Lessons Learned

Vince Bailey / January 2021

We got no principles, and we got no innocence … —  “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper

It seems a bit counter-intuitive, but many of us guesstimators have noticed an uptick in the construction of new schools. I say counter-intuitive because, depending on the state, many school buildings stand vacant due to the coronavirus and a newfound interest in distance teaching. But a closer scrutiny exposes a phenomenon that owes its existence to a number of illnesses. I am speaking, of course, about the mass migration currently ongoing in a number of regions across America. Californians are moving to Arizona and Texas. New Yorkers are moving to Florida. Folks who called Illinois home are moving anywhere but! Exorbitant tax rates, high crime, burgeoning homeless populations, political unrest and COVID-19 are among the many reasons for this profound exodus from the highly populated states. Middle class hordes are relocating to places that are more family friendly—destination cities like Phoenix, Austin and Orlando. These places are compelled to enlarge their infrastructure and expand public facilities to accommodate the influx—public facilities such as schools, hence the unexpected increase in education construction.
Another new development that adheres to this uptick in the building of schools is the apparent trend among designers toward unbridled extravagance. To illustrate my contention, I will share some examples that a colleague recently related to me.
Foam board fanatic. A school currently under construction consists of three, two-story classroom buildings and one single story administration building—all with block shells. The architect’s interior assembly at the perimeter is comprised of 1 1/2" of poly iso foam board directly adhered to the CMU, with a 1 5/8" metal stud furring wall in front of the foam. Ostensibly, this is to achieve an insulated surface with no thermal breaks. But poly iso is much pricier that its cousin, extruded polystyrene, with minimal added R-value, and the R-value of both products is nominal to begin with (note: foam board requires an ignition barrier, thereby requiring drywall to be hung to deck height). My colleague offered a very hefty credit to switch to a 3 5/8" furred wall with R-11 batt insulation, which allows exposure above ceiling height, thus eliminating the top-out on the entire perimeter of all buildings. The architect held firm on the foam board, citing his infatuation with no thermal breaks, in spite of the unneeded cost.
Indulgent edge metal. On this same project, my colleague tells of a light cove assembly that ran the length of all corridors (times two), all restrooms and all public areas at the admin building. The detail included a 6-inch decorative metal trim as a closure to conceal the rope light. This, in lieu of the standard 6-inch metal track with a drywall face (a cost of pennies as opposed to the $20-per-foot price tag of the decorative trim—raw cost, material only). Once again, a healthy credit for the cheaper drywall option was turned down.
Acoustical extravagance. For the band/orchestra room, this same architect designated acoustical plaster for the entire ceiling. Those of us who have dealt with acoustical plaster in the past know that it costs upwards of $30 a square foot, before markup. Now, admittedly, an acoustical plaster ceiling is aesthetically quite pleasing to the eye. But its acoustical property can be met or exceeded by a standard grid/tile ceiling enhanced with batt insulation above, for a fraction of the cost. Needless to say, form won over function in this case as well.
Cost in the clouds. Of all the examples of extravagance that my colleague related to me, the ceiling cloud concept intended for the cafeteria was the most egregious. However, I must confess that the renderings of the concept that my fellow bidmeister showed me were most impressive. The suspended geometric shapes against an exposed deck backdrop presented a mind-blowing visual experience. But so was the price—mind-blowing, that is: well over $200,000!
That’s some sum. These are just a few examples of inflation that my friend shared from one project. I’m sure they can be multiplied exponentially. Now, I have nothing against aesthetics, and I’m no fan of the drab, institutional interiors of most schools built in the last century. But I fail to see how the unnecessarily exorbitant cost of some features enhances the education of the students. And at the risk of beating a dead horse, I take a dim view of a profession that sets its own fee—i.e., receives a percentage of the amount it spends. I am particularly perturbed when the clientele at the end of this mischief consists of you and me—the unassuming taxpayer, most of whom have no clue as to how much they are paying for clouds. Given this cozy, self-rewarding arrangement, you’d have a tough time convincing me that these cases of inflation are not deliberate. Once again, I find myself taking aim at the top of the construction food chain: design professionals. As far as I’m concerned, Alice Cooper’s lyrics describe them appropriately: “We got no principles, and we got no innocence.”

Vince Bailey is an estimator/project manager working in the Phoenix area.