NORWOOD, Mass. (AP) – Norwood has a once-in-a-century opportunity to build a new high school at the same moment a sagging economy is creating pressure to keep costs down, so the state and the town are looking no further than 20 miles down the road for their map to success.

They are attempting to reuse the blueprints for the widely acclaimed Whitman-Hanson Regional High School under a “model” or prototype school program that aims to save in the price of a designer. Using tested plans also propels a project from drawing board to ribbon-cutting in the shortest time, a major concern since inflation is a budget’s enemy.

A regional thing

The concept of prototype schools has been embraced in Las Vegas and Miami, where fast-growing populations or overcrowding have fueled school-building booms.

Yet prototypes remain a question mark in more established parts of the country such as New England. And they have been abandoned after much initial hype in places such as New York City.

Few building sites are as uniform as the Nevada desert, and the chance to build a new school is so rare townspeople often clamor for a say on the final design. They object to even the whiff of a cookie-cutter design.

“I was worried that we would be limited by what these schools presented,” said Catherine-Connor-Moen, fine arts director for Norwood Public Schools.

After meeting with architects, she saw how Norwood’s strong fine arts and music program would fit into the other design by altering some of the culinary space.

“I was very relieved to find out that while the overall blueprint was set, the individual concerns could be met,” said

Building booms

Prototype programs have existed since even before the post-World War building boom, when they gained prominence. Today, one is used in Clark County, Nev., the Las Vegas region that is opening nearly a dozen schools a year. The same is true in Florida, where the Miami-Dade County Public Schools are nearing the end of a five-year, $3.5 billion effort that will add 37 schools and 100,000 classroom seats.

“Prototypes are especially beneficial in this type of situation, because you’ve got such a high volume of construction that it’s actually easier to use a standardized design,” said Tim Strucely, an architect overseeing the building program in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located.

Victor Alonso, Miami-Dade’s design officer, said: “We don’t have to constantly repeat the same thing, redesigning the wheel. We just have to adapt that wheel to the unique circumstance.”

While design fees often account for 10 percent of a projects costs, once modifications are made and royalties are paid to the original architect, the overall savings from using a prototype can shrink to as little as 3 percent.

Arkansas school officials, who considered and rejected the prototype school idea in 2004, concluded in a report: “Even with a prototypical plan, an architect is still needed to supervise construction, check payments to the contractor, advise the owner on construction and design problems, check drawings against performance and approve samples of materials.”

Benefits

The American Institute of Architects echoes those concerns. Its members also say overusing prototypes can deny districts the benefits of improved materials and construction methods.

Brushing back suggestions they are merely trying to preserve business, architects say districts can save even more money by ensuring a project is built on schedule. Delays can lead to inflation, which gobbles any savings.

“Prototype needs to be more of an archetype, where you’re improving it for today’s needs as opposed to a school that, if it opened five years ago, was probably designed eight years ago,” said George Metzger, a Cambridge architect whose firm renovated Boston Latin School, the nation’s first public school.

Those concerns have not scared off Massachusetts officials.

Last month they launched a model schools pilot program amid criticism of a $200 million school being built in suburban Newton and concern about dwindling sales tax revenues. Of each nickel collected by the state, one cent is dedicated to new school construction. The state then reimburses cities and towns 40 percent to 80 percent of the overall cost.

‘Not so much variety’

When the fund was established in 2004, tax revenues were expected to grow at least 4.5 percent annually. The figure has been closer to 2 percent, and now the sagging economy has officials bracing for zero percent growth and talking of prototypical school designs.

“It will have variety, but not so much variety that everything is custom, everything is expensive,” Treasurer Timothy Cahill, who serves as chairman of the Massachusetts School Building Authority, said of the plans under consideration.

That’s just fine with Norwood. Located on the edge of Route 128 southwest of Boston, the town built its last high school in 1917. It’s now seeking a new building for 1,100 students and analyzing whether it can reuse the Whitman-Hanson plans.

That $50 million building opened in 2005 and has been lauded for environmental tricks like capturing rainwater for toilet use and employing veneers and textured concrete to project an aura of more expensive building materials.

“We feel initially in looking at it that this is a doable thing,” said Dick Kief, a local real estate broker who heads a project working group. “We’re not sacrificing anything as far as our program goes. That’s the win-win part of it; it’s less money for the state and the local taxpayers, and it gives us the facility we need.”


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