Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Shift the focus away from cost on K-12 projects

Here in Massachusetts, the K-12 market has become a lightning rod for controversy. Prodigious cost overruns on certain high-profile school projects have left the local K-12 design community with some significant challenges and some outstanding opportunities.

First, let’s discuss the challenges. Boston’s Big Dig is the national poster child for what can happen when there is shoddy oversight on publicly-funded projects. As a result, Massachusetts communities get very upset when a city or town government proposes additional tax increases to cover cost overruns on school building projects. The Commonwealth is going to be chained to the corpse of the Big Dig for another generation – people here have no patience for being linked to another, more local money pit.

Another challenge is that State Treasurer Timothy Cahill leads up a new pilot program designed to rein in the costs of these school projects. A political science major, Cahill owned a small business for five years before becoming a professional politician in 1987. The principal foci of Cahill's pilot program are to identify “examples of frugality that should be replicated across the state” and "eliminate one-upmanship [between communities], which at times has prompted a spate of field houses, swimming pools, and other expensive perks". Cahill explains, "Standardization will take the envy factor out of the process." Lovely. Who else is picturing Soviet-style blockhouses?

The local design community has spoken out about how unrealistic this cookie-cutter approach is. John Nunnari, public policy director for the Boston Society of Architects, has said the state could reap better savings by developing standards for building materials and allowing construction contractors to join in the local design process. He is right, of course.

Now for the opportunities. Who better than the design community to educate local stakeholders on how to complete a project that ultimately will meet all their needs and save them money in the long run? When a community school superintendent says of the Commonwealth’s pilot program, “"I think it's a good concept. It's almost the same thing you would do when building a house. The architect sends you to visit houses they already designed and you pick the one you like." There is a clear need to inform the stakeholders about what’s possible.

Designers can also learn from the successful projects being touted by the Commonwealth – just shift the focus from the low cost to the actual reasons why the project works. James Jordan, a partner at Ai3 Architects, designer of Whitman-Hanson High School does a great job with this. Jordan explains that “the construction contractor and school district asked for few changes during construction, keeping the project on budget and on time. Everything went smoothly. That's a testament to a lot of planning and investigation up front by all involved.”

I am sure this is happening in every community in North America. Does anyone have a story they’d like to share?


1 comment:

MikeE said...

The writer misses the mark on at least two areas. The "Big Dig" debacle was caused by many factors some of which interacted. It was doomed from the beginning to be a cost overrun. To claim as the writer does that it was lack of oversight is a gross over-simplification. Secondly, prototype design for schools is a widely used and proven strategy to contain cost. It has been used in Florida and Las Vegas very successfully and the schools bear no resemblance to "Soviet style block houses". Prototype design is an effective method of reducing the number of "ornaments that get hung on the tree". So think prototype design they can be architecturally attractive and cost effective.

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