Aerial view showing Fort River school. Photo: Google Maps.

Allaying concerns expressed for many years, the results of a new study clearly demonstrates that the site of the Fort River Elementary School is suitable for a range of construction options. That was the bottom line of the 645-page Feasibility Study presented on September 17th to the Amherst School Committee and Town Council by the designers from TSKP Studio, Ryszard Szczypek and Jesse Saylor. 

Multiple addition/renovation and new construction options were explored, with estimated gross costs ranging from $47 million for addition/renovation to $66 million for 100% new construction, with a projected net cost to the Town of $19 to $37 million, assuming state aid from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA). The most energy efficient option would be a 100% new building with an estimated cost of $59 million – if procured using the General Contractor method – with a cost to the Town of $29-33 million.

Moisture concerns and “net zero” building options were the primary issues raised by members of the School Committee and Town Council, all of whom were present at the joint meeting to hear from the architects.

Szczypek first addressed the flood zone on the site, noting that new floodplain maps demonstrate there is sufficient room to build beyond the existing building footprint, with additions possible on both the north or south ends of the existing building. “It’s not a swamp,” he said. “It is very easy to build on this site with conventional spread footings.”

Regarding the concern of moisture in the building coming up through the ground, Syczpek said, “I believe it is condensation occurring on the concrete slab. That will not occur in a building that is properly ventilated.”

While the study looked at multiple student enrollments, the presentation focused on the largest population of 465 students in PreK through grade 6. Educational space needs were estimated at 85,000 square feet, which is 12,000 square feet above the MSBA guidelines for a population of that size, due to Amherst’s smaller class size guidelines, district Special Education program needs, and preschool administration and support space. The current Fort River school is 78,000 square feet serving approximately 320 students in this academic year.

The Feasibility Study Building Committee included parents from all three elementary schools – a number of whom had architectural experience – with representation from both viewpoints of the previous school building project, bringing a diversity of perspectives to the process and product. Staff representation included the Town Procurement Officer, the Schools’ Superintendent (as an ex-officio member), the principal of Fort River school, a Fort River staff member, and a Fort River teacher for a short time. (The teacher resigned four months into the 2-year process and the slot remained vacant for the remainder of the study.) The educational plan upon which the work was based was developed through multiple meetings with administration and Fort River staff.

Early in their work with the designers, the Building Committee defined a list of “non-negotiables” that were to be met in all design options. Among these were natural light in all classrooms, good air quality/ventilation, good acoustics, and elimination of the open classroom design. To bring light into the interior of the building in the renovation options, the designers proposed removing the central space where the library is currently located. In addition, all options are compliant with the Town’s Zero Energy Town Buildings Bylaw as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Of great interest to all present were the details and cost premium of meeting the Zero Energy Buildings bylaw. The premium for “net zero” for a 100% new building with an Energy Use Intensity of 30 (EUI 30) is estimated at $7.6M, approximately half of which is for photovoltaic (PV) panels and the remainder for building envelope enhancement and a more energy-efficient HVAC system. 

An EUI 30 building would be eligible for 2% additional MSBA reimbursement for exceeding the energy code by at least 20% – a value of about $1 million. In addition, ongoing energy utility costs and carbon emissions would be significantly lower with a more efficient building, according to information presented by Saylor. Grants for purchasing PV panels were not explored in the study.

The Town’s bylaw requires that all new construction (including additions) be net zero, meaning that the total amount of energy used by the new construction on an annual basis is roughly equal to the amount of renewable energy created on the site. The renovation options, with varying proportions of new construction, also meet these requirements, with lower relative costs for net zero compliance (well under 10% of the total project cost). Options A, B and C use 100% renewable energy (no fossil fuels), while options D, E and F allowed for the continued use of the gas boilers. The latter options could be designed to allow a transition in the future to an electrically-powered boiler replacement (heat pump) at the end of the existing boiler’s lifetime. 

To compare the cost estimates, which were sought from two independent estimators, TSKP benchmarked the Fort River project against other school projects in Massachusetts, none of which were net zero, and the range of costs per square foot remained comparable.

Questions posed by School Committee members and Councilors suggested some skepticism about the renovation options. The architects responded to the questions about managing moisture, describing the limitations and benefits of renovation over new construction. Councilor Alisa Brewer noted that renovation is reimbursed at a higher rate by the state (up to 5% more), while acknowledging she “never believed that renovation would provide us with the same quality of experience for our students and teachers.” “We are achieving a lot of the targets of 21st century schools in the renovation options,” said Saylor.

School Committee member Peter Demling asked whether the cost for a 465-student building could be easily scaled up to estimate the cost of a 600-student building – the size proposed by the Superintendent in funding applications to the state. The designers had estimated 22,000 additional square feet for a 600-student population, and said the cost could be scaled up for ballpark purposes, although Saylor noted that cost per square foot is a little lower for a larger building. 

Superintendent Michael Morris expressed appreciation to TSKP and the Building Committee for their “incredible” work. “There’s something that’s a bit sobering about the information on the costs and the need of the buildings to be renovated or replaced,” he said. “But I remain hopeful that our community can come together on this.”

In response to a question from Brewer about next steps, School Committee Chair Anastasia Ordonez said, “this is information that we are going to use in the event of an actual project.” “This study will sit tight until we are ready to use it,” she said.

The Town will hear on December 11th if it is to be invited into the MSBA’s process this round.

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  1. How much would it cost to renovate Fort River School without adding a new building for preschool classes? Could we simply renovate Fort River and later add solar panels or buy into an existing solar field?

    Janet McGowan

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