The School Building Committee was shocked at the high bids that came in for the Conte School renovation.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Officials got a shock on Monday evening when bidding for the Conte School renovation came in 8 percent higher than expected.
The total of the lowest bids for prequalified subcontractors came in at $912,000 over budget, with three-quarters of that for electrical work.
"Based on this information we can anticipate that the general bids are going to be higher than budget and we'll have to act accordingly," said Kenneth J. Guyette of Strategic Building Solutions, the owner's project manager.
The designers and managers were still struggling to understand what had happened from when the bids were opened only three hours earlier at 2 p.m.
"Were you kind of like the way we are right now?" asked Nancy Ziter, the district's business manager and member of the School Building Committee.
"Yes," responded Guyette. "I fell off my chair. I was shocked when it came in. I really was."
The $29.7 million project has gone through several estimating processes at scheduled intervals to ensure its budget remained on track. At the end of last year, it looked like it would be coming in just under budget, not over.
"I think what's disappointing is we went from near zero — a balanced budget basically — 45 days ago ... to higher than what we were dealing with six months ago, when we were trying to cut $750,000 out," said Mayor Richard Alcombright.
Designer Margo Jones of Jones Whitsett Architects described estimating "as an art" that tries to take into consideration a number of factors. It's not surprising to see a wide range among bidders, she said, but "there are too many highs and not enough lows."
"These two estimators we've been using on this project and on other projects, have been historically low," Guyette said, later adding because both estimators were Boston-based, "I don't think we can discount the regional impacts on these bids ... ."
Another member of the committee, did not think that was case, having worked with one of the estimators before.
The subcontractor bids covered 17 areas ranging from painting to plumbing. A number of bids came in about or below the estimate but in several categories, all the bidders were far above the estimate.
The elevator bid, for example, was estimated at $141,500 and came in with bids of $119,700 and $187,860; but the painting, estimated at $227,000, solicited bids of $345,420 and $394,240.
The largest single overage was for electrical, with an estimate of $2,429,500 and two bids of $3,165,000 and $3,349,700.
With the difference between the estimate and the lowest bid at about $735,000, electrical is the major budget buster.
Kenneth Guyette and Margo Jones said they would look for solutions to the high bids.
The School Building Committee discussed a number of possibilities for the high amounts, including the regional impact because of distance, a failure by the estimators, the dearth of bidders in some categories, misinterpretation of the bidding specs and an unfamiliarity with online bidding.
"We know what they bid on," said Guyette. "There are some significant areas where we need to see what happened.
"We need to have a conversation with the estimators, everybody, to find out what went wrong."
Jones thought, too, that being the first large project out of the gate in Western Massachusetts may have played a role because contractors could gamble with higher bids because there were more projects to try for coming down the road.
General contractor bids will be opened on March 6. Jones held out the hope those would come in lower and offset the subcontractor amounts. If they come in higher, the committee will have to decide whether to rebid all or part of the project, or find ways to reduce the budget. Guyette said they would be prepared for any possibility.
The complexity of the renovation may also have played a role, said Jones.
"It's a messy renovation, there are quite a few prequal bidders who did not bid."