December 1, 2023

HVAC project at Burlington High School seeks building committee | Burlington

4 min read
HVAC project at Burlington High School seeks building committee | Burlington

BURLINGTON – Burlington schools officials are continuing to pursue an initiative to replace the antiquated HVAC system at Burlington High School (BHS).

Fresh off being rejected by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) regarding the district’s statement of interest bid to replace the failing BHS HVAC system and construct new science labs in the schools, officials are now looking to utilize a formal feasibility study in an effort to outline cost estimates of the project.

The HVAC system at BHS is over 47 years old and continues to have long-standing issues that the School Committee has tried to remedy through the MSBA funding system, but to no avail, thus far. School officials sent the project to the MSBA as its lone statement of interest submission nine straight years.

Though school official expressed disappointment in getting a rejection letter back from the MSBA for the ninth year in a row, they realized the fact that the renewal work at BHS still needs to be addressed.

The School Committee believes it’s time to thoroughly discuss this matter with the town’s financial team and Town Meeting. The multi-pronged project would have to be done in phases and financed incrementally over the next 10 to 20 years as part of the town’s bonding schedule.

As part of the project’s timeline, the school district has contracted an entity to conduct a feasibility study at BHS. A feasibility study consists of assessing the building by looking at the HVAC system and a few main areas which are determined and selected, plumbing, electrical, current fire protection, and the architectural and structural size of the building.

The specifics being investigated entail looking at the HVAC system, structural integrity of the building, and any codes that may be triggered due to work being done on the school.

The feasibility study is the key to reaching the point of figuring out exactly what needs to be fixed and upgraded, and how much it will cost.

A key component of this process is reaching trigger points. In the case of school renovations, construction trigger points are percentage benchmarks followed to help assess pricing and mandatory improvements to see that the project comes to fruition.

For example, the state guidelines for triggers denote if 30 percent of the assessed value or 30 percent of the square-feet of the property is “hit” during a renovation, then that will force the district to bring the building up to specific building codes.

A BHS Building Committee is on the table for approval by the School Committee, which will take place at its next meeting.

More than just the HVAC

Director of Operations for Burlington Public Schools, Robert Cunha, finally was able to disclose cost estimates as part of the information he received from the feasibility study up until this point.

During the School Committee meeting, Cunha acknowledged the numbers are going to be “much larger than what we anticipated,” adding, “these are estimates that were given to us and we need to continue to go through them with a fine-tooth comb.”

The figures Cunha referenced came from “estimators” who go out and find projects similar to the BHS one in question, looking at gas and construction material costs, which are all going up by the day.

“Take these numbers with a grain of salt, but there is some merit to them,” admitted Cunha.

The estimators declared the HVAC system renewal at BHS is coming in “close to $30 million” and there are options to make that cost higher or lower. This includes duct work, boiler systems, plumbing, and pumps. It was noted that five years ago, the cost was $16 million, so cost inflation is evident.

The worst part of the new pertained to the amount of triggers that were hit as the feasibility study moved along, resulting in the project totaling anywhere from $65 million to $80 million. The triggers included needed upgrades to the school’s sprinklers ($4 million), plumbing ($4.5 million) and three elevators ($2.5 million).

“When you look at a building that is over 50 years old, comparing safety codes for buildings from how they were then to now, that 30/30 rule for triggers plays a major factor,” reminded Cunha.

A new high school is likely to cost at least $300 million, but that is an unlikely option for Burlington, mainly because there isn’t space to build a new high school, in addition to the exorbitant costs.

The School Committee is frustrated with the empty journey experience courtesy of this much-needed project that continues to get neglected at the state level. School Supt. Dr. Eric Conti avowed he and Cunha will try to approach this as an “accelerated project” rather than a “full renovation” when submitting the statement of interest to the MSBA for a tenth time this year.

“We will go over the triggers and talk with the MSBA again,” confirmed Dr. Conti.

School Committee member Martha Simon reiterated the majority of the costs are meant to update BHS and bring it to code, specifically in compliance with ADA standards.

“It is important that the town brings this building into the 21st century and make accessible for all students and residents,” avowed Simon.

The full feasibility study report will be presented to the School Committee in the coming weeks.