Inside the Tisbury School construction project

The $82 million renovation and addition includes needed structural changes, but officials say it’s coming in under budget. 

The Tisbury School under construction - MV Times

Walking through the construction zone of the Tisbury School, it’s easy to see the vision that the project is building towards: Starting on the first floor — which currently has a dirt floor, no insulation, and an open-floor plan — the towering ceilings, grand windows, and history still lend an academic air.  

The goal of the $82 million dollar project is to bring the school up to modern health, accessibility and environmental standards.  It’s intended to address space needs for current and future students, increase accessibility for students and community members with impaired mobility, and work to meet Tisbury’s Green Community pledge by eliminating the use of fossil fuels.

But building plans are also intended to preserve iconic features of the original structure — which dates back to 1929 — like its brick exterior and tall, arching windows.

Construction has been ongoing since last year.

“Right now, things are going quite well and we know we will come in at budget, but our hope is that we’ll come in under budget,” said Amy Houghton, chair of the Tisbury School Committee, during a recent tour. 

The renovation and new addition is estimated to be an 82 million dollar project, about 70 million of that is going towards construction costs. 

Houghton acknowledged there’s another 14 months of construction left ahead, so it’s hard to say where exactly the final cost of the project will be. But she says it’s moving according to plan, and work is expected to wrap-up by August 2024, at least in time for students that fall.  

The project is operating with a “Construction Management at Risk” contract. Management firm W.T. Rich is responsible for overseeing the building process and hiring all subcontractors needed for an agreed-upon, maximum-guaranteed price. 

For the Tisbury school, the first part of construction was demolition. 

Steve Brenner, Senior superintendent for construction management company W.T. Rich, said they spent approximately 5 weeks with their demolition contractor removing all hazardous material from the building. That included lead paint and asbestos. The hazardous-waste removal was overseen by a third party hygienist consultant, Brenner told the Times. 

All Island School Committee member and Tisbury School Committee member Michael Watts commented on the demolition process, saying the committee was aware of asbestos and lead in the building due to previous encapsulation work. 

“One of our primary goals was for it to no longer have toxins,” said Watts. “It was a more extensive demo because we needed to do that.”  

Apart from the hazardous materials that had made their way into the building with different building practices and regulations in the 1920s, many of the original floorboards on the second and third floors were rotted, thinning, and full of holes. There were also some questionably-fastened building joints, including a roof that was not secured to meet today’s hurricane standards. 

“Remember, this building was constructed in the 1920s, so all of the construction practices back then are a lot different than now,“ Brenner said.

The good news is, he said, the building should last another 100 years after construction, at least. 

All of these features in need of repair were on Brenner’s list, as well as the next major phase of the project: A new addition, which will house the cafeteria, gymnasium, locker rooms, and a performance space.  

“The old gym was basically a couple of squares of concrete with some wood posts on them,” Watts said of the school’s former athletic facilities. “There was just dirt underneath there; there was no foundational anything underneath it, nothing. It wasn’t even a regulation sized gym. You couldn’t hold meets there. It was not good for the elementary school, but there were a lot of people who wanted to save the floor.” 

The Tisbury school building was constructed in 1929, originally a K-12th grade school. The high school students moved up to the current high school location in the 1950s or 60s when the school became a K-8.  Because of the school’s age and history, the people of Tisbury, when voting on the school renovation and addition in the last few years, had strong feelings about preserving the building. 

“I think people had a lot of misperceptions about the construction and the quality of this building,” Houghton said. “It had sentimental value, but as you get into the building, you realize it should have been torn down and we see that every day.  We’re honoring the will of the people and building it the way people voted on, but had people known how diminished the situation was in here, they may not have voted the way they did.” 

Currently there are about 35 to 40 workers on the job laying the foundation for the new addition. In the main building, plumbing and new bathrooms will be the next order of business. Brenner says that work will start in the next couple of weeks. By summer, the number of workers will increase. “When we start doing the interior work, we’ll be averaging between 100 and 120 people coming to the job site every day,” he said. 

