SCARBOROUGH – With bids for the South Portland High School renovation project coming in $4 million more than available funding, Scarborough taxpayers who just approved $39.1 million bond to replace Wentworth Intermediate School may be wondering if they are in store for a similar swing-and-a-miss.
However, Dan Cecil of Harriman Associates, the architect of record for both projects, said there’s little likelihood of repeating in Scarborough the bid opening that shocked South Portland officials. Paul Koziell, chairman of the Wentworth Building Committee, who has no small amount of construction experience himself, as an executive at Freeport-based CPM Constructors, agrees.
“It’s a fair question. No. 1, whenever a school project in close proximity to ours comes in over budget, we are concerned,” Koziell said. “[However] the South Portland High School project is entirely different from Wentworth Intermediate School. There are layers of complexity there not present in our construction project. So, really, in a lot of ways, it’s apples and oranges.”
“Wentworth is about half the size,” said Cecil. “It is on an as-simple-as-can-be flat site with no soils problems like South Portland has. It is a very simple project to build.”
One contributing factor to the South Portland overrun, Cecil said, is the project phasing, which will force contractors to stop, restage and start again as students are moved about the site to accommodate the next section to be built. At Wentworth, however, the students will remain in the building while the new one goes up next door, then simply move in 2014, at which time the old building will be demolished.
“So, we not going to be closing a wing and jamming the kids somewhere else,” Koziell said.
“At South Portland, it will be incredibly invasive construction, moving through the building, moving students, renovating parts, moving students back,” said Cecil. “To do that while keeping the building open and functioning well for the comfort of students and staff adds a lot in terms of cost and complexity.”
Koziell and Cecil agree that another issue at play is the length of time from bond vote to bid opening – 16 months in South Portland, compared to seven months in Scarborough.
Cecil said a number of factors entered into the equation in South Portland, including a post-bond-vote jump in commodity prices – including 40-cents per gallon of gas and 50-cents per pound of copper – as well as the simple effect of inflation.
In presentations to South Portland officials, Cecil has said one contributing factor to the high project bids there was the relatively low number of bidders – just four. Cecil said in post-bid talks with contractors he was “very surprised” to find that “the construction market may be bottoming out.”
Three general contractors and a host of subcontractors never bid, simply because they claim to be too busy, said Cecil, who noted “more than $450 million” in work in the regional pipeline, including the new $285 million hospital in Augusta, the $160 million Oxford Casino, a $25 million overhaul to the Cumberland County Civic Center, a new corporate headquarters for Idexx in Westbrook and a $25 million project at Bates College.
“A number of them told us they are busier than they’ve been in years, although in many cases that’s because they don’t seem to be extremely confident that the economy has turned around, and have not really hired on like they otherwise might,” said Cecil.
“This is the sweet spot of the season right now,” said Koziell, predicting no dearth of bidders for work slated to begin in December. “The immediate need for winter work should make for a much more competitive bid.”
Meanwhile, Koziell said the Wentworth project not only has a contingency fund for unexpected changes in construction costs during the two-year build, it also has a “significant” fudge-factor built in, in case anything crazy does happen with the bids.
“Just to make sure we are where we expect to be, we will be asking the architect and his team to provide a number of estimates as we go through the design process to confirm that his numbers are in fact accurate,” said Koziell. “In addition, we may look to binging in an independent third party to work on bid estimates.”
Hitting the mark on guessing what contractors will bid is important, because high bids could mean re-bidding the project, or else jumping back into the design to make cuts, either one of which could delay the start of construction, expected to being this winter after site prep work slated for summer and fall.
“Winter means we’ll be hitting is just right for contractors,” said Koziell, predicting a healthy stream of interest in the project.
Plans for the new school are expected to be finalized in June, with the project put out to bid in July and a general contractor selected in August. Although some work will begin that month, groundbreaking is slated for September and workers should be pouring a foundation by December.