After aggressively promoting model schools as a cost-saving approach to building new facilities, the state agency overseeing the construction process is reevaluating that approach — and has not approved a new model school project since 2012.
The Massachusetts School Building Authority had approved 18 school projects in the three previous years using the model school approach, in which districts chose from a list of designs of previously constructed schools.
The approved projects included the Duxbury Middle/High School, East Bridgewater High School, Franklin High School, Hingham Middle School, Marshfield High School, Natick High School, Newburyport’s Bresnahan Elementary School, Norwood High School, Plymouth North High School, Quincy Central Middle School, and Tewksbury Memorial High School.
Communities participating in the program received extra “points” and, therefore, a larger reimbursement from the state of the final construction cost.
The idea was that districts would save time and money by shortening the design process. But in practice, the approach had some flaws, according to Jack McCarthy, who took over as head of the school building authority in January 2012.
“One of the things our board had noticed is that many times the design wasn’t matching the education plan that the district came up with,” McCarthy said in an interview. “We’ve determined that making the building fit the education plan was very important. People didn’t recognize that as being as important before.”
The School Building Authority was created by the Legislature in 2004 to “oversee sweeping financial and management reforms to the Commonwealth’s multibillion-dollar reimbursement and funding program for school construction projects,” according to its mandate. The model school program was part of the process, and McCarthy said he was involved while working in the state inspector general’s office.
McCarthy said he was particularly interested in the model school idea because his town of Norwood was planning to build a new high school. Norwood High School became the first project, in January 2009, to receive approval to build a model school; it was based on Whitman-Hanson Regional High School.
McCarthy said his agency is now evaluating whether the model school approach actually cut costs.
“Did it save money? It’s hard to quantify,” he said. That “is one of the things we are going to evaluate. We give incentives for people to do models. We’re going to reevaluate our incentive points [system] to be sure we are using them the right way. If you’re not saving enough money, why incentivize?”
Pip Lewis, a principal at HMFH architects in Cambridge, said it is probable the model schools actually cost the state more because the potential savings in architects’ fees were eclipsed by the increased state subsidy.
McCarthy said the model approach is not being abandoned — just reexamined and potentially reworked.
He said his agency is considering a broader list of model designs to chose from, both to give more flexibility to districts looking to build new facilities and to open up the field to more architects.
Under the current program, half of the new projects went to one architect, Ai3 of Wayland, designer of the model Whitman-Hanson Regional High School. The rest of the contracts were divided among five other firms.
“We’re trying to allow more architects to become models,” McCarthy said. “Ai3 designs a good building, but it is not the only architect that designs a good building.”
Laura Wernick, past president of the Boston Society of Architects, said her organization had warned the state from the beginning that the model school program had problems.
“We suggested it might not be as effective as it looks at first blush,” Wernick said. “First, and most important, communities vary a lot in terms of educational programs, with different priorities and different grade configurations. Each community ends up being special, and it’s hard to have a single model to fit all.”
Similar issues apply to variations in the topography and other conditions at each individual school site, she said.
In addition, technology is changing rapidly, affecting the design of things such as lighting and mechanical systems in new buildings and making it difficult to follow an older model design, she said.
She said in practice the model school designs have been reworked to fit the needs of specific communities and sites.
Her firm, HMFH Architects, was selected to design the Bresnahan Elementary School in Newburyport, which is based on HMFH’s design of the East Fairhaven Elementary School.
“Architects were very concerned [that the model school program] was anti-architect,” Wernick said. “It didn’t turn out that way, but it didn’t live up to the promise held out for it by the MSBA. I think [the state] realized that the cost savings and efficiencies were not able to be realized.
“So it was not quite as problematic as the architects might have initially envisioned, and not quite as wonderful as the MSBA had hoped,” she said.
Hingham School Superintendent Dorothy Galo said she could not judge whether her community saved money by going with the model school design for its new middle school, which opened in August.
“It’s really hard to say, unless you did the same building with the model school and without the model,” she said of cost savings. “Because, in the end, any of the models have to be adjusted to your site, your numbers, your educational program. And those changes cost money. Obviously, you can’t just take plans for one community and plunk them down somewhere else.”
She noted that Hingham’s new East Elementary School, which opened in 2009, was built before the model school program.
“[The model school approach] worked for us, but I can’t say the process has been a lot different than the process we had with East before the model school program existed,” Galo said.
The model school program has some staunch defenders, though, including Jamey Cutelis, who chaired the Tewksbury High School Building Committee. The new school, which opened in September 2012, was built under the model school program.
“I think it’s great,” Cutelis said. “People don’t want to have cookie-cutter schools, but they are different. Ours was modeled after Hudson High School, which is two stories spread out on a large, level campus. Ours was a more compact campus, and we had to go three stories. So we could make some changes as need be to fit our community needs.”
The main advantage of using the model school, he said, was that Tewksbury was able to get the project out to bid quickly in the depths of the recession and take advantage of low construction prices.
The initial projected cost was $82 million, he said, but the actual cost was $66.5 million. In addition, the district received about $5 million extra in state reimbursements for participating in the model school program, he said.
“I think it’s a fantastic building,” Cutelis added. “I think staff and students feel that way as well.”
Scituate School Superintendent John McCarthy said he is pleased that his district is not using the model school program for its proposed new Gates Intermediary School.
“The MSBA really encouraged us from the beginning to, rather than say let’s build a model, say let’s develop an educational program and [design] around it,” he said. “When we got done, the model wasn’t the best answer for us.”
McCarthy, of the School Building Authority, said only two school districts — Peabody and Hanson — have asked to participate in the model school program since he became executive director in 2012, and neither was approved.
In Peabody, plans called for building the school into a side of a hill “and there was no model that was built into a side of a hill.” Hanson wanted to build an elementary school for 1,000 students — far bigger than any available models, he said.
“I think going forward it will be true models with far less tinkering with major parts,” McCarthy said. “The beautiful thing about model schools is if you drive up to Whitman-Hanson and then Norwood or Somerset Berkley [high schools], you don’t think it’s the same school. It’s kind of fun to see how they handled the different facades.
“Norwood basically matched the old school look as you drove up — the columns. That’s what made the people of Norwood happy,” he added.Johanna Seltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.