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‘Alternative approach’ to Monument renovation is fatally flawed

Richard Coons, chair of the Monument Mountain Regional High School Building Committee advises that the so-called Alternative Approach to Renovating Monument "reflects a lack of knowledge of virtually every aspect of law, building planning, design, construction and educational program needs."

To the Editor:

The “Alternative Approach to Renovating Monument,” put forward by a well-intentioned citizen (see draft of the “Alternative Approach” below this letter), is certainly interesting as a set of independent ideas. However, based on a number of key flaws, it passes muster only as a concept. The proposal reflects a lack of knowledge of virtually every aspect of law, building planning, design, construction and educational program needs.

The Alternative Approach ignores — or seeks to circumvent — Massachusetts State Law for building construction, the International Building Codes as they pertains to Life Safety, local and state building codes, engineering principles, and the needs of educators to provide a 21st century learning environment. Finally, the “Alternative Approach” would cost considerably more to execute than the current plan put forth by the School Committee.

Here are several critical flaws:

  • Any project must abide by state and federal Laws. The author’s suggestion that bringing the current building up to code and meeting construction bidding regulations are not necessary, and can be circumvented by some clever gamesmanship, is wrong, dangerous and ill advised. Local, state and federal law require that once upgrades of any significance are undertaken either individually or collectively, the entire existing structure will be required to meet current life safety, seismic and ADA regulations. It would be great if building owners (or any individual for that matter) could arbitrarily decide what laws they wish to follow and which ones meet their personal desires. However, these laws were developed and are implemented to meet a greater societal need and are not discretionary. In this particular instance, to suggest that our children should be subjected to inferior safety conditions is certainly not a consideration of any member of the School Administration nor should it be a consideration of any member of our community.


  • The Concept of Selective Repairs & Additions is not possible as suggested. The Alternative Approach suggests that a 20,000-square-foot STEM/Industrial Arts addition, of the writer’s selection, be added to the building without any acknowledgement that the existing utility and technology infrastructure would need to be upgraded and expanded to accommodate this building. Additionally, this element alone would trigger the code and accessibility upgrades to the entire complex. Just as importantly, the suggested addition is a much more expensive alternative to that proposed by the School Committee, since renovating existing spaces – with the required plumbing and electrical infrastructure needed to support modern science labs – is far more costly than the spaces as proposed.


  • A Piecemeal Renovation/Addition Plan is not practical. A central premise of this Alternate Approach is that individual components can be discretely segregated and undertaken in a cost-effective manner. This approach was tested and is in fact more expensive. It is long and complex, and is simply a dream and not a practical solution.


  • The Proposed “Alternative Approach” is a more expensive plan. The author of “Alternative Plan” has developed his own estimate of project costs based upon limited understanding of construction. He has neglected to identify the real costs of the elements he proposes, and has not included the 20 to 30 percent soft costs for such essential items as contingencies, design costs, furniture, technology, moving, and a host of other essential elements. Nor is there any allowance for inflation that could easily add another 10 to 20 percent of costs, given the years of delays that would occur with this approach. Additionally, the author suggests that state grants and other federal and foundation grants would be used to help offset the costs to make this plan more affordable. This is an incredibly dubious suggestion, as the State of Massachusetts has already offered to pay far more toward this project than any of these other entities ever would even consider.  Additionally, the “Alternative Plan” will undoubtedly cost the taxpayers more, and bring significantly less educational benefit to the children of Monument.

The School District has invested six years and thousands of hours of study, planning, analysis and consideration of multiple other construction options for our high school. Community considerations have been invited and where possible and consistent with our objectives, incorporated into planning. The costs have been trimmed with the vetting and agreement of Massachusetts School Building Authority to $51M. Voters have before them now the strongest possible project for achieving a 21st century high school.

Richard Coons


MMRHS Building Committee

*     *     *

A Draft Alternative Approach to Renovating Monument

Submitted by David Long, concerned resident of Great Barrington



What follows is a composite of many of the good ideas that were suggested by parents and residents during the meetings with the MMRHS Design Committee in 2012-2013. The intention here is not to propose an end-all alternative to the current renovation plan, but rather, to illustrate the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that many residents are looking for. It is also intended to demonstrate that there are alternatives to the current plan if one is willing to look.

