The TASC List: At a fork

There’s an old expression, often attributed to Yogi Berra, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Humorous considerations aside, it appears Wilton will be approaching an important decision point in the very near future. There are significant issues, concerns, and questions associated with the Miller-Driscoll School Project.

These items arise in part from the overall cost and justification for the project itself, the manner in which it was unveiled and presented to the community, and the approach to voters from certain supporters of the project. Other factors include the slimmest of margins by which it was decided, the inquiry by the State Election Enforcement Commission into possible violations, and the petition to schedule a revote to settle the issues and examine the proposition in a clear and informative atmosphere.

This $50-million renovation is the largest of its kind in town history. How it will go forward is important to every citizen, and to every taxpayer. Of course it is vital to the school children who need to be housed within its structurally sound, safe, and healthy confines. So it is clear that the impacts of the project — financial, educational, community suitability and appearance, and ability to conform to reasonable and rational standards for an elementary school — sweep far and wide across Wilton.

No wonder emotions run high on all sides. It is interesting to have watched, and been part of, some of the debate and dialogue that took place. Some of the discussions were informative. Others were simply inflammatory. Some of the experts were shown to be inexpert. Some of the supporters were impassioned beyond reason. Some of the questioners were uninformed. The noise level versus information content conveyed was often overwhelming. So here is a suggestion to gain from the past, and move on to a more productive future.

Back to the fork. Let’s benefit from this interval in time to consider the two paths:

  • One leads to getting the architectural detailing complete for a defined structure;
  • The other ends with another vote, another look at the overall project, and the potential for improvements in cost and time.

Both can afford an opportunity to look closely again at the truly underlying and fundamental requirements, eliminate the purely nice to have, and focus on reducing the project cost. A California study (cited below) asserted “good architecture and good educational environments do not need overstatements of configuration, materials, or finishes.”

The handbooks and guidance for these reviews are published and available from the Internet and from professional consultants with expertise on school building construction. One particular reference that covers the area of interest in general can be found at http://bit.ly/10PGk6U.

TASC would recommend such a specialized engagement with independent experts — rather than the advisers utilized by current architects and engineers associated with the product as we know it today. None of this is time-consuming or tedious. Instead, it would replace opinions aligned with vested interests, already expressed.

Here are some of the potential benefits of both paths:

• Examination of pre-engineered and pre-manufactured structures and components (they promise lower cost and reduced build time; they can be finished to match any exterior design aesthetic).

• Examination of materials, systems, and procedures that yield improved maintenance experience, and lower maintenance costs.

• Introduction of functions and features at every level that are adequate for the job, but not excessively expensive or elaborately configured, from exterior treatments to interior fixtures.

• Using repetitive modules; avoiding customization.

• Employing standardized details and elements and prototypes wherever possible.

• Negotiating with construction companies for more favorable agreements (see the New York Times archives of June 10, 2003 “Mayor Says He Drove Down Cost of School Construction” — for a 30% reduction in square-foot costs). These are just a few highlights.

In summary, we can obtain substantial benefits at the junction point ahead by progressing over either path. Cost reduction and Value increase (note also the useful concept of value engineering) await the efforts of parties who are willing to listen, appear open to recommendations, and actually desire the very same outcomes. We all want a quality educational environment at an affordable cost.

TASC stands for Toward A Stronger Community. Contact: brennerjoe@aol.com