The Town Council, Watertown School officials, designers and green energy advocates celebrated the completion of what looked like a pipe dream just a few years ago: building two schools that will create enough electricity to cover their energy needs, and pay for it without raising property taxes.
Architect Scott Dunlap from Ai3 congratulated the Town for building the first Net Zero school in Massachusetts. The schools will also make other history.
“They will be the first Net Zero elementary schools in New England,” Dunlap said.
The Council approved borrowing $103 million to pay for the construction of new schools at Hosmer and Cunniff elementary schools, which is the first phase of the elementary school projects. The Lowell School will be done in a few years, with a major renovation with some additions.
The new Cunniff will house 385 students in 80,000 sq. ft. and is scheduled be be completed during the winter of the 2021-22 school year, Dunlap said. The new Hosmer will be big enough for 590 students plus 200 preschool and PreK students. It is scheduled to be completed in the summer of 2022.
The bid from Brait Building Corp. came in under budget. The $103 million budget includes $1 million for COVID-19 related costs during construction, plus $7.4 million in contingency funds for cost overruns on the work in the contract and $1 million in owner’s contingency for items that School officials may want to add to the project, said Town Council President Mark Sideris.
Long Time Coming
Town Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli said he eagerly awaited approval of the reconstruction of Watertown’s schools. The Council first put renovating or rebuilding the schools on the list of priorities for capital projects in December 2013.
“I have thought about this day for five years or more, eight years,” Piccirilli said. “We are finally here. I am so happy to be able to vote on this loan order.”
Councilor Kenneth Woodland, who represents the Westside, said he is happy to see the two schools, particularly the one in his district — the Cunniff — are being built as net zero schools, especially with plenty of input from the neighbors.
“Whenever I talk to parents of newborns or one- or two-year olds I talk about this project and say, with such excitement and enthusiasm, how hopeful and how optimistic I am about this building,” Woodland said. “And how it is going to be such a great home for their child. And how much I enjoyed my education in Watertown.”
Dunlap has worked on school projects for decades, and said he often hears communities present lofty goals for their schools, but they rarely become a reality.
“In my mind, I thought the same thing — Ya sure, you set the bar high, but when the rubber meets the road you are not going to be able to achieve those goals,” Dunlap said. “This is the first time that our firm has been able to meet all the goals.
He added that it was not the work of his firm, but the commitment of the Town Council, the School Committee, the Town Manager, the School Building Committee, as well as the neighbors and members of the community.
One of the major stumbling blocks was the cost of the projects. Originally, the estimate for renovating the three schools was $80 million to $120 million, which Town Manager Michael Driscoll said would be able to be funded through the Town’s operating budget with no tax increase. That figure, the School Building Committee learned in April 2018, was based on old construction costs figures. The estimate, using up to date construction costs, rose to $170 million to $180 million.
By the end of 2018, the School Building Committee decided that if they were spending that much money, Watertown should build not just one but two new schools.
Sideris thanked Driscoll for listening to him when he came back for more money. In October 2019, Driscoll presented a the Fiscal Year 2020 budget that included $170 million in funding for the three elementary schools.
Councilors thanked Driscoll for his fiscal management that allowed for the three schools to be built with no override. The money comes from funds that in previous years had been used to pay down Watertown’s retirement benefits shortfall for more than a decade. The Town put more than $10 million a year toward that, including $13.2 million in FY20, and they deficit will be paid off by the end of June 2020.
Councilor Caroline Bays said people are amazed when she tells the that the schools will be built without a tax hike.
“I want to pass on, when I talk to people that we are going doing this without an override, especially when they understand how significant it is and how rare it is,” Bays said. “I get a lot of thank yous.”
Sideris acknowledged that the first draft of the designs would not have resulted in net zero buildings because the originally looked at renovating three schools, rather than the final decision to build two new buildings and renovated another. He added that the projects were not popular with neighbors, at first.
“When we first started this it wasn’t received very well,” Sideris said. “And I promised everyone they would have the opportunity to be heard. I think the (School Building) Committee did a great job doing that and I am appreciative.”
Resident Ann Marie Cloonan, who lives near the Hosmer, said that she truly felt that the neighbors were heard during the process. She is concerned that the Watertown Public Schools can provide a quality education that matches the quality of the buildings.
Former Watertown teacher Mary Russo said she worries about the town spending so much on the construction of three elementary schools during the COVID-19 pandemic which has negatively impacted so many residents financially. She also has concerns about the safety of the Cunniff students when they move over to the old St. Jude’s School in Waltham during construction because of possible asbestos issues. She noted that the original plan was to house the Cunniff students at the current Hosmer classroom building after the new Hosmer was built.
Moving to St. Jude’s will cut down the timeline of the building projects, meaning schools will be finished sooner and construction costs will not rise as much.
Resident Jocelyn Tager urged the Council to approve the project, and said that she thinks it is incredible the Town will be getting two schools that are not only LEED Gold certifiable but Net Zero energy buildings with arrays of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on the roofs and on the sites. She notes that they will not only generate electricity, but if there is additional power the district will make money.
Ready for COVID-19
Dunlap added that the buildings will be well set up for the post-COVID-19 world.
“The indoor environment, while not created specifcially to create a safer environment for COVID, will fit hand-in-glove with some of things to be implemented because of the challenge,” Dunlap said.
Each room will have its own separate heating, air conditioning and air circulation, which minimizes the cross contamination of air, Dunlap said. In addition, the school will have more spaces outside of classrooms for students to spread out in and work in small groups, he said, which were designed to allow for modern education techniques but will also help stop the spread of the Coronavirus.
The process of removing equipment and items from Hosmer and Cunniff has already begun, said owner’s project manager Vivian Varbedian, from Hill International. The abatement of hazardous materials, including asbestos, will begin on June 15 at Cunniff and on June 22 at Hosmer.
A traffic management plan has a been created for Hosmer and will soon go before the Traffic Commission, Varbedian said.