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Halifax County supes’ architect questions renovated, rather than new HCHS

South Boston News
Randy Jones with OWPR Architects, speaking to supervisors
SoVaNow.com / August 08, 2019


The architect hired by the Halifax County Board of Supervisors to come up with an alternative to a new Halifax County High School facility guided supervisors through the details of a proposed $73.3 million renovation plan Monday night, but his comments cast doubt on whether saving the high school building is the wisest use of county dollars.

Randy S. Jones, CEO of OWRP Architects and Engineers, delivered a blunt assessment of Halifax County High School, panning the 313,000 square foot facility as “cold,” oversized and difficult to bring up to modern-day standards.

“You can definitely identify it as a late 1970s-type building — it’s a very imposing and monolithic structure,” said Jones, speaking at length Monday night at the supervisors’ monthly meeting in Halifax. “Renovating is challenging,” he added, “but it can be done.”

Whether it should be done is another matter, Jones continued: “I know the community is trying to figure out the best route to go” on HCHS, but “I don’t know if there is a clear-cut right answer” to that question.

“I wish I could come here and say I have the silver bullet or the magic solution for you, but it’s a difficult decision for you all,” Jones said. “Because even though you can save 20-some million dollars to renovate, you have to [think] about whether that’s really the best use of your money. Even a $75 million project is a massive project for a community this size.”

Supervisors hired Blacksburg-based OWPR to deliver a “second opinion” assessment after a prior study by Moseley Architects, the School Board’s firm, produced a recommendation to replace HCHS for an estimated $99 million. Choosing to pursue that route, rather than a second, separate $88 million renovation option suggested by Moseley, trustees have gone forward with soliciting offers for a new high school from architects and contractors.

Trustees could announce their selection of a high school design-build package as soon as next week.

Jones’ presentation Monday night overlapped with another major item of HCHS-related business on the agenda: a board vote to authorize a November sales tax referendum, viewed by both supervisors and trustees as essential to any work to renovate or rebuild the high school. Members approved the ballot question unanimously.

“Nothing comprehensive is going to happen [to HCHS] if this referendum doesn’t pass,” said ED-1 supervisor J.T. Davis.

The wording of the referendum leaves open the choice of approach for updating HCHS. The Nov. 5 ballot question will ask voters to back a 1 percent sales tax “for the construction or renovation of schools in Halifax County,” specifying neither option in particular.

Revenue raised from the sales tax will be used to finance a 30-year bond which will be issued to pay for any HCHS upgrade. ED-9 supervisor William Bryant Claiborne said that with the high school in need of major work, the sales tax — which would be paid by residents and non-residents alike — is crucial to take some of the fiscal burden off payers of county property taxes.

“That penny is going to be important to save you money,” said Claiborne. “Because the money is going to have to come from somewhere.”

Amid the uncertainty over what happens next, supervisors concluded their discussion of the high school by saying they would wait to see what the School Board does at its Aug. 12 meeting. While trustees are responsible for overseeing the operations of the school division, including capital improvements, county supervisors hold the purse springs — giving them considerable leverage in talks between the two boards.

Though clearly uneasy over the price tag for a new HCHS, supervisors were told by Jones that the 41-year-old building requires a major, expensive upgrade.

“You’re kinda in a situation where you’re going to have to spend some money. This building is definitely in need of renovation.”

As part of its assessment, OWPR’s team combed through the Moseley Architects study and an earlier appraisal of the high school by local engineers B&B Consultants. Jones said members of his firm were immediately struck by HCHS’s shortcomings in their initial visit to town.

“First impressions” include the following: “for a building this size, there are surprisingly few windows and the interior is very dark,” said Jones. Hallways are too narrow, the exterior of the building makes for a poor representation of community pride, and retrofitting the facility to meet modern-day standards for ADA-handicapped access and building security will pose major challenges.

Virtually every mechanical system other than the roof needs to be replaced, the building layout should be reorganized to create a cohesive, collaborative learning environment, and interior surfaces — floors, walls and ceilings —require top-to-bottom replacement. The only parts of the building that drew praise from Jones are the auditorium and gymnasium, which, the need for light renovations notwithstanding, are “the two nicest features of the facility.”

