Strict rules guide new school construction



If the $98.6 million bond package on the November ballot for Liberty Hill ISD is approved by voters, a flurry of construction will follow as new schools are built and others are in line for various renovations.

School district officials say how those projects are priced and bid is managed rigidly to meet legal requirements as well as make sure the district can maintain control and oversight throughout the expenditure of the bond funds.

The bond proposal calls for a new elementary school, a new middle school, convert the Intermediate School into an elementary campus, and add classroom space onto Liberty Hill High School.

The estimated price of the new elementary school, which will house 800 students, is $32.2 million.

The estimated costs of the other projects in the bond proposal are $50.5 million for the new middle school with a 900 capacity; $1.2 million to renovate the Intermediate campus to an elementary school; and $14.7 million to add classroom space onto LHHS.

Plans are moving forward on the new elementary campus, to be built in Santa Rita, not because the district assumes the bond will pass, but because cost projections and student population projections make it critical to begin now, officials say.

As the district had to wait for bonding capacity to get the package on the ballot, the need for space has become critical.

“It’s a little unusual to be in the planning process before it passes, but we had to do it at Rancho Sienna, too,” Superintendent Rob Hart said. “That’s a time issue, because you save six months by doing it now. We can’t afford six more months. Rancho was done in a 12-month period, and we won’t be able to do that again because you can’t get the labor we got back then.”

Some in the community have questioned the process for selecting an architect for the project, suggesting the district may be spending more than it needs, but Hart said it is not as easy as just finding a firm that will give the district the best deal in terms of cost.

“You hire architects with a request for qualifications (RFQ) because you have to hire them based on qualifications,” Hart said. “They cannot discuss fees with you until after you hire them. That’s illegal to shop around price wise.”

The firm used previously, and being used on the new project is Huckabee Architects.

“This is the best architect I’ve ever worked with from years past,” he said. “They work hard to keep our trust, they spend a lot of time with us. They know our administrators by first name and they know our district.”

The next step in the process of managing the project is to hire a contractor, and the district uses the construction manager at risk (CMR) method because of its financial advantages to the district.

“That’s what works best for us, because we get the best bang for the buck that way,” Hart said. “We’re in control of the construction.”

With a CMR, projects avoid cost overruns and have the potential to save money in the end.

“When you do a competitive sealed proposal, you say here’s what this project is going to cost, and if it is less than that, the contractor puts the rest in their pocket and it goes away,” Hart said. “On a construction manager at risk, whatever is left over if it comes back under what we projected, then we can roll that back in to the project and do other things with it.”

It requires more involvement by the district, but Hart says it is worth the effort.

“We can control what brands we use, we can make changes on different things and control our costs much better that way,” he said.

The school district submits a request for proposal (RFP), then collects and grades them on a criteria matrix. The CMR is compensated on a fee basis, separate from the final cost of the construction itself.

“They don’t know how much that job is going to cost yet, because then they will go out for bid with the final construction documents, and the sub-contractors are bidding on doing the work,” Hart said. “After all the bids are in, they compile their guaranteed maximum price.”

If in the end, the job costs less than the guaranteed maximum, the district keeps those funds. If the costs go over the guaranteed maximum, the CMR is saddled with those costs.

Costs are also kept lower through value engineering before subcontractors are selected, then when those contractors are considered, the CMR will work for the best price there as well.

The CMR for Rancho Sienna was Bartlett Cocke, one of two companies that submitted a proposal.

While the $32 million price tag might give some sticker shock for a new elementary school, Hart said the pricing is in line with what other school districts are paying to construct their new elementary campuses.

“Our standard is we want every school that is built to last 70 years,” Hart said. “The cheaper you build, the more you shave off of that and the more you increase your maintenance costs. We don’t build fancy schools, we build quality schools.”

One example of a slightly higher cost on the front end is how the district handles placement of its air conditioning and heating systems.

“We have a mezzanine where we put our mechanical equipment under a roof,” Hart said. “You minimize roof penetrations, your maintenance is easier, and they last much longer. If you leave them sitting out they are exposed to the extremes and the elements. Those are the things we do that are quality, that doesn’t mean it is fancy.”

According to Hart, the high price tag boils down to the rising cost of construction and regulations that must be met.

“Escalation is about eight-tenths of a percent per month,” he said. “So you’re looking at around 10 percent per year. That’s based on demand for labor. When we bid the high school we were averaging 14 subcontractors per trade. When we did Rancho Sienna we were getting about three. There’s just so much work out there now.”

Concrete costs are up, electrical costs are up, and even talk about tariffs pushes costs higher, he said.

Regulations and codes impact every part of the project, including alarm systems, handicap accessibility, wiring and fire safety.

“We even have energy codes,” Hart said. “Certain roofs can’t be dark because it uses up too much energy. Windows have to be a certain tint so it doesn’t use too much energy. It has nothing to do with safety, that’s just energy, and that’s new.”

It is a meticulous project that requires a lot of know-how in the planning and thorough examination throughout the process.

“Every step we take has to be approved by somebody,” Hart said. “You can’t even remember all the things you have to make sue of, and that’s where your architect comes in because they know the code and take care of that for you. Renovations are even more difficult, because you have old code and now you are upgrading to new code.”

The proposed cost of the new middle school may not be based on specific plans yet, but is calculated on number of students, space required and costs per square foot.

“It is a projection based on escalation, which is built on a time frame of when we start and when we finish,” he said. “The architect calculates what square footage you need, because you have to meet codes as far as classroom size. That’s a Texas Education Agency regulation. So you look at your capacity at that school, and then you base your square footage on what you have to have.”