Talking about Wake County school designs

Posted by T. Keung Hui on January 16, 2014 

The message from Wake County school leaders is that they’re saving money on school construction despite what county commissioners are saying.

As noted in today’s article, school leaders responded Wednesday to the charges from commissioners that the district isn’t being as cost-effective on school construction as it can be. School administrators said they’ve saved money over the years from reusing prototypes and expect to continue saving money with new designs that have been questioned by commissioners.

Commissioners had questioned why the district wanted $3 million for new designs for four schools instead of reusing prototypes.

Click here for a handout that school staff developed in response to what was said last week. It was presented at Wednesday’s meeting of the school board’s facilities committee,

The first part of the presentation was on the use of prototypes.

Joe Desormeaux, assistant superintendent for facilities, said that the use of a new design typically costs 6 percent of a school’s construction cost. The cost goes down when the design is reused.

In addition to saving money, Desormeaux said benefits of reusing prototypes include speeding up the design schedule, lowered construction costs and a reduced number of change orders.

Between 2001 and 2013, Desormeaux said they had saved between $1.9 million and $6.6 million on design consultant fees for new middle schools and high schools by reusing prototypes. The high figure comes from assuming that the reuse allowed them not to spend 6 percent of the construction cost on every project for new designs.

As you can see from the handout, Wake has a lot of different prototypes. There’s not just one design for every elementary school, middle school or high school.

“It’s very hard to get one design that’s flexible enough to handle everything out there,” Desormeaux said.

Desormeaux cited the benefits of having multiple prototypes. For instance, it allows Wake to adapt to the different characteristics of each site. It also lets Wake avoid overloading any one architect and to retire designs that no longer fit the current needs.

Desormeaux also noted how school capacities were upped in the last construction program. He said they wanted to have multiple prototypes for the larger schools.

But while there are benefits in reusing prototypes, Desormeaux said there are also benefits in getting new designs. Wake sought new designs because project budgets for the new capital improvement program, CIP 2013, called for eight to 10 percent less than what was used in the 2006 CIP.

“We wanted to go out and see if there were any firms who could meet our standards at a lower price,” Desormeaux said.

Desormeaux acknowledged Wake will pay more for the new designs than if it had reused prototypes. But he said that since those designs were used in other districts, they’re spending less than the typical 6 percent of the construction cost.

Even with the design fees being more expensive than a reuse, the handout indicates that they’re projected to save $953,852 overall on each elementary school than compared to prototypes used in the 2006 bond. The savings are $2.5 million per middle school and $3.7 million per high school.

“Even though the design costs went up some, the construction costs are significantly lower,” Desormeaux said.

School board member Kevin Hill, chair of the faculties committee, asked for reassurance they’re not sacrificing educational programming by reducing costs.

In response, Desormeaux pointed to the page on adapting new designs to Wake’s standards. He cited how they adjusted the designs to meet what’s done in Wake.

For instance, Wake is using a new design for Apex Friendship High School that’s adapted from a design used in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system. But Wake made changes, including increasing the square footage of the classrooms.

Wake will also continue the “educational commissioning” process in which staff at a school are interviewed to find out how things worked with the new design.

One of the concerns raised by commissioners is whether local architects got knocked out of consideration because of the way the RFQ was written by the district.

In 2012, Wake issued a request for qualifications from architects. Alex Fuller, director of controls for the facilities department, said they wanted people who had shown by past experience they could design a school within the new budget price point.

A total of 23 firms responded to the RFQ with 20 making the cut for further review. But the three who didn’t were local firms who have done a lot of work for the district in the past.

By the end of the presentation, school board members were praising what the district is doing and questioning the motives of commissioners.

“Part of the question is are we dealing with semantics?” said school board member Bill Fletcher. “Or are we dealing with substantive concerns about saving the taxpayers money? You’ve clearly demonstrated today that the process that we have used to build CIP 2013 that the county commission has approved, that we have approved, that the voters have approved, was done to reduce the cost of our budgets and the cost of our schools.

I would love to have greater clarity from the commissioners if they can form their questions so that we can give them clearer answers than what may have been provided to date. This has been great information. Our community should take comfort in knowing that from the very beginning of the development of the CIP 2013 this has been the strategy to, as best we can, drive our costs down – even if means using a design we haven’t seen in Wake County previously.”

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