On the first day of class at Buist Academy, a K-8 academic magnet school in downtown Charleston, crews were still at work laying bricks and sod along the Calhoun Street side of the building. After deciding in 2010 that Buist and four other district schools needed structural upgrades in order to withstand potential earthquakes, the Charleston County School District Board of Trustees had promised those schools’ parents that their children would return to their original campuses by August 2013. The district kept its promise at Buist, and right in the nick of time.

Now more than two years into its 2011-2016 building program, which includes the seismic school upgrades, the school district has finished the contractor bidding process for eight of its 21 planned school construction projects. The projects vary widely in terms of overall cost, and all of the bids except for Charleston Progressive Academy came in at or under initial budget estimates. Still, one pattern that has emerged is that schools cost more to build than they once did.

Chief Operating Officer for Capital Programs Bill Lewis says that when he started working at the school district in 2001, the rule of thumb was that new school buildings in Charleston County cost about $100 per square foot in hard construction costs. Now, after more than a decade of dollar deflation and strengthening of building code requirements, the median hard construction cost of elementary schools built in the latest phase of new construction is $198 per square foot — just under the national median for elementary schools, $205/sq. ft.

The rising hard construction costs in Charleston County School District line up with a nationwide pattern. According to the School Construction Report, an annual publication put out by School Planning & Management, median construction costs per square foot have indeed been on the rise at least since 2001, when the national median for elementary schools was $113.30/sq. ft.

Hard construction cost, as defined by the school district, includes the value of a school construction contract but does not include expenses such as land purchase, demolition, subsurface ground modification, class relocation, computer purchases, and Ocean and Coastal Resource Management inspections. Those expenses go toward the overall cost, also known as the program budget. At Buist, for instance, the hard construction cost of $18.4 million is just over half of the overall cost.

Lewis says that builders of Lowcountry schools face a particular set of challenges that can often drive up the overall cost of a project. The schools have to be built with expansion joints to withstand earthquakes, galvanized metal components to withstand saltwater corrosion at coastal campuses, and Miami-Dade County-standard windows to withstand hurricane-force winds. Suburban schools with ample space must be built with retention ponds to handle rainwater runoff, while downtown schools on prime real estate (such as Buist) have to be built with subterranean runoff tanks to prevent flooding.

The downtown schools in particular, Lewis says, presented extra construction challenges, as the district had to contend with the sometimes-stringent requirements of the Board of Architectural Review, which reviews all new construction and renovations within the city’s historic district.

“These downtown schools, there will be no harder jobs than what we’ve just done. And now those are done,” Lewis says.

High-Dollar Schools

Renovating historic properties on the Charleston peninsula is never a simple proposition. In the case of the four new downtown schools — Buist Academy, James Simons Elementary, Charleston Progressive Academy, and Memminger Elementary — not only are they all seismic schools, but their location forced the district to adhere to historic preservation guidelines. When submitting designs to the Board of Architectural Review, the district had to pay for the construction of sample panels to demonstrate the external texture of the building, an expense that Lewis says cost the district “about a BMW” each time.

At James Simons, for instance, part of the $14.2 million hard construction price tag is going toward a $3.5 million, eight-month project to preserve a historic brick wall. Lewis says the BAR and the city required the district to preserve the exterior of the building, and as a result, the wall had to be held up during construction with a specialized steel frame and shored up with hand-dug pilings and foundation work.

“We’re proud of this,” Lewis says. “All good cities are marked by how they keep their city intact, so these schools were not looked at as disposable. The neighborhoods had a lot of pride in these.”

At Buist Academy, which has one of the highest costs per student among the new schools, the district encountered myriad challenges. The windows, for example, had to be built with both 1920s aesthetics and modern hurricane resistance, and elements of the original school building had to be preserved. Due to a regulation that requires students up to the second grade to be taught on the ground floor, architects had to design a gymnasium on the second floor.

The interior of the three-story school on Calhoun Street is an aesthetic departure from other district buildings, with an open, irregularly-angled stair area featuring large stucco panels painted red, orange, yellow, and teal. Lewis says that the school, which houses K-8 students, had to be built with all the most expensive parts of both an elementary school (such as the cavernous gymnasium) and a middle school (such as the science labs).

In terms of overall cost per student, the most expensive of the upcoming school buildings is the Center for Advanced Studies, a 600-student addition to Wando High School that clocks in at $74,500 per student. Lewis says that in addition to specialized equipment for career and technology training, the new construction will include two outlying buildings for horticulture and automotive classes, an expansion on the existing Wando cafeteria, an IT upgrade to allow communication between the buildings, and an entire new stretch of road.

Next Wave

The next phase of the 2011-2016 building program will be Wave 3, which includes St. Andrews School of Math and Science, Chicora Elementary School, and Jennie Moore Elementary School. Lewis says district officials are already looking ahead to planning yet another building program in 2017, anticipating a surge in student population as the local housing market picks back up.

Since 1999, the school district has used Cumming Corporation, a San Diego-based international consulting company, to manage its construction projects. The district used to work with both Cumming and another company called Heery International, but the district dropped Heery when it shifted to a new funding model that allowed schools to be built in waves rather than concurrently at the start of a building program. According to Rick Holt, a director at Cumming, the company currently has 35 employees managing school district construction projects.

“I’m pretty proud,” Lewis says. “We could have sat there and said, ‘Well, the reason why we’re XYZ above [national median hard construction costs per square foot] is all these things,’ and I’m here to tell you we’ve handled all these challenges and still been able to build these at hard construction costs right at the national median.”

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