In terms of cost, I am trying to find ways to cut the total cost to half to two thirds of the proposed plan, not increase (in fact decrease) the District’s contribution above the projected, and adjust the line items to maximize the amount of spending that has a direct impact on education.

Additional considerations include:

  1. Utilized the maximum local talent in the restoration process to maximize the economic benefits to the community and create a support network going forward.
  2. Enhance the maintenance department’s role in the process to reduce cost and avoid the kind of deferred maintenance that have created a need of such scale
  3. Break the project into more manageable chunks to create more flexible funding and labor considerations
  4. Identify cases where building improvements can be transformed into educational opportunities within a dynamic, hands-on STEM curriculum to both diversify funding and enrich the Monument experience.


Educational Goals:

No design can be evaluated without a crystal clear understanding of the functional objectives and desired outcomes that the design is intended to support, thus:

Educational goals: To enable the establishment of a truly interdisciplinary STEM curriculum that inspires a love of learning and develops valuable life-long skills that transfer to college or work in the future. The arts, humanities, and social sciences should enrich and provide context within this interdisciplinary approach.



  1. Minimize the areas that receive total renovation within the existing building as much as possible to avoid spending money on unnecessary upgrades simply to meet current building code.
  2. Build a new 20,000 square foot STEM/Industrial Arts building due east of the “A wing.”
  3. Renovate and transform the A wing into a state of the art sciences center with new chemistry, physics, biology, earth science and computer science labs.
  4. Renovate the B, F, and H wings on separate permits; bring to full code compliance, make energy efficient, and enhance the classroom experience. Use maintenance staff and local contractors.
  5. Repurpose the existing chemistry and physics labs for art studio space. Repurpose the original biology lab as a computer graphics, video, 3d design, and 3d printing studio.
  6. Repair and enhance non-renovated spaces within the core of the building where required as a part of an on-going maintenance schedule using maintenance staff and local contractors.
  7. Replace roof and add solar collectors for both hot water to reduce heating costs and

photovoltaic to reduce electric demand. Replace boiler to work with solar. Make calculated repairs to plumbing.

  1. Carve out projects that can be designed and implemented by teams of students, educators, and professionals working together to create substantive educational experiences that leave a lasting mark on the school community.

These 8 points address nearly all of the stated objectives of the design committee while targeting the vast majority of the budget to qualitatively improving education rather than simply “meeting current code requirements.” There are a few things that are sadly missing from this approach compared with the proposed plan. First is the increased music practice space. It is not clear how important new music space actually is relative to the other competing objectives, and maybe someone else has a good alternative for this. Secondly is the expansion of athletic space. It does not seem reasonable to increase athletic space by roughly 40% given the competing requirements. However, there is nothing in this approach that precludes implementing the new spaces along the bus loading platform as described in the currently proposed design as a separate project in the future.

Approach Summary:

Looking at each of these points more closely, it becomes clear why this approach is more cost effective than the proposed renovation plan. Taking each in turn:

  1. Limiting the scope of renovation: According to the design committees documents, simply bringing the building up to current code would cost nearly as much as completely redesigning the building. This may be true using their logic, but this is a false choice that runs to the heart of the opposition to the proposed plan. By carefully targeting which zones within the building would be upgraded to full code compliance, and which zones are not, it is possible to dramatically reduce the cost of the project. At the same time, it should be possible to address most functional and cosmetic issues using the maintenance staff in concert with local contractors on a surgical basis.

Inferring from the documents that were distributed during the 2012 presentations, the bulk of the “unnecessary upgrades” could be avoided by preserving as much of the core of the building as possible. This core would be defined as areas from the bus loading platform to the library; front and back hallways; cafeteria; and offices.

These areas would be improved without using state money in most cases to avoid budget bloat attributable to state requirements (like the inability to use local contractors directly). See below for a more complete description of improvements.

  1. Build a new STEM/Industrial Arts building: There are three reasons for targeting STEM-oriented project space for new construction. First, it is essentially a light industrial space that costs less to build per square foot than classroom buildings. Secondly, modern STEM requires this kind of space to build tangible understanding of applied math, science, and engineering in a real world environment. Third, the space can re-invigorate industrial arts for all students – college or work bound.

