Cost: The Big Picture


This blog gives a big picture view of what contributes to the overall cost of the new high school. There are three primary drivers that must be considered:

  1. High Schools are costly
  2. The Boston area construction market is expensive
  3. Arlington High School has specific factors that increase its cost above a typical high school building project

High schools are expensive

High schools are inherently expensive facilities to build. First, high schools are large. According to the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s (MSBA) website, on average, Massachusetts high schools currently under construction or planned for the upcoming two years have on average 1,725 students. The new 411,360 square foot Arlington High School will be designed for 1,755 students, while the average Arlington elementary school currently has 450 students. Second, high schools require many specialized spaces: science labs, auditorium, library, performing arts classrooms, makerspaces, athletics spaces, and specialized program spaces. Due to these factors, is not uncommon for high schools to cost 6-8 times that of primary education facilities.

Modern high schools also need to be built to meet today’s education sizing standards. The MSBA has a minimum 825 square foot (sf) guideline for classrooms. Thirty-one of AHS’ forty-seven classrooms are smaller than 825 sf, with some are as small as 650 sf. Many also include obstructed views from structural columns. Most of AHS’ science labs are ~900 sf compared with the MSBA guideline of 1,400 sf. In addition, the current school’s art rooms, makerspace and collaborative spaces are all below MSBA guidelines. The new school will bring all educational spaces in line with today’s teaching and learning size standards.

Construction cost factors

According to the Boston Planning and Development Agency, in its nearly 400-year history, the city is undergoing its largest recorded building boom. And Rider Levett Bucknall reported that in 2017, Boston had the ninth-most cranes of any city in the country. As with any market, when demand outstrips supply, prices go up.

As a result, construction cost escalation in the Boston area is averaging 4% per year and that trend is anticipated to continue. Cost escalation must be taken into account when comparing the AHS project with prior high school projects. The High School benchmark analysis provides cost escalation statistics for a number of past high school projects and calculates what those projects would have cost if they were built on the AHS project timeline.

The benchmark analysis also compares the AHS project with Saugus, Somerville, Waltham and Belmont – all schools being built in this decade, with a similar student population, in urban settings, with complicated construction sites. This side-by-side comparison shows that AHS’ construction cost per square foot is in line with comparable schools.

Arlington Specific Factors

There are also a number of factors specific to Arlington’s project that contribute to the overall project cost.

Enrollment Growth

The current building strains to serve ~1,400 students. Every year, spaces are created for new classrooms (e.g. repurposing offices into small group classrooms). Additionally, classroom usage is very high (85-95% capacity) making scheduling very rigid, and thereby limiting students’ course options.

Over the past decade, the district’s enrollment has grown from 4,700 students to about 6,000. This is the equivalent of adding 3 elementary schools since 2009. This increase is felt in the high school, where the population has increased 22% in ten years. The current high school is reaching capacity and cannot accommodate continued enrollment growth.

To prepare for future enrollment, the new school will have increased educational spaces, including: 13 additional classrooms, 5 additional science labs, and a larger Library and Makerspace to support interdisciplinary, hands-on, and collaborative learning.

AHS is not a ‘typical’ High School

Ranked #9 in the state by US News and World Report last year, Arlington High School’s Educational Program is stronger and broader than the average Massachusetts high school and a ‘standard’ high school generated by MSBA’s high school template. For example, the current AHS has 3 gyms totaling 23,000 sf while MSBA’s standard is 18,000 sf. The current auditorium has ~900 seats, while MSBA’s standard limit is 750 seats. Both of these spaces support the current award-winning performing arts and thriving athletics programs. These larger spaces will be replicated in the new school not only to avoid significantly reducing the wide-breadth of offerings for our students, but also to accommodate anticipated enrollment growth.

Site complexities

Building a new school on the same site while the existing school is in operation is complex. Building on an existing, occupied site, with phased construction is a much more complex effort requiring more attention to safety, utility coordination, segregation of active school buildings and grounds from construction work, minimizing disruption to classroom work, and careful attention to both the construction schedule and the academic schedule. These complexities, safety challenges and site coordination all create limitations for productivity that have significant impact on both schedule and budget.  

Add to that, the AHS site is complicated: there is a 24’ grade change, the Millbrook runs under the site, and there are known contaminants that must to be carefully managed during construction. All of these constraints add complexity – and cost – to the project. Unfortunately, there are no other feasible sites for the high school.

Education-related programs and offices

Lastly, the AHS facility is currently home to additional programs and offices, with Town/School offices and a 150 student preschool on-site. Early decisions were made to move the Comptroller, IT and Facilities Departments out of the high school to reduce cost.

The following education-related programs will remain at AHS: District Administration offices & Payroll, Menotomy Preschool, Arlington Community Education offices, and the LABBB Special Education Collaborative program.

MSBA’s partnership

Arlington is partnering with the MSBA to receive state funding for a significant portion of the project. It is important to note that the MSBA’s strict process ensures that districts are building educationally appropriate and fiscally responsible facilities. To protect Massachusetts’ taxpayers’ investment in public education facilities, every step in the MSBA process requires thorough research and financial due diligence. Once the final project budget is set, it cannot be increased without local approvals and any cost overruns must be absorbed into the budget. This process ensures that the scope of the Arlington High School project meets the needs of Arlington’s students while also ensuring fiscal responsibility.

In summary, there are numerous contributors that affect the cost of the new high school. The Building Committee recognizes the need for fiscal prudence and remains committed to cost containment, while also ensuring Arlington has a building which will serve our students well for generations.

For more information, refer to the following Ponderings Blog posts:

Share this Post