High School Benchmarks: We are not alone


4/22/19 Note: The figures used in this blog are based on Preferred Schematic Report estimates from 2018. For an updated analysis with the more recent Schematic Design project budget, refer to our updated blog.

Arlington, Belmont, Waltham, Saugus and Somerville are five High School building projects navigating through similar challenges–dense suburbs with somewhat comparably scaled projects being undertaken generally within the same timeframe. While there are similarities between the projects, none of these projects (or other projects in the state) are comparable in complexity to Arlington High School.

Project Complexities

All four projects comparable to Arlington’s will struggle with an extremely tight construction market. They all have to manage the constraints of working in densely populated communities. Several projects will have to contend with maintaining a functional school environment just a fenceline away from a construction site. Hazardous materials are a common problem in older buildings, but few of the other four high school sites have the same environmental and soil remediation issues as Arlington High School.  

Many towns house their school district administration offices and state-mandated preschool in school buildings, but Belmont, Waltham, and Somerville are not contending with these space needs in conjunction their high school projects. These programs are currently housed at Arlington High School, and unless viable alternative space can be identified, they will be included in the new AHS project.

Comparable MSBA Projects

The MSBA Project Benchmarks matrix offers a snapshot comparison of these comparable and concurrent high school projects. It’s a tool to study similarities, but also for consideration of different types of construction, different site conditions, and even different programmatic elements. Following is an overview of the matrix elements.

(download pdf)


This indicates each projects’ status in the MSBA process, which you can find in greater detail here: Definition of the MSBA modules.  

Arlington and Waltham are in Module 4, Schematic Design. Belmont is in Module 5: they voted to to fund their project in November 2018. Saugus is in Module 6 and have started Detailed Design. Somerville started construction (Module 7) in June, 2018. Arlington anticipates entering Module 5 in April 2019, culminating with a June 2019 Debt Exclusion vote.  

Project type

New construction in a single phase on an empty site is the easiest and therefore cheapest way to build: less constraints equate to a faster, more efficient and cost-effective process and product–Waltham and Saugus benefit from this type of project. For a standard high school, the MSBA recommends a 25 acre site. The current AHS parcel is 22 acres, and the next viable parcel in town is 16 acres.  Arlington doesn’t have land available to support new construction on an empty site. Read our Ponderings Blog “Alternative Site Evaluation and Decision” for more information.

Building on an existing, occupied site, with phased new construction or renovation is a much more complex effort requiring more attention to safety, utility coordination (gotta keep the heat on!), 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. In projects such as Arlington (and also Belmont), these complexities, safety challenges and site coordination all create limitations for productivity that have significant impact on both schedule and budget.  

The phasing opportunities presented by the selected AHS design concept maximize our efficiency, reduce use of modular classrooms, and get students into new buildings as early as 2022, but it will be a complex coordination effort throughout construction.

This chart of project variables in the comparable construction projects illustrates the complexity of the Arlington High School Project.

Multiple phases of construction Site shared w/ school nearby Renovation plus addition New Construction only Demolition & Haz Mat Voc-Tech Component (adds cost) Contaminated site




















Date Approval by District

In accordance with MSBA requirements, each town needs to vote funding approval of a project before proceeding into construction documents and in turn construction. Arlington anticipates MSBA approval of Schematic Design in mid-April 2019. We will have 120 days to secure local funding with a June debt exclusion vote anticipated. A debt exclusion is a temporary increase in taxes to pay for a specific debt – typically a capital expense such as a building renovation or repair. It is not permanent. When the project has been paid for, the temporary increase will be revoked and taxes reduced.

Design Enrollment

This number is the total number of students that the building design plans accommodate.  This number is negotiated between the MSBA and the town, and in conjunction with analysis of existing facilities, it is used to determine space program. For more information on space needs in the new building, read our Ponderings BlogProposed Spaces within the Future AHS.

