Referendum construction projects: Exceed expectations, not your budget
Leaking roofs, undersized facilities, antiquated classroom spaces – there are many reasons why Wisconsin has seen a flurry of construction and facilities improvement projects at our public schools in recent years. Many districts, possibly even your own, have either recently sought a facilities improvement referendum, or are actively considering one as part of a long-range master plan in order to bring their schools into the 21st century. Most districts have long recognized the important role their facilities play in encouraging student learning, engagement and success and have begun to take steps to improve and upgrade their facilities accordingly. Whether this means remodeling, expanding or building a whole new school, a sizable construction project is likely in your future.
While a construction project of any size can be daunting, it’s also an exciting time for everyone involved. And that excitement will only build leading up to and through a referendum, when the real design and detailed planning for the future of your district’s schools and facilities begins. There will be many people from the school and the community at large who have great ideas and passion for what should be included in the project. However, it’s important to remember that once that referendum budget has been approved by the district voters, it’s just that: a budget. It’s set in stone and cannot be exceeded.
With all of the big expectations, enthusiasm, and push and pull from various groups of stakeholders, many districts can quickly find themselves with a project that has exceeded its budget. So what can your district do to ensure that you break ground without breaking the bank? The answer is comes down to three things: planning, communication, and balancing expectations.
By far, the best time to ensure that your referendum budget is maintained is well before it’s set, by working with your architectural partners to develop a comprehensive building space program.
“A building space program is a detailed accounting of the spaces within your school; from A to Z; from classrooms to conference rooms,” says Chris Michaud, Senior Design Architect with EUA. It’s the basis of your building project and the document used by architects and construction managers to estimate project costs and track any changes in the project’s scope. It’s an important tool utilized to ensure your referendum budget accurately reflects the project scope.
As you begin to work with your architectural partner to develop your building program, engage your school board, teaching staff and building users — including the community — to lend their insight and expertise. Your architectural construction management team will work with you to incorporate their input into the conceptual design and preliminary budget. Engaging stakeholders early in the facilities planning process will help ensure your pre-referendum budget will be sufficient to meet expectations once design and construction begin.
As you work to develop a comprehensive list of needs for your facilities, there’s one often-overlooked potential budget-buster hidden in your ceilings, walls, basement and bathrooms: your mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, or “MEP”s.
“MEPs can easily account for up to 30 percent of the total cost of a building project, but are often overlooked,” warns Brian Medina, MEP manager for CG Schmidt Construction. “Setting and maintaining an accurate budget means understanding your MEP needs early, because unlike some other project costs, these systems will have long-term operation and maintenance costs to account for, beyond the initial cost of investment.”
Engaging a construction manager early on who can provide MEP expertise to conduct life-cycle costing — forecasting system expenses over its lifespan — will ensure project estimates capture these costs accurately from the beginning.
“We’ll often talk to districts that got the wrong systems for their needs, or that didn’t account for those long-term costs in their budget, and found themselves in hot water down the road,” says Medina.
Closely related are environmentally sustainable goals and systems. Your district may well desire features and systems that support wellness and sustainability goals, but these systems can have a high initial cost, which, if not accounted for before the referendum budget is set, can squeeze a project budget Discuss your sustainability goals early on with your architectural and building teams to ensure they are captured in the initial budget.
Facilities projects are complicated and it’s important to have the right team of professionals in your corner. Architects, construction managers and other consultants have unique skillsets and knowledge to bring to the table, and districts will benefit from engaging all their project partners early in the process. Often, districts select the construction manager soon after (and sometimes concurrent with) the architect, which allows the construction manager to draw from current and historical data derived from similar projects they’ve recently completed to develop accurate cost estimates for the designs as the architect team works to develop the pre-referendum building program.
Open, clear and uninterrupted communication between the district and its project partners is critical. All must have a clear understanding of project goals and operating assumptions. That’s why many districts choose to select architectural and construction partners who have a strong and successful history of working together. When selecting your team, pay close attention to the chemistry and communication styles of all parties to ensure important details aren’t lost in translation — miscommunications have the potential to turn into cost impacts later on.
“Plan for the worst, hope for the best.” It’s common wisdom we’re all familiar with, and it especially applies to construction projects. Just like you likely have contingency plans in place for the myriad circumstances that can arise in your day-to-day district administration, your referendum budget should include contingency funds to account for those “rainy day” emergencies.
Poor weather, bad soil conditions, natural disasters — any of these can have serious impacts on the cost of construction and may be unforeseeable. Your construction manager will work with you to set a realistic contingency fund to account for these. But beware the temptation to spend it too quickly, says CG Schmidt General Manager and Vice President Dan Chovanec.
“There can be the temptation to see these funds as extra cash to be used to add new features or enhance design elements,” he says. “But if you use your contingency dollars too soon, you could end up stranded when you need the funds most.”
Once the referendum has passed, your budget is a fixed amount and design has now become a “zero-sum game.” Money spent on a new feature must be taken from somewhere else. Despite the best efforts of you and your team, it’s still possible to find your project is over budget early in the design phase.
During the design phase, your team will work closely with you to identify opportunities that maintain your budget without sacrificing the core needs set forth in your original building space program. Having the right team in the corner means you’ll have professionals experienced in providing options that deliver your vision while remaining on budget. Close collaboration with your team is the best line of defense against cost overruns.
“If you’re more comfortable with a cautious approach to the design process, talk to your team early in the process,” says EUA’s Wadzinski. “Let your team know that you want the flexibility to start under budget and add design features into the new space later, rather than run the risk of having to remove them.”
In the end, while you can never completely remove all uncertainty and risk from construction projects, following the three principles of planning, communication, and balancing expectations, will help guarantee that your district gets what you want and need out of your building project, without sacrificing your referendum budget.