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Escanaba In Da Daylight

Shunning "free" feasibility studies leads schools to a wise decision

September 11, 2003 | By Mac McClelland
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Courtesy Craig Woerpel
  Restoring the Escanaba Junior High School cost about as much as building a new one, but it preserved a better, more valuable building.

In 1998 the Escanaba School Board began asking a difficult and important question: Should this Upper Peninsula town invest hard-earned tax dollars in renovating its badly aging, 70-year-old, main street junior high school, or build a brand new one on the outskirts of town?

To make sure it got the correct answer, the school board wisely sent out requests for proposals for renovation feasibility studies to dozens of architectural and construction firms. But, as Superintendent Tom Smith soon found out, many of the companies that responded were exactly the wrong ones to ask.

Unusual Behavior: Turning Down Cash
Twenty-four firms responded to the board’s request for proposals. But most of the responses contained an odd proviso that made Mr. Smith suspect that he was being hustled. It turned out that most of the companies were not interested in charging a fee for the evaluation. Instead, they proposed doing the evaluation for free — as long as the school board guaranteed that their company would receive the design contract.

Mr. Smith’s suspicions grew when he saw these companies’ reactions to his assertion that the district would prefer to pay for the study rather than accept a free one: Two-thirds of the firms simply walked away from the deal.

As it turns out, such seemingly surprising behavior is actually quite common, and helps explains why so many school boards decide to build new facilities rather than renovate old ones. The truth is that schools that choose to use free evaluations are getting what they pay for — not very much.

Typically, companies that provide such evaluation-and-estimate “freebies” do not provide very detailed examination of an old building’s structural, mechanical, electrical, and environmental issues. It’s a good way for them to keep their own costs for this feeless service down, but it also leads them to use “worst case” cost estimates that protect them from their own lack of proper evaluation if they ever in fact land a restoration instead of a construction job.

The result? Such companies provide very high estimates for renovation work, and school boards respond by deciding it is much cheaper to simply build a new facility.

A Closer Look Favors Renovation
Fortunately for Escanaba, Mr. Smith skipped the freebies and hired the Kalamazoo-based architectural firm Diekemma-Hamann, which, the superintendent said, submitted one of the most thorough proposals for building analysis the board received. The firm did the study and, to the board’s surprise, concluded that renovating the old school would cost about the same as building a new one — approximately $8 million. 

Most consultants would stop right there and recommend a new school. But Norm Hamann, the prime architect on the project, gave the school district one more piece of information. 

“We thought it was useful to answer the question of how much it would cost to duplicate the current junior high school, not just build a new one,” he said. Mr. Hamman noted that the current school had a 750-seat auditorium that rivals any theatre in Michigan. It had rock solid construction and featured classic, 1930s-style architectural treatments. That’s why, as he put it, “when we concluded our analysis, [we found] that it would cost $12 million to build the same school — the renovated school would be worth $4 million more than a new school built outside of town. 

With these facts in hand, the school board hired a research company to conduct a scientific survey of the community’s views on the question of renovation versus new construction. The survey found an even split on the questions. So, basing their decision on gut instinct and a keen sense of the community and its “Yooper” heritage, the superintendent recommended and the board approved a bond proposal for renovating the existing school. It passed by a resounding 24 percent margin.

Converts to the Cause
The project was not without its skeptics. 

“I just couldn’t see how this dark, musty building could be anything else,” admitted Bob Koski, the junior high school principal who had lived with the old building for 11 years and would have to lead his staff through the mess, racket, and inconvenience of a renovation.

According to Mr. Hamann, Mr. Koski had his arms crossed throughout their first conversation about renovating the old place and insisted that he’d rather have a new school. But, according to the architect, Mr. Koski has now become a firm believer in renovation, not construction.

“After the possibilities became apparent, he has been the best client we’ve ever worked with, involved and supportive every step of the way,” Mr. Hamann said of the principal.  

Superintendent Smith added that the entire process taught him something, too: When a school district faces the choice his did, it must spend the money to look very carefully at all the facts, rather than use a process with the word “free” attached to it. The more thorough the investigation, he said, the likelier it is that renovating makes more sense than constructing a new building.

Mr. Smith has something backing him up that is hard to argue with — the end result. The newly renovated Escanaba Junior High School opened this fall and is now a spectacular building with a new classroom wing and gymnasium, and a wonderfully remodeled main wing with a new media center, music room, and shop. And, when it comes to fighting sprawl and saving taxpayer dollars, the newly revived school promises a brighter future for downtown Escanaba.

Mac McClelland is the Institute’s Neighborhood Schools Project policy specialist. You can reach him at mac@mlui.org. This article marks Mac’s debut on the Institute’s Web site and is part of a special report on school location and its influence on development patterns, which is scheduled for publication in late October. The project is a collaboration with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

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