Administration Favors Long Island Architects for Scarsdale Schools
- On Our Minds
- Published on Thursday, 09 February 2017 09:50
- Joanne Wallenstein
After the Scarsdale School Board reversed their decision to hold meetings with prospective district architects behind closed doors, an interested group of residents and reporters attended two sessions with presentations from the five finalists on February 1 and 3, 2017. The five firms offered a wide array of capabilities and experiences and the district appeared to be back on track with the facilities plan that had been put on hold in the fall due to a polarized community.
The five finalists included some of the tri-state areas most recognized school architects, including Peter Gisolfi, the former architect of record for the Scarsdale Schools, Dattner Architects, who has been selected to redesign Scarsdale Library (partnering with Geddis Architects) as well as CS Arch, KSQ Design and BBS. See their work and summaries of those presentations here.
According to the notifications from the school board, following these five presentations, two finalists would be invited back on Tuesday night February 7 to make subsequent presentations and answer questions.
However, on Tuesday, without any explanation from the administration, only one firm was invited back; Burton Behrendt Smith (BBS) from Patchogue New York. Among the five finalists, this firm had emphasized their engineering capabilities over their design expertise and addressed how they would approach structural issues at the Greenacres School. While many of the others focused on the design of educational learning spaces, this team promised proficiency in dealing with the mechanics of structural and system repair.
On Tuesday they responded to questions from the Board about challenges facing Scarsdale and how they had dealt with similar situations in other districts. These meetings were not televised so the public cannot review the discussion.
In response to a question about the challenges facing the Scarsdale School District, they said, "We need to get a handle on the mold and asbestos issues."
What have they done in the face of a divided community? They responded that in the case of the Harborfields School District they "presented a number of schemes and "answered questions in a transparent way." When deciding whether to renovate an existing school or build a new one at Washington Drive Elementary School in Greenlawn, they "presented information so that everyone could make a decision." They said they considered redistricting but ultimately "picked the best solution for the community and it was not all about money."
When asked how they address building issues the architect replied, "Structural issues are not uncommon. The building envelope is usually the problem. Slate roofs are wonderful and have a 75-100 year life span. It's the interfaces with plains and the areas where materials meet where the problems occur. To the extent that we can access them we are usually able to see where the problems happen and can re-flash the places where the water comes in."
He continued, "We would rather opt for local reconstruction than try to fix things. It is better to use modern materials and to try to divert the water. Older buildings are a challenge. It's not easy to run services around plaster walls... it creates a challenge. Old ventilation and heating systems are not designed to today's standards. (Older classrooms have) electric with two outlets. How do we get power into these rooms? It's more challenging -- not something that can't be overcome but it makes it more challenging. We have seen it before. We handle dozens of vintage buildings."
They were asked how they make old classrooms more aesthetically pleasing and said they use paint, new floor tile and acoustic tiles on the ceilings.
The architect then shared an experience that the firm had with a gut renovation of the Prospect School, a 100 year-old school in Hempstead, New York that had been closed for 10 years. They architect said, "The school was not open at the time – it had not been for years. It was an empty building so we had the luxury of not working around children. We had environmental issues to address upfront. Environmentally it was a challenge. Had to gut it before we could do a full renovation. Everything got ripped out. The building was taken down to its studs. It needed all new systems."
As the session drew to a close, Superintendent Hagerman cast doubt on the previous engineering reports on Greenacres School that the district had received. He said, "We want to respect the work that has already been done. Some of the data we collected from our past architects ..... We were not comfortable with it. We need to go back and confirm that there are issues." He seemed to infer that he questioned the severity of the mechanical and structural issues previously reported at Greenacres.
The Board then retired into executive session to discuss hiring the firm.
The Request for Proposals for the architects, which had not previously been available to the public, was posted on the district's website on Wednesday February 8. It indicates that among other capabilities, the district is seeking a firm that can maintain the current plant and historical character. Perhaps design capabilities were not at the forefront of the decision.
Here are the requirements as stated in the RFP:
1. Provide services needed for the planning, design and construction phase t address various renovations and improvement at the District's numerous facilities.
2. Provide services which develop creative and innovative approaches in the renovation of older buildings while maintaining their historical character, when appropriate.
3. Provide services which develop creative and innovative solutions for 21st century educational facilities.
Following the session, since only one firm was invited back and the Board retreated into executive session to discuss retaining them, it appeared that BBS would be the district's choice.
We questioned Dr. Hagerman about why he had selected this firm and he said, "They had substantial paper and presentation materials which speak to their 3 billion dollars worth of public project experience in new construction, renovations, athletic field renovations, and the like. In fact, they are the largest and most utilized school architects on Long Island, and they have a 40+ year track record of creative design, planning, and consulting services. Additionally, they have received numerous national, regional, and local awards, including those on excellence in design and sustainability." He continued, "They did address in-house engineering abilities, technical strengths, project approaches, and master planning experiences. They also showed 12 different major projects that demonstrated their capacity to build new buildings and to renovate extensively, and explained the processes they used actualize each of these projects."
When asked why only one firm was invited in for a second round he said, "This decision was reached in Executive Session. I am not at liberty to share these confidential conversations."
We went to the district office to review the proposals, and perused the cost estimates for several firms. The bids involve hourly fees for the architects and engineers as well as fees as a percentage of the construction costs. Though BBS was less expensive then several of the other firms, they were all within close range of one another and it was not clear whether or not the district had attempted any negotiations with any of the other firms.
The percentage declined as the fees went up. For instance Dattner/Geddis would charge 8% for jobs from $10mm to $19.9mm, Gisolfi 6-7%, CS Arch at 6.75% for renovations between $15mm and $20mm and BBS quoted 5.75% for state education department submitted projects from $10mm to $19.9mm.
Most in the audience in Tuesday seemed surprised that no rationale was given for the decision and that a second firm was not invited back in for a second look.
Diane Greenwald, who is a former marketing director for a large architecture firm in Manhattan and was also on the Scarsdale Schools Building Committee for the 2014 capital projects said, "I hate to second-guess those making this decision who have the full picture, but I admit I am surprised by this choice for a district architect. While I saw strengths in several others, my impression of BBS Architecture was not favorable. They did not demonstrate to me that they would be deft at navigating the critical community outreach and buy-in aspects of this work. I read them as more technically oriented and after review of their portfolio, I worry that the design aesthetic may not fit the context of our community character. I certainly hope this is not a decision based solely on low fees. Scarsdale may be extremely cost conscious, but we are also an exacting and sophisticated group who expect excellence and innovation. Hopefully those responsible for this selection have a better understanding of how this firm's strengths match our needs. It is important that our administration has a trusted rapport with their district architect, so let's hope my impressions are wrong!"
The board will meet next on Monday night February 13 when a "proposal concerning a new District Architect" is on the agenda.