapter 149, or public building construction in Massachusetts,” DiNisco said. “Our change orders typically represent less than 1% of the construction costs.”

Wood said councilors should see the total project cost as being rounded up to $98 million and that should be the number discussed with residents. “I would like everyone to carry away the number of $98 million,” Wood said.

There is also an additional $250,000 needed to meet the Percent for Art Bylaw that stipulates municipal capital projects include public art.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said this is the beginning of a discussion with townspeople that includes community forums this week, and suggested that each councilor schedule district meetings in February or March to provide details about the project.