It is imagined that the building would be steel post and truss construction clad with high efficiency SIPs (structural insulated panels). The building would be built into the hill directly east and connected to the A wing. It would have two floors: a lower level that provides auto shop and materials access to the north and a large flexible shop space to the south; and an upper level with three or four classrooms and a mezzanine with project spaces that overlook the shop space below. The upper level would connect at grade to the east side of the A wing via a breezeway that also provides grade access to the north (parking lot) and south (east courtyard created by A, B, and K wings).

For the purposes of comparison, this building is sized at 20,000 square feet — same size as the

SMMA proposed addition. More design work needs to be done to determine the correct size, but preliminary schematic sketches demonstrate that this is more than sufficient, in fact the actual size could be as little as 15,000 sq. The average cost for light industrial buildings in

Boston is $125 per square foot. This building would require additional site and concrete work, and we would want a nice looking building as well, so for the sake of argument, a $250 per square foot cost is assigned to the building — a savings of $53 dollars per square foot, or $1 million in total. If that $1 million is added back for an elevator and contingencies, total cost would be the same as the proposed for the purposes of discussion. However, there is reason to believe the actual cost would be less.

  1. A new Sciences Center within the A wing: With the industrial arts moved into the new addition, the A wing could be redeveloped for state-of-the-art labs. The A wing is currently the most deteriorated and depressing area of the building. Repurposing this space has many advantages. First, locating labs near the STEM building helps build a strong connection between pure and applied science. Secondly, major construction is contained within the southeast corner of the building to reduce costs and disruption of regular school activity. No temporary classrooms would be required. Thirdly (and most importantly), nearly every dollar is spent directly on improving education an creating educational opportunities that are not possible within the current building.

The sciences center would include spacious chemistry, physics, biology, and earth science labs.

In addition, a modern computer science lab with a climate controlled data center space would serve as a hub for student technology projects and teaching students about networking. It is imaged that there would be an open area in the center (roughly where the auto classroom is) with an atrium clearstory for project display and student/teacher conferences.

It is also imagined that state grants combined with other federal and foundation grants would be applied to both the Sciences Center and the STEM addition. The bulk of the work would then have to be conducted by certified contractors and follow state work rules. A strong push to look for money from places like DARPA, NSF, NEA, Google and the Gates Foundation could yield significant contributions for a project like this.

  1. The B, F, and H wings certainly need attention, but not to the extent of the A wing or STEM/ Industrial Arts addition. In fact, the model approach was already established by the improvements made to the central classrooms in each of these wings. In this case they rewired the electric, provided bright new lighting, ceiling, floor, projection system, white boards, network and furnishings for about $30,000 per classroom from what I have been told.

Extrapolating that number to the rest of each wing, that would be roughly $300,000 per wing.

Add and additional $200,000 per wing for a smaller HVAC system for each wing to supplement central heating and add ventilation; energy panels on fixed glass and replacement of operable windows with efficient and secure awning windows; and supplemental foam insulation sprayed on the underside of the roof then the total cost would be $500,000 per wing or $1.5 million for all three. All of this work can and has been done using local contractors, there is no reason why this couldn’t be the case here.

  1. Repurpose labs as art studios: The art department was short changed in the original design of the building. Outside of K01, there is no space specifically designed for art classes, hence, the art department is forced to borrow spaces scattered across the building. Once the science labs are moved, repurposing them as art studios would rectify this problem. They would make excellent studios with only the slightest modifications. There already are sinks, counter spaces, and bountiful storage.

The original biology lab could be converted to digital arts including graphic arts, video, 3d modeling and 3d printing by simply removing the sinks, replacing the countertops, adding some tables and adding a dedicated fiber “home run” network connection to the computer lab for fast transfer of very large files for storage and back-up without adding traffic to the public network.

  1. The core of the building by and large is not in bad shape. There are, of course, issues. Lighting is the most obvious. But there are other less obvious issues, like how addressing plumbing problems affects this zone. Some areas need little more than ceiling tiles, light fixtures, and a coat of paint. The floors should not be removed. It would be far cheaper and faster to simply lay new tile on top of the old to further encapsulate. It is currently controversial whether the offgassing of new tile is healthier than simply leaving the old tile with its tightly embedded asbestos. There is no question that the existing tile left intact poses no measurable health risk.