PSR Stage Raw Data: Total Construction Cost

The PSR Stage Raw Data section is highlighted in green. This data point (total construction cost) is an MSBA standard project measure, and is the cost of base construction only at the PSR (Preferred Schematic Report) milestone submission. These numbers do not include design fees or other soft costs, hazardous material abatement, or other project variables, and because it is raw data, the numbers have not been escalated to a common schedule.

PSR Stage Raw Data: Total Project Cost and Total Gross Square Footage

These rows show each project’s total gross square footage as well as the total project cost at the PSR Phase. The costs here are the full cost of the project at the PSR phase and include all project variables, such as design and consultant fees, site contamination, hazardous materials abatement, and other individual aspects of each project. In this section, these project cost values have not been escalated to the AHS timeline but are baseline values.

PSR Stage Raw Data: Total Gross Square Footage of Non-Educational Program Space

This row illustrates one of the unique complexities of Arlington High School:  the AHS project has more non-educational program space than our peers. There are programs in the current Arlington High School building that are not specific to the high school but warrant replacement in the new building. One example, the Menotomy Preschool, is an integrated preschool which helps the town meet special education requirements and offers hands-on experience to high school students interested in early childhood education. Another example is the LABBB Collaborative, a cooperative special education program that serves high school students from Arlington and other adjacent towns. There has been significant effort toward reduction of total non-educational program space proposed in the new high school (relocating the Comptroller, IT and Facilities offices to other buildings), and this work will continue. However, contributing to the complexity of the project, AHS has notably more non-educational square footage than our peers.

PSR Stage Raw Data: Construction Cost Per Sq. Ft. and Project Cost Per Pupil

These two data points are basic calculations and frequently used by MSBA to measure comparable projects: Construction cost/sf is the total construction cost divided by gross square footage, and project cost/pupil is total project cost divided by the total number of pupils.

PSR Adjusted for Escalation: Total Project Cost

This section (highlighted in orange) illustrates costs of the four towns escalated to balance to the market conditions and schedule of Arlington High School. The first row, total project cost is the full project cost (including soft costs, site remediation, and other variables) for each school. These figures (in millions) use the most current cost information for each project and escalates them by an industry standard 4% annually to the mid-point of the AHS schedule, November 2022.  This escalation leveling helps account for growth and inflation in the construction markets. To give a sense of the impact of 4% annual escalation costs, the Newton North High School that was completed in 2010 for $166M (construction costs) would cost $285M (construction costs only, no soft costs included) if it were completed on our timeline.

Resource: Vermuelens Construction Cost Escalation Overview

PSR Adjusted for Escalation: Construction Cost Per Square Foot (MSBA standard)

Escalating our comparable neighbors to the AHS schedule and market conditions, this benchmark divides the escalated construction cost by the gross square footage. With market escalation taken into consideration, the AHS project costs are quite comparable to our neighboring towns, especially with our many unique site and and phasing challenges.

PSR Adjusted for Escalation: Cost per Pupil

Again escalating each project to the AHS schedule, the cost per pupil is calculated by dividing the escalated total project cost by design enrollment. Referencing once again the raw data section, Arlington’s additional square footage is notably higher than our neighboring towns (53,575 sf). In Arlington’s case, the building houses more than just students (Read our Ponderings Blog “AHS: Home to more than just students” for more information).  It is important to note that use of the total project cost to determine the cost per pupil for AHS is a somewhat weighted calculation:  53,575 sf of the new facility (or almost 13%, and included in this calculation) will serve programs such as the preschool, district admin and community ed offices- all of which currently reside in the existing AHS facility.  

Arlington is not alone

Arlington, Belmont, Somerville and Waltham building projects have many commonalities. In their scale, schedule, and locations, they reflect similar market conditions, MSBA requirements, and construction conditions (‘urban suburbs’). The Arlington High School project is long overdue, and given the town’s lack of alternative sites, it’s also being designed and built on an extremely challenging parcel of land and in a highly reactive construction market. The Arlington High School is a complex project with many variables. But we’re not alone: in this area, in this market, and in our costs–we are in very good company.  

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