The TASC List: Lessons learned

There are many lessons to be learned from the Miller-Driscoll Renovation Project, an ongoing effort characterized from the outset by inadequate communication and unending controversy.

It was bulldozed through the study and early design stages, defied the normal boundaries of comparable offerings, received rubber-stamped approvals where impacts were unchallenged, supported by “experts” with much to gain and nothing to lose from its implementation, and replete with over-the-top marketing programs and under-the-covers camouflage.

Too late the town recognized that it was oversized and under-justified. But now we have the opportunity to correct some of the missteps. A “case study” review of the project might reveal what we’ve learned and how we might do better. Some conclusions would fall along these lines:

1) Underlying project requirements demand scrupulous examination. The critical or driving factors must be without question accurate, timely, and clearly stated. Enrollment numbers, for example, drive both school construction costs and school operating budgets. We’ve too often been fixated by the “high” (versus “medium” or “low”) projection case when enrollments were growing and the underlying method was essentially linear. And in cyclical times when enrollments turn down, we’ve missed seeing the peaks and the subsequent declines, and the opportunity to harvest rich savings in staff and overhead. It is entirely irresponsible to build or plan for students that will not come.     

2) A school building committee must be staffed with volunteers equipped to understand design, engineering, and construction. They need the backbone to stand up to architectural and construction experts and question recommendations in detail. They cannot accept out of hand that “this is the way we do it” or “leave this to us” or “you’re not really equipped to make these judgments; but we are.” Here, think an often-under-qualified group being led by the nose, and wanting to get home before the snow flies.

3) A voting public must have the time and information to reflect upon project details well in advance of financial commitments. The building committee must have absolute objectivity to hear their every concern and respond to every question. Arbitrary dismissals, marginalization of skeptics, and the silencing of outspoken adversaries must be forbidden. These three are the hallmarks of communication interrupted, and a community process slipping off the rails.

4) Cost-containment must be a primary consideration from the outset, and continue throughout the life of the project. Cost-effectiveness itself is an attractive concept, but only rarely is it assiduously pursued. Mandated in some jurisdictions, it usually receives only lip service, and is relegated to secondary practices. And even when some aspects appear in the concept of “value engineering,” that phrase has widely varying meanings. Some, in fact, have used VE as a source for transforming legitimate cost savings into a funding opportunity to incorporate “nice to have” but non-essential elements. Thus, containment requires the strictest of discipline and an audit-like focus.

5) There can be no “monuments” built to reflect any individual’s grandiose ideas of what a school project should look like. Especially if such persons hold an office or position that can influence size, scope, or direction of a project. The Taj Mahal was built to house the tomb of an emperor’s favorite wife. A jewel of construction art, by a man who could afford it. Communities today can’t afford jewels in schools, or any extravagance not directly associated with the learning process.

6) Embedded architects and engineers should not be allowed to continue in the bidding and selection process where they have had long-standing relations in the town. They need to term out and allow fresh qualifications to prevail. Otherwise, requirements statements and directions can be unfairly and improperly influenced. Objectivity can erode and assumptions accepted without due diligence.    

7) The project must be continually reviewed and periodically publicized for public consumption, unadulterated by marketing, advocacy, or public relations thrusts. No voter should face a bonding referendum and need to ask: “What is this, what are we receiving for the money, and what’s the big hurry now?”

These are but a few items of interest. There are parallel conclusions from prior projects. But from increased objectivity, a searching discipline, and complete exposure to an informed public, we can expect improved outcomes. We will do better.

Editor's note: The author plans to work on the development of a guidelines document aimed at providing additional background, experience, and best practices to future building committees.    

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