The cost of constructing the new Watertown High School has risen since the budget was sent to state officials, and one of the steps to cover the gap of $14.47 million was taken Tuesday when the City Council approved transferring $4.175 million
City Council President Mark Sideris, who chairs the School Building Committee, said that the rising cost of construction was a major part of the increase in the project budget over the $138.6 million budget approved by the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
“We on the School Building Committee have been working since 2018 on school projects. Our first set of projects went very well, and are still on, or slightly under, budget and came in earlier than expected,” Sideris said. “When we got to the high school COVID happened. We had a little bit of a surprise a couple weeks ago. Our estimates are significantly short.”
The cost of construction has risen 6.76 percent, according to the presentation made to the School Building Committee on June 29, which increased the cost of the project by nearly $10 million. In addition, the bids on the temporary high school to be built on Moxley Field, which was budgeted for $18.4 million, came in $14 million higher.
The cost increase has been seen on many other projects currently being planned, said project managers from Compass.
Sideris said the School Building Committee, the designers from Ai3, and the project managers from Compass Project Management are working on finding ways to cut the cost.
“(We) are doing our due diligence, doing value engineering to show the MSBA that we are trying to find ways to make sure this project moves forward while remaining in the budget to move forward,” Sideris said. “I do believe this is an appropriate (budget) transfer to help us with this.”
The Council unanimously approved the transfer of $4.175 million from the Fiscal Year 2022 budget surplus to the Watertown High School project budget. The money will go into the High School Stabilization Fund, but has not yet been decided where it will be spent, Sideris said. At the July 13 School Building Committee meeting, Acting City Manager Tom Tracy said that the total amount in the High School Stabilization Fund is now $6.1 million.
Approval of Project Changes
The School Building Committee was presented with the budget increase at its June 29 meeting, and three options to reduce the cost were presented. One included cutting some parts of the new high school, including parts of the library/media center, the outdoor spaces and landscaping, as well as changing building materials.
Another option presented on June 29 would be eliminating the Moxley Field temporary high school and do the construction while the school is partially occupied by students. This option would require modular classrooms to be put up on the Phillips School site, and students to go back and forth over Common Street. This, however, would still be over budget because the construction time would be increased and the option ended up still being $10 million over budget.
On July 13, Designers presented some proposals they came up with to cut the cost of the project. By reducing some parts of the project, such as landscaping, and parts of the library, and materials used in the construction, along with changes to the temporary campus at Moxley, designers were able to cut the high school project budget and eliminate the $14.47 million budget overage
One major part of it was having the solar photovoltaic panels as a $3.6 million as an alternate bid, so it would not be part of the main project. Some residents worried that the solar panels could be removed from the project completely and therefore that the school would not be net zero energy (generate enough energy on-site to cover the energy used by the school).
Sideris assured people that the School Building Committee is still committed to building a net zero energy school.
Christy Murphy, from owner project management firm Compass, said that because the project is being partially funded by the MSBA, it must be on budget at each milestone. Having the solar arrays as an alternate would allow the project to be on budget, and Watertown may have to find another way to pay for the panels.
Other reductions include the elimination of an elevator in the library/media center, which Jim Jordan of Ai3 Architects said was not required by code, but had been included for convenience.
The landscaping around the school has been cut back significantly. Designers said places will be left for trees and other plantings if the district wants to add more later, but not as part of the project.
The materials used on the roof, the floor of the cafeteria and on the base of the building will be switched for less costly materials, for instance instead of natural stone for the base, a precast stone with a similar look would be used, Jordan said.
The School Building Committee unanimously approved the changes to the high school project
The modulars at Moxley Field were also approved by the Committee on July 13. The cost of the modular campus will be $32.9 million. This includes not just the modular classrooms but also work on the site required by the Department of Public Works, such as water and sewer, plus creating a parking lot for the 36 month duration of the temporary campus, Murphy said. However, a change order will reduce the cost by $6.5 million, making the total $26.37 million. The School Building Committee will have to approve the change order at a future meeting. Murphy assured the Committee that the vendor put the change order cost in writing.
The vendor for the modulars guaranteed they would be installed by Sept. 1, 2023, Murphy said. The delivery date is better than had been originally promised, which was the beginning of 2024, however it would still be cutting it close for the beginning of school in 2023, following Labor Day weekend. Therefore the schedule has been adjusted.
Murphy said the project is “essentially back on schedule,” but designers have pushed back the final move into the new school from February school vacation in 2026 to April vacation 2026. They want to make sure that there is enough time because the hazardous material abatement and demolition of the current high school might be delayed to wait for the move into the modular campus.