Walking through the exposed bare bones of the school, the vaulted high ceilings, the steel beams and fresh floors, the arching antique windows, the light-filled building, even in its current state, has a historic and academic air. The future building design elements will include classrooms off a central hallway, small “breakout” rooms where students can work in groups, and a brand new, 3-story multimedia library accessible on every floor. There will also be a new elevator. 

The goal for the school is to be completely emission free. According to Houghton, the new school will no longer run on fossil fuels but will instead be powered by electricity and solar power. 

“We are working with Vineyard Power, Vineyard Wind, and the town to identify the best way to move forward with solar, the goal being a net zero for the town,” Houghton said, “There are a variety of ways that can happen, and we don’t have the path finally decided yet, but we are moving pretty close to it.”

Watts pointed out another green upgrade to the property: A 40-feet-long, 30-feet-wide, and 12-feet-deep retaining system for stormwater runoff from the building. The thought is that it could help mitigate flooding at five corners, located down-hill from the school.  

The main drainage system tank is estimated to hold up to 107,000 gallons of rainwater. The massive cistern has been installed and will be located beneath the playground (currently a massive pile of construction dirt) to collect excessive rainwater and runoff. From the retaining system, the water then percolates down into the ground. 

In addition to the large tank beneath the playground, there are two additional smaller tanks, one in the front of the building and one on the east of the building, all in an effort to help the town with stormwater runoff flooding. “We had the opportunity,” Watts said. 

Between eliminating the old boiler room, utilizing solar, installing the stormwater runoff drainage systems, and making the building as safe and energy efficient as possible, the committee is making an effort to meet future standards. Massachusetts plans to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emission by the year 2050. Martha’s Vineyard’s Climate Action Plan, “The Vineyard Way,” has a goal to reduce fossil fuels to 50% by 2030, and to eliminate fossil fuel use entirely by 2040, and the town of Tisbury has its own Climate Committee with green community objectives. 

Students are currently learning in modular buildings set up just adjacent to the school construction. These modular buildings are equipped for all seasons with heat, air conditioning, electricity, multi-stall bathrooms, classrooms with whiteboards and electronic whiteboards, and administrative offices. It has a small outdoor-campus area with tables under a tent, as well as a make-shift playground/outdoor classroom of short stumps, that serve as both balancing exercises and chairs. 

Houghton says students will stay in the modular buildings until the school is ready, but at that point construction won’t be completely over.  “Once they are in here, we anticipate there will be additional work that will have to be done on the site, like landscaping and cleaning up where the modular classrooms were. So there will still be work going on then, but our hope is to have them in the building for the start of the school year ‘24.”  


  1. The proposed school buildings as currently designed will hold roughly 220+ kW DC of solar power. Depending on the grid (i.e. 480/277V or 208/120) this may require an interconnection capable of 700 amps of current. The School builders have better be planning for this interconnection right now. Otherwise the town is going to incur considerable expense at a later date to meet this load requirement. Also, the point of connection for the DG must be upstream of the backup generator automatic transfer switch. This may require huge conduit runs in place leading from the generator transfer switch to the proposed location of the PV inverter/s. Probably parallel sets of 500 KCMIL in (3X) 3 Inch ridged conduit. Building DG is what I do for a living so my advise is do it now. Just sayin….

  2. Thank you – maybe we will avoid a catastrophic set of mistakes – as we got in the drawbridge, as a result of your warnings. But then again… I wonder.

  3. I hope that someone on the building committee will answer Mr Phelans letter to assure us the tax payers that the electrical hookup concerns which come with an all electric system as pointed out by Mr Phelans letter are fully understood and factored into the current building plan.

  4. No one has commented on the afterlife of the modular buildings that, if the MV Times got it correct months ago, we are paying out 84 thousand dollars a month for.

    Has anyone had the independent thinking that we should rent to own (probably paid for by now) and use them after they are vacated!

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