The high cost of cheap


The story of the Chilmark School, built just 14 years ago and already needing a third round of repairs that will cost the better part of a million bucks, raises a question at the heart of what’s wrong with municipal building projects today: Why do we persist in thinking it’s better to build cheaply now and fix it later than to build it right in the first place?

West Tisbury just went through a $1.5 million round of repairs to the exterior of its school building, and now Chilmark is poised for another turn. In both cases, the question driving the repair work seems to be how to fix these problems for the least cost. But here’s the irony: In both cases, that emphasis on low initial cost is the main reason taxpayers are being asked to cough up so much money to fix things now.

John Abrams, the founder and president of South Mountain Company and arguably the godfather of affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard, has a great perspective on what affordability really means when we talk about the buildings we use and live in. He’s convinced that lifetime cost, not initial cost, is the best measure of affordability, and you can see that philosophy at work in South Mountain’s affordable housing projects.

At the Jenney Way project in Edgartown, for example, the residences have the same high-end windows that South Mountain installs in homes for their wealthiest clients. They do cost more at first than the windows at the Chilmark School, but they work better from day one, and when the houses at Jenney Way reach 14 years, or 20 or 30, they won’t need replacing.

I called Mr. Abrams for some perspective on the Chilmark story this week and he told me that as much as he loves the Chilmark School, he cringes each time he walks inside and sees his name on a plaque as part of the building committee.

“Actually,” he says, “I resigned from the committee halfway through because I thought it was going in the wrong direction. The biggest problem was that the town was looking for lowest first costs as the only concern –— to get the space they needed for small money. That’s just not the right way to do it.”

The concern, looking forward, is that Chilmark and the school district will repeat history, choosing the cheapest and least-complete solutions again this time around.

“I understand they’re thinking about doing all these envelope improvements,” says Mr. Abrams. “Those improvements shouldn’t be done to the standards to which the West Tisbury School did them, or to the standards that most projects are done — they should be done with the best-performing building science and engineering they can get. Do it once, and do it right.”

Looking at public buildings from the standpoint of how the state regulates them, there is good news to report on two fronts. First, the new state building code now going into effect would never allow a new school that performs as poorly as Chilmark’s does from an energy standpoint.

Second, the state since 2004 has required an owner’s project manager for all large public projects. The OPM is the sort of independent expert who would have noticed that the builders of the Chilmark School were putting water pipes in the unheated roof space before they froze and flooded the place.

One responsibility of the OPM is to consult on value engineering, a critical aspect of planning any new public project. One of the tenets of value engineering is that it’s fine to cut costs, but not at the expense of function.

And when you look at a building’s function, durability and lifespan are huge. Buying cheap windows and doors to shave a building’s cost is like trying to hide something by throwing it way up high — an excellent strategy, but only if your time horizon is really short.

One of the saddest ways we cut corners on municipal buildings on Martha’s Vineyard, I think, is in the area of energy efficiency. Super-insulation is an investment that adds to initial cost but pays dividends for taxpayers every year of a building’s life. Second-rate heating and cooling systems don’t always fail as dramatically as cheap doors and windows; they do make our public spaces less comfortable while costing us extra money, year in and year out.

Rick Pomroy, the owner’s project manager for Edgartown’s public library project, says he talks with his clients about the lifetime costs of energy systems all the time — and sometimes they actually do take his advice and choose systems that cost more up front while saving a bundle over 10 or 20 years.

But Mr. Pomroy admits, “In many cases, building committees will make a choice for short-term gain over long-term cost savings. It’s extremely difficult to educate people on that front.”

Chilmark and West Tisbury can’t set the way-back machine and retroactively improve the school buildings that have failed them so dramatically. But town building committees across the Island can take the costly lessons of Chilmark and West Tisbury to heart, by asking their project managers to analyze their options from the standpoint of durability and lifespan.

Finally, the challenge becomes a political and cultural one: persuading taxpayers to stop duplicating the construction mistakes of the past — to invest a bit more today and enjoy less expensive, better-performing public buildings for years to come.