OWPR’s suggested renovation plan calls for tearing out walls and reorganizing department spaces, replacing the stained and spalled exterior brick facade with aluminum siding, adding a secure waiting area by the front door for visitors to the high school, putting in an auxiliary gym and locker room elevator, and many other changes — yet with all that, Jones said it’ll still be impossible to fully fix the building’s flaws.

Of OWPR’s call to add more exterior windows to allow more light into the facility, Jones cautioned, “Even changing all the materials, making the windows four times the size that they are [now], we are still going to end up with a somewhat large, monolithic building.

“At the end of the day, it’s still going to have this type of look to it, and that’s just kind of a circumstance of when the building was designed back in the 1970s. You can easily identify a 1970s building just by the lack of windows.”

“In the 1970s, they were building warehouses for children,” Jones said, speaking more harshly of the trend in school architecture at the time.

Board Chairman Dennis Witt, who served as county school superintendent more than a decade ago, observed that when Halifax County Senior High School first opened in 1979, “ADA wasn’t even on the radar, we did not have social media, we did not need security in our school buildings.

“We did not have tech prep for the jobs of the future that we have today,” Witt said. “There’s been so much change since 1970 in the public school setting, it’s hard to wrap your mind around that.”

Vice Chairman Hubert Pannell asked Jones to read from a portion of the OWPR report that suggests that when renovation costs approach 75 percent of the price of a new facility, new construction should be considered.

“What you really are telling us is that we should build new. Correct me if I’m wrong,” said Pannell.

Replied Jones: “You really have to look at balancing low cost versus value, and I’m not sure that renovation will give you the best long-term value [compared to] new.”

A renovated HCHS building probably would last another 35 or 40 years, while a new facility would have a 50-plus year lifespan, Jones said. Challenged to explain why the four decades-old HCHS facility shouldn’t have a 50-year lifespan to match, Jones alluded to the era’s less-than-stellar construction standards.

“Buildings are built to a higher safety and quality standards [now] than they were in 1975,” Jones said. When Davis pointed out that many school buildings constructed before World War II are still in use, Jones replied, “and they’re probably in better condition, too.”

A prime example of how building standards have changed over time, he added, was the popularity of asbestos as a 1970s construction material: “Asbestos tile was one of the most durable materials that was ever made for floors and schools, and they look phenomenal, but unfortunately they have a nasty side effect.”

Witt, honing in on the lifespan difference between a new and renovated high school facility, observed that “if you divide the time into money,” the $73 million renovation price tag for renovation “gets even closer to how much you’re getting for your money” with a new school costing around $92 million.

“I want to make sure we get the most for our dollar,” he added.

In reviewing the options for HCHS, Jones emphasized that his firm’s findings are not greatly different than the conclusions Moseley Architects reached in its 2018 study.

While Moseley came up with a $99.4 million cost estimate to build a new high school, and OWPR pegged the cost for roughly the same project at $92.6 million, “I don’t feel there’s a big enough difference there to say one’s right. We’re both kinda in the same range,” he said.

“At the end of the day, I think our report and Moseley’s report are basically in agreement,” said Jones. “We’re within the 10 percent range in [the difference] in costs, and that’s really not uncommon. We’re in a highly volatile construction market right now, and it’s really difficult for anybody to predict costs.”

The OWPR architect and CEO offered further factors for supervisors to consider in making a decision: a $2 million expense to demolish the existing school — “one of the shocking numbers,” said Jones — balanced against the benefits of educating a smaller cohort of students in a slimmed-down facility built for a higher standard of learning.

“The challenge we find [with renovation] is how to incorporate the type of learning spaces [you want] in these older buildings,” said Jones. “New construction is more expensive, but it will be designed to meet the needs of 21st century learning requirements.”

The path ahead for supervisors, trustees and the community at large, Jones said, is “daunting.”

“I certainly understand the challenges that you all face, and I wish I could have come here with a great answer,” he said.

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