Issues & Analyses:  Cost Considerations For Determining Size Of New Elementary School

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The following data analysis was sent to the Town Council on February 28,2022.

On February 28, the Town Council will be discussing the implications of the soon to be submitted first major document in the elementary school building project. As the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) states in their Feasibility Study Guidelines:

“As part of the Preliminary Design Program (PDP), the District should supply a sufficient description and substantiation of the educational program needs in order for the MSBA to consider variations to MSBA guidelines that are reasonable, required to deliver the educational curriculum and are likely to be financially supported by the community” (emphasis mine).

A significant part of this document is the Initial Space Summary which enumerates how many rooms and how much square footage to allocate to each room throughout the building. While the actual square footage of each room may change to some small degree as plans become more defined, the overall square footage will not vary by a large margin. For example, in Amherst’s 2016 [the previous] project, the total size proposed in the PDP was only a couple of hundred square feet different from its final version. In other words, the scope of the project will be set and cannot be altered significantly once this document is submitted and accepted by the MSBA. The size of the building determines to a very large degree the cost of the project – the other factor being the cost per square foot – and the MSBA, as the granting authority, will make its decisions on whether to approve funding based, in part, on its own budget.

Discussion To Date
Superintendent Michael Morris and designer Donna DiNisco shared an initial space summary with the School Committee two days before their meeting on February 8. This proposed a building of 113,765 gross square feet (gsf) for the 575-student enrollment approved by the MSBA. A committee member requested rough cost estimates at that time but was told that these would not be available until the beginning of March. The plan at that point was to have the school committee vote to approve the Educational Program that describes the use of these spaces at its next scheduled meeting on March 8, right before the deadline to submit this document to the MSBA. Instead, at that School Committee member’s urging, the Committee met again on February 22 to discuss the Space Summary in detail. 

Having heard many concerns about the size of the project, Morris and DiNisco drafted an amended space summary which totalled 105,750 gsf. This was achieved with reductions in net floor area (NFA) by approximately 4% in general education spaces (1600 sf), 7% in special education (850 sf), 22% in arts & music (900 sf), and 32% in the gym (2000 sf). The school committee spent the next few hours going line by line through the space summary, hearing from Morris and his staff about why they wanted the amount of space described. Many questions were raised about how other reductions might be achieved through space efficiency/sharing of spaces for multiple uses and reducing room sizes. A revised space summary was requested to accommodate these considerations. 

The MSBA provides guidelines on the size and number of rooms based on total enrollment. It is not expected that each proposal will strictly conform to these guidelines, but the MSBA requires “narrative descriptions of the reasons for any variance between the District’s proposed program/educational spaces and the MSBA guidelines for each category of spaces”. The MSBA, as a state funding source, makes public a great deal of data on previous projects, including project cost information from all elementary school projects since 2014. The following graph shows data from elementary school projects comparable to Amherst’s (only schools with enrollment between 450 and 700 are considered). The MSBA guidelines are shown in orange and the actual projects are shown in blue. At 575 students, Amherst’s project would come in at just below 100,000 gross square feet if it fell on the trendline for actual projects.

Sources: Data in orange is from the MSBA’s Space Summary Template and can be viewed with this link. Varying enrollment values were entered into this interactive spreadsheet to produce their corresponding total GSF. Data in blue were taken from the MSBA website: “Estimated Construction & Total Project Cost Data at Schematic Design [ON OR AFTER JANUARY 1, 2014] Elementary School”.

Another helpful metric to gauge proposed project size is square foot per pupil. The following table shows the square foot per pupil using MSBA guidelines, the previously-proposed Amherst project for 750 students, and the current Amherst project for 575 students at the two proposed sizes (~114,000 and ~106,000 gross square feet) and at 100,000 gross square feet (the size that aligns with the trendline described above). With the exception of Caminantes, the dual language offering that is proposed to occur in two classrooms per grade, the educational programming of the Amherst elementary schools has remained essentially the same since the previous project. Even the smallest current project at 100,000 GSF is 6% larger than the previous project and a 114,000 GSF building would be more than 20% larger by this measure. 