Given these issues, the most effective strategy would be to break down the core of the building into discrete refurbishment projects that are pre-planned and folded into the regular school budget. It should be assumed that this work would be done in a collaboration between the maintenance staff and local contractors.

One thing that has been repeatedly expressed is the desire for more sunlight and fresh air. In some areas, like the library, cafeteria, and the central classrooms of the B, F, and H wings, clearly could benefit. Other areas, like the hallways, the benefits are more questionable.

Improved lighting will go a long way to enliven the environment. In key areas, large creatively designed atrium/clearstory units could be installed to dramatically improve these environments. These units should be designed to not only provide light, but also periodic heat

in the winter and convective cooling in the summer. See below for more on this.

  1. Roof, Solar, Heating, and Plumbing: These are the key infrastructure items that affect the functioning of the building at a fundamental level. They must be addressed. Taking the committees numbers at face value this would be $3.6 million for the roof; $1.2 million for the plumbing; and $5 million for replacing the boiler. This adds up to 9.8 million dollars without solar or measurable reduction in operating costs. The estimate for the roof sounds reasonable given the size and complexity. The estimates for plumbing and heating are more questionable.

Given the assumptions going into the estimates they make sense, but I question how creatively those assumptions were arrived at. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to assume that we could add solar supplementation to the heating demand (either hydronic or PV with heat pump) and get the benefit of reduced operating costs. Additionally, there are monies available outside of the MSBA for solar projects and energy efficiency enhancements that could drive down the net cost substantially.

  1. Integrate improvement projects into the curriculum: At the center of the notion of STEM is that tangible projects create a deeper understanding and inspire a more personal connection to math and science within students. There can be no more tangible experience for students than participating in the design and construction of their own environment. Plus, things created by students form a source of inspiration for future generation of students. It is imagined that a team of faculty joined with appropriate outside professionals (architects, engineers, builders, etc.) could tackle discrete projects as part of advanced course work. Project like this could have a profound impact on vocational students, but also be particularly empowering to college bound students.

Example 1: Design and build atrium/clearstory units for the library, cafeteria, and central classrooms. Each would be of a predetermined size. Units should not only provide light into interior space, but should also collect heat to be vented into the interior space in the fall, winter and spring, and vent warm air to the outside in summer. A project like this involves many considerations consistent with STEM education. There is the physics of the encapsulated space, the mechanical engineering for convection of the warm and cold air, understanding of how the sun will interact with the interior space, and the essential art and aesthetics of the structure.

Example 2: Have the teams design a large scale “bioshelter” type conservatory that fills the courtyard in the rear of the building using off the shelf commercial gutter-connect greenhouses. This space would be and invaluable resource for teaching earth science, biology,

physics, mechanical engineering, structural engineering, horticulture, agriculture, and other subjects. More on this in future installments.


Using the numbers described above and drawn from documents from the design committee, this approach should cost less than half of the proposed design and provide much greater educational value. It is not clear at this time what kind of grants or reimbursement would be available within

a reasonable timeframe, however it is clear that money is available, including from the MSBA, if patience prevails. Alternate monies should be pursued in any case since the federal and private funds generally come with less strings than the state program since each grant is of limited scope.

Local hiring should be a strong consideration of net cost since each dollar spent would create more of a multiplier effect for the local economy, effectively reducing the real cost to the community compared to outside contracting organizations.

The general breakdown of costs would look something like:


Preliminary Budget for Alternate Approach

STEM/Industrial Arts Building $6,000,000.00

Science Center $2,000,000.00

B, F, and H Wing Improvements $1,500,000.00

Building Core Improvements $1,000,000.00

Roof, Boiler, and Plumbing $10,000,000.00

Network $500,000.00

Sub-Total $20,500,000.00

Additional Contingencies and Student Projects $4,000,000.00



While this approach requires the School Committee to think differently about how to manage a building, it clearly demonstrates that there are multiple ways of looking at the problems that face Monument and a wide range of solutions that can be generated through creative thinking. There are only a few things that have been addressed in the proposed plan that are not addressed here.

For those that remain, solutions can be found if there is a will to find them.

The biggest change this approach represents is the amount of responsibility that gets transferred from consultants to the School Board and Monument Maintenance. It also makes the community responsible for committing to long term support of the school budget and the kind of pro-active maintenance that avoids this kind of institutional crisis.


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