Plotting a Path

Budget modeling and early cost estimating help schools control spending on construction projects.

After the last nail is driven and final block of concrete is poured, the success of a school or university's construction project often is measured on the bottom line: Was the project within budget?

Education projects are under increasing pressure to control costs. Staying within budget is important not only to the project at hand, but also for future projects. A school district with a track record of controlling and managing construction costs will have a better chance persuading taxpayers to support a bond election for school construction. Two strategies school districts can use to control and manage construction costs are budget modeling and early construction estimating.

Budget modeling identifies all the funding for a project and allocates those funds to expenditure categories to determine a construction budget. To determine the construction budget, the expenditure categories are identified and grouped into either soft or hard costs.

Soft and hard Soft costs are those expenditures necessary to complete a project but not directly "bricks and mortar," such as design and consultant fees, communications costs, interim housing, moving or relocation costs, and additional district staffing.

A primary soft-cost category is fixtures, furnishing and equipment (FF&E). During the planning stages of a project the soft costs usually are allocated as a percentage of the total project budget. As the planning and design of a project progresses, the percentage can be increased or decreased.

The hard-cost categories are the bricks and mortar of the project.

The construction budget can be subdivided further. In some cases, state and local governments require schools to spend a certain percentage of the construction budget on accessibility items or to isolate the cost of a portion of a project that may be joint-use or funded separately.

Early, accurate and continual feedback on estimates will help keep the design on track and within budget. Once a school determines the construction budget, it can use many methods to prepare cost estimates. The stage of design often determines the method.

In the early stages of planning, estimates are completed using strictly a square-footage and building-system basis. As the design phase progresses, the estimates are prepared as defined by the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI). Detailed cost predictions are based on the quantity of specifications and building materials, and are refined through the schematic design, design development and construction document stages to reflect new input from the design and management team.

Unique issues Education construction projects have unique characteristics that need to be considered when estimating cost.

- System selection: As a design team incorporates district requirements and selects the best systems available, the cost of those systems can affect a project significantly. A good example is the cost of technical systems; the selection of the technical system also affects the building electrical system and the FF&E budget. The cost of the three components of the technical systems can range from $6 per square foot to $18 per square foot.

- Time constraints: Time restrictions that a school places on a construction team can affect costs directly. For example, summer is the peak construction season, and simple supply-and-demand economics lead to higher costs to find available workers. Accelerated schedules to abide by time constraints may require shift and weekend work and may lead to cost escalation. In addition, accelerating the schedule will affect material and delivery schedules and may increase their costs.

- Site safety and security: Because of the nature of children's curiosity, schools need to plan their construction projects especially carefully. School construction sites may need fencing and barriers that wouldn't be required for other projects. These safety precautions need to be incorporated into the estimate as early as possible.

- Joint-use project: With the growing trend to have schools serve as community centers, the operation of a facility during the day may be different than in the evening. Schools should determine whether they will need additional security systems because of this difference in operations, and incorporate the costs into the construction estimate and the future operations budget.

The keys to a successful project lay in a well-thought-out concept, tenacious preplanning, and accurate budgeting and estimating. The process is best executed with a team that consists of a school representative, design consultants with experience in education, and a builder. By involving these experts throughout the planning, designing and construction phases, the school is better able to deliver the project on time and within budget.

Estimating the costs of a project normally includes the following elements:

- General requirements, modifications and procedures.

- Site preparation, earthwork, utility piping materials, water distribution and improvements.

- Foundation concrete and other concrete pads.

- Masonry, concrete block work and retaining walls if required.

- Structural metal framing, joists, decking and fabrication.

- Waterproofing, insulation, fire stopping, manufactured roofing and riding, roof specialties and accessories, and joint sealers.

- Metal doors and frames, wood and plastic doors, special doors, hardware and glazing.

- Gypsum board, tile, acoustical treatment, special ceilings, surfaces, carpet, special flooring, painting and wall coverings.

- Compartments and cubicles, flagpoles, identifying devices, lockers, fire protection, storage shelving, toilet and bath accessories.

- HVAC, fire protection, plumbing, air distribution and controls.

- Switchgear and panels, service and distribution, lighting, communications, smoke detection, electric resistance heating, and conduits for telephone and data lines.

- Landscaping and off-site work.

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