HARVARD -- At a special meeting Wednesday morning, Oct. 30, selectmen grilled architects R. Drayton Fair and Aimee Lombardo, of LLB, the Rhode Island firm hired to design the Town Hall renovation and reconstruction project,
They were asked about the time it took them to determine there were zoning problems and the high cost of the HVAC system chosen for the building. The questions were based on the premise that these two elements caused most of the $1.1 million in estimated cost overages the board is grappling with now.
A request to fund the added cost was presented to voters earlier this month in the form of a Special Town Meeting warrant article, contingent on subsequent passage of a debt exclusion ballot question at the Nov. 5 special town election, but it did not pass
Now, with the election pending and the outcome still an unknown, selectmen are faced with tough choices, ranging from calling another STM if the ballot question passes to targeting funding sources other than borrowing, or downsizing the project, if it doesn't.
As part of the decision-making process, selectmen backtracked to get more information, including legal questions posed to Town Counsel Mark Lanza about the bidding process, which would have to be opened again if significant design changes were made.
Questions selectmen asked the architects centered on the premise that when the project stalled between the schematic design and design plan phases due to lack of an accurate site plan and a prolonged ZBA application process, interest rates and construction costs rose.
Selectman Leo Blair asked if the architects had engaged in any other projects in which they proceeded without all required information, such as whether zoning variances or special permits would be needed and if they had notified the town when it came up in this case.
Yes, Fair said, answering the first part of Blair's question, but only through the schematic design phase. As for flagging the zoning issue, they did, he said, and the Building Committee told them to proceed with the design as presented "for better or worse."
"We're not here to place blame," Blair said, but the delay did result in increased costs.
Conceding the point, Fair recapped the timeline, sketching how the process played out. "It's virtually impossible to quantify the cost impact of the delay," he concluded.
Another design question on the selectmen's five-item list concerned "vertical access options." Besides an electric traction elevator, for about $100,000, two other available choices that would fit the building's footprint and provide access to the second floor were a hydraulic lift for about $39,500 and a LULA, or limited access lift, for about half the cost of a full, stretcher-sized elevator that would accommodate several people, Lombardo said.
Fair said he'd gone over the pros and cons of those other options when THBC Chairman Pete Jackson asked about them.
"This building is a bit high" for the lift, he said, and it can only carry one or two people at a time, which would not be suitable if the second floor is used as a hall for large gatherings. It would also limit equipment transport up and down between floors, he said.
If there's a cost-guzzling elephant in the middle of this project, however, it could be the HVAC system, estimates for which far exceeded projections. The budget called for $350,000 to $475,000 for equipment and installation of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning in the building. But the estimate for the system chosen, apparently with added project overhead and other related costs included, was $700,000.
Blair said $80 per square foot seemed "off the charts" compared to residential projects and building projects he's been involved with as a commercial builder. "We never budget like that," he said.
"I can almost never draw correlations between residential and commercial construction projects," Fair said.
Selectman Stu Sklar said the cost seemed "right in the wheelhouse" with other municipal building projects, as presented in a recent survey, placing the Town Hall project "mid range" compared to others across the state.
Blair then turned to the "expanded use of the second floor," as a performance and gathering space. Some have said this space is the "driver" for the hefty HVAC cost, even if it is an historic restoration rather than an innovation.
Good idea or not, it costs more, Blair posited. "We need to convince people it's a good investment."
Town Administrator Tim Bragan, who serves on the Building Committee, said the upstairs room is "definitely" the driver for the high HVAC estimate, despite cost-cutting changes the THBC made in the design.
The architects concurred. "The system is built around use of the upstairs space," Fair said. Offices versus flexible, multi-use open space that could accommodate a couple of hundred people at a time, for example, "would be a completely different design," he said. But he couldn't say whether it would cost less, more or about the same.
After the architects left, selectmen discussed their next move. With two bids on the table that Bragan negotiated an extended deadline for -- to Dec. 11 -- Leo Blair recommended asking town counsel to review the contracts now to avoid delays later.
All things considered, the others agreed the added cost of the attorney's time was worth it.
They must also decide when to move to a temporary location at the Appleworks Building on Ayer Road, for which a lease is already in effect. But that's not as big an issue as it was before Bragan persuaded the landlord to suspend the rental fee until the move.
With new information to digest and more to add in when all of their legal questions are answered, selectmen will next discuss the matter at their meeting on Nov. 5.