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How AHS compares to similar projects

This viewpoint about rebuilding Arlington High School was written by Kate Loosian, a member of the AHS Building Committee.

benchmark 400

 Arlington, Belmont, Waltham, Saugus and Somerville are five High School building projects navigating similar challenges – dense suburbs with somewhat comparably scaled projects undertaken generally within the same time frame. While there are similarities between the projects, none of these projects (or other projects in the state) are comparable in complexity to Arlington High School.

All five projects will struggle with an extremely tight construction market. All have to manage the constraints of working in densely populated communities. Several projects will have to contend with maintaining a functional school environment just a fence line away from a construction site.

Remediation issues

Hazardous materials are a common problem in older buildings, but few high school sites have equivalent environmental and soil-remediation issues as Arlington High School.

New construction in a single phase on an empty site is the easiest and therefore cheapest way to build: Fewer constraints equate to a faster, more efficient and cost-effective process and product – Waltham and Saugus benefit from this type of project.

For a standard high school, the MSBA recommends a 25-acre site. The current AHS parcel is 22 acres, and the next viable parcel in town is 16 acres. Arlington doesn’t have land available to support new construction on an empty site.

Building on an existing, occupied site, with phased new construction or renovation, is a much more complex effort requiring more attention to safety, utility coordination (gotta keep the heat on!), segregation of active school buildings and grounds from construction work, minimizing disruption to classroom work, and careful attention to both the construction schedule and the academic schedule.

Phasing opportunities

In projects such as Arlington's (and Belmont's), these complexities and safety challenges create constraints on construction work that can have significant impact on both schedule and budget. The phasing opportunities presented by the selected AHS design concept maximize our efficiency, reduce use of modular classrooms, and get students into new buildings as early as 2022, but it will be a complex coordination effort throughout construction.

Based on MSBA data, the chart above illustrates estimating benchmarks for all five projects, escalated to the Arlington High School construction schedule to achieve comparable market values.

The AHS project also has more noneducational program space than our peers. Some programs in the current Arlington High School building are not defined by MSBA as high school educational programs but warrant replacement in the new building.

One example, the Menotomy Preschool, is an integrated preschool, which helps the town meet special-education requirements and offers hands-on experience to high school students interested in early childhood education. Another example is the LABBB Collaborative, a cooperative special-education program that serves high school students from Arlington and other adjacent towns.

Reducing noneducational uses

There has been significant effort toward reduction of total noneducational program space in the new high school (relocating the comptroller, IT, facilities and most of payroll offices to other buildings). However, contributing to the complexity of the project, AHS has notably more noneducational square footage than our peers.

One tool that helps support cost comparison of these projects is to apply escalation to the projects so that the timeline matches Arlington's. This is done by using the most current cost information for each project and escalating them by an industry standard 4 percent annually to the midpoint of the AHS schedule, November 2022.

This escalation leveling helps account for growth and inflation in the construction markets. To give a sense of the impact of 4-percent annual escalation costs, the Newton North High School that was completed in 2010 for $166 million (construction costs) would cost $285 million (construction costs) if it were completed on our timeline. AHS’ construction cost will be $235 million.

Arlington, Belmont, Saugus, Somerville and Waltham building projects have many commonalities. In their scale, schedule and locations, they reflect similar market conditions, MSBA requirements and construction conditions (densely built suburbs).

The Arlington High School project is long overdue, and given the town’s lack of alternative sites, it’s also being designed and built on an extremely challenging parcel of land and in a highly reactive construction market. The Arlington High School is a complex project with many variables. But we’re not alone: In this area, in this market, and in our costs – we are in very good company.

This viewpoint was published Tuesday, May 21, 2019. For more information on the proposed new high school, visit

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