Update: High School Benchmarks – We are not alone


Note: This blog provides an update to the previous benchmark analysis performed earlier in the project.

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

Project Complexities

All five projects 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 high school sites have equivalent 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 house these programs in buildings other than their high schools. These programs are currently housed at Arlington High School and 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.

Arlington and Waltham have just completed 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 has started Detailed Design. Somerville started construction (Module 7) in June, 2018. Arlington anticipates entering Module 5 shortly and is working toward a June 11, 2019 Debt Exclusion vote.  

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Project type

New construction in a single phase on an empty site is the easiest and therefore cheapest way to build: fewer 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 23 acres, and the next largest  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 and safety challenges create constraints on construction work that can have significant impact on both schedule and budget.  

The phasing opportunities presented by the selected AHS design concept maximize our efficiency, eliminate 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 Construct- ion only Demo & Haz Mat Voc-Tech Component (adds cost) Contam- inated site










Somerville X X X X X


Waltham X X X

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 construction. Arlington received MSBA approval of Schematic Design in April 2019 and seeks to secure local funding via a June 11 debt exclusion vote. 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 a permanent tax increase. 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 and SD Stage Raw Data

In the comparable MSBA benchmarks matrix, the PSR (Preferred Schematic Report) Stage Raw Data section is highlighted in green, and the SD (Schematic Design) Stage Raw Data section is highlighted in purple.  All comparable schools have completed the Schematic Design phase except for Waltham. Since Waltham’s SD information is not available, the PSR data remains a useful common benchmark across all five schools.

Total Construction Cost

In both sections, this data point (total construction cost) is an MSBA standard project measure, and is the cost of base construction only at the milestone submissions. 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.

Total Project Budget and Total Gross Square Footage

These rows show each project’s total gross square footage as well as the total project cost at both the PSR and SD Phases. The costs here are the full cost of the project at each 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.

Total Gross Square Footage of Non-Educational Program Space

In both PSR and SD phases, 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 categorized by MSBA as high school requirements, but warrant replacement in the new building. One example, the Menotomy Preschool, is a preschool which helps the town meet special education requirements and offers hands-on experience to high school students interested in early childhood education. In addition, the School Administration and Community Education offices will remain in the facility. Another example is the LABBB Collaborative, a cooperative special education program that serves high school students from Arlington and other adjacent towns. During Schematic Design the project team significantly reduced (by more than 24,000 sf) the total non-educational program space proposed in the new high school (relocating the Comptroller, IT, Facilities offices and most of Payroll to other buildings). Even with these reductions, AHS has higher non-educational square footage than our peers, and this contributes to the complexity and cost of the project.

Construction Cost Per Sq. Ft. and Project Cost Per Pupil

These data points in both the PSR and SD phases 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.

SD Phase Adjusted for Escalation

This section (highlighted in orange) illustrates costs of the five towns escalated so that each project’s cost can be compared as if it were built at the same time as  Arlington High School. (Note, Waltham data is PSR phase since they have not yet completed SD phase).

Total Project Budget Escalated to AHS Schedule

The first row,  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) if it were completed on our timeline. AHS’ construction cost is $235M.

Resource: Vermuelens Construction Cost Escalation Overview

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.  

Project 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 (29,365 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: 29,365 sf of the new facility (or about 7%, and included in this calculation) will serve programs such as the preschool, LABBB Special Education Collaborative, District Administration and Community Education offices – all of which currently reside in the existing AHS facility.  

Arlington is not alone

Arlington, Belmont, Saugus, Somerville and Waltham building projects have many commonalities. In their scale, schedule, and locations, they reflect similar market conditions, MSBA requirements, and construction conditions (i.e., densely built 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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