Average of MSBA guidelines155
Previous Amherst project164
Current Amherst Project at 114K gsf198
Current Amherst Project at 106K gsf184
Current Amherst Project at 100K gsf174

Finally, feasibility studies of Fort River and Crocker Farm included detailed space summaries that were developed with school administration. They projected a total consolidated building size of ~97,000 GSF for an enrollment of 555 students and ~106,000 GSF for an enrollment of 600 students. These do conform to the trendline described above. Multi-use, multi-function spaces were encouraged in these studies.

Cost Considerations
The total cost of a project can ultimately be broken down into two factors: total number of square feet and cost per square foot. Decisions about both of these factors will determine the amount of money that will be asked of every resident in the form of a debt exclusion override that will raise their taxes for the next 30 years. We are at the point in the process where one of those factors will be largely locked in. As mentioned earlier, we can expect only minor variations in total square footage after the Preliminary Design Program is accepted by the MSBA. 

Although the designer has so far declined to provide preliminary cost information, reasonable estimates are possible using data from the many projects that have already been concluded by the MSBA. This historical data must be interpreted as very conservative, as the price of construction has consistently risen over time, and most previous projects have not been built to the net-zero standards we have set as part of our commitment to combat climate change. We can look at a range of recent construction costs per square foot to get some sense of the financial implications of building size. As a point of reference, the Fort River Feasibility Study estimated 2020 construction costs for a building of around 85,000 GSF with EUI 30 (not using geothermal and less energy efficient than the goals set for this project) at around $570/sf for all-new construction and $520/sf for addition/renovation. Cost escalation of 4% annually to 2024 would bring these values to $608/sf and $667/sf.

Gross Square Feet114,000106,000100,000
Construction cost per sf

Estimated total project costs based on varying construction costs per square foot and varying building size in gross square feet (114,000 GSF was the initial proposal by Morris and DiNisco, 106,000 GSF was the revised proposal by Morris and DiNisco, and 100,000 GSF conforms to trends of actual MSBA projects and previous feasibility studies). Assumptions: a grossing factor of 1.5 and “soft costs” of 25% (the average for elementary school MSBA projects since 2014). 

Most of us are not used to thinking in terms of tens of thousands of square feet. It can be helpful to view this data in terms of something we are more familiar with to put it into perspective. Here’s a quick exercise: get a tape measure and check the size of some rooms in your house or workplace. Then use the following table that gives construction cost ranges for those rooms to get a sense of how much each one adds to the total cost of a project. 

Contribution to total project cost
Cost $/sf1000 sf room500 sf room250 sf room100 sf room

Assumptions: 1.5 grossing factor and 25% “soft costs”

Finding opportunities to reduce or share space in rooms that are not fully occupied for a majority of the time would make a significant impact on the overall size of the building.

Town Infrastructure And Operating Budget Implications

When the Town made the argument that it could afford the “four” capital projects, financial analysis assumed that the portion of revenues that would be directed to capital projects would rise to 10.5% annually and that operating budgets would be decreased. It did not include several million dollars to replace the athletic fields at the high school, or $9 to $20 million for essential repairs or expansion of Crocker Farm, respectively. It did not include funding for a BIPOC Community Center or a senior center. It further assumed that the budget for replacement of the fire station and DPW buildings would be a little more than half the amount projected in their feasibility studies, and which did not account for building to Net Zero. It also did not consider the rise in water rates anticipated due to the replacement of the Centennial water plant and other water/sewer infrastructure.  


  • Multiple methods of benchmarking for an elementary enrollment of 575 students (with the educational programming described) indicate that a building of 100,000 GSF is appropriate.
  • A 100,000 GSF school would likely cost $9-12 million less than a 114,000 GSF school.
  • The building sizes proposed thus far by the designers exceed benchmarking by 6% and 14% for the ~106,000 GSF and ~114,000 GSF buildings, respectively. 
  • Minimizing this differential will have beneficial impacts on residents’ ability to afford and voters’ appetite to approve the necessary debt exclusion override. 
  • Designing the building to be as space efficient as possible will also minimize operating and energy costs and construction materials, goals that our commitment to climate action demands.

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