Light shines on future of Memorial School

By Dawn De Busk
Staff Writer

CASCO – The Town of Casco has been pondering a quandary similar to the classic question “What comes first, the chicken or the egg?”

In the case of approving the expenditure of funds to save the Memorial School or tear it down and build new, the Catch-22 has been: Does the town seek voter approval on a dollar amount first, or does it go to contractors for bids and then approve the amount for the job?

At Monday’s Casco Board of Selectmen meeting, a panel of construction experts said many Maine towns are putting out bids first, and then taking plans to the voters to secure the finances for projects.

In fact, in this economy with cautious taxpayers, asking for bids on construction jobs before the money is available has become quite common.

“It wouldn’t be the first time we did that. Raymond Town Hall was done the same way. They put together the bids and presented it to the voters,” according to Charles Allen, the construction manager with Glen Builders, Inc. “That is pretty standard. The builder knows whatever work he is doing upfront may be reimbursed down the road.”

During an hour-long, informative presentation, the group outlined the process Casco could use to get the cost estimates for transforming an old school building with a leaky roof into future town offices –either by renovating the existing structure or starting from scratch.

It was apparent from rough estimates that new construction typically costs more than renovations.

According to Sebago Technics Vice President of Engineering and Project Development Owens McCullough, new construction is more expensive ($150 a square foot) while renovation can incorporate a wider range of costs (from $40 to $100 a square foot.)

The square footage of the Memorial School is between 7,500 and 7,900-square feet, according to Town Manager David Morton.

McCullough said a higher cost can by compensated by how energy efficient the building becomes, and if there is a long-term financial pay off.

“Buildings are one of the biggest users of energy. It’s a very high percentage of use. To improve the energy efficiency of building can have some substantial long-term savings,” he said. Making the building require less maintenance is another cost saver; and that could be done by replacing the wood siding on exterior of the building with vinyl siding and cutting capital improvement costs, McCullough explained.

Allen cautioned that there is a point where a homeowner or town could spend too much on a building, and not be able to recoup through energy conservation.

“There is a huge discussion about energy efficiency, and it’s politically appropriate. There is a level you could get to – spending money that you won’t make back with energy-efficiency savings,” Allen said.

McCullough and co-worker Michael Kane explained to selectmen the process of getting bids from builders, and how the town and residents can be involved in that process.

“If you go through design-build, the town or a building committee will want to come up with a good performance outline of what you want with the building,” McCullough said. “The more information about what you want from the building you provide upfront, the easier for the bidders.”

Kane – who has been inside the school from the damp basement to the tippy-top rafters - continued to describe the process for getting cost estimates from builders.

“You tell them what your needs are. What you need for square footages, entrance areas, phone services. You make a decision on how efficient you want it to be. If you want an R-24 envelope, you put that into the proposal,” Kane said.

“Then, they will design a square footage price. It’s not a bid process at that time. What you want to know is a guaranteed high price. What’s the most it could cost – given what has been asked for,” he said, adding the contractors will provide a conceptual drawing or sketch along with prices.

“That’s where you start to make the decision,” Kane told the board.  Between bid prices and artists renderings, the board should be able to slim down its choice to one or two companies, he said.

“Once a contractor comes on board, you are part of that design process.  And yes, it works for both new construction and renovations,” Kane said.

Both Allen, of Glen Builders and Bill Hopkins, who owns Archetype in Portland, spoke of the existing building as having value – from the shell of the structure to the recently replaced windows.

As the board sat back and took in an hour worth of information, McCullough summarized some of the major points.

“The main concern is: How does the town get to the costs? The town hasn’t appropriated money yet. You can evaluate the different designs and costs. Then, you take the number to the voters,” he said.

“If the town approves it, you would award the contract to bidder.  But, you will need some information to base your decision on,” which is what the design-build concept provides, McCullough said.

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