Projected Cost Soars for Planned Williamstown Fire Station
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A consultant working with the fire district last week told its Building Committee that a rough estimate of the cost of building a new station is more than twice what district officials heard in 2008.
Due to the rate of inflation in the building industry and an underestimate of the square footage needs for a new station, Robert Mitchell of Mitchell Associates Architects said the $7.2 million estimate the district received more than a decade ago has ballooned to more than $15 million.
"This is definitely what you call a spitball number," Mitchell said at the committee's Wednesday meeting. "In 2008, if it was $7.15 million, today it would be more like $15.8 million. I have no way of telling you what the exact number is.
"I don't know if the estimating is EDM's responsibility or the OPM's. I'm a consultant to EDM."
Mitchell, based in Voorheesville, N.Y., has worked on more than 180 public safety buildings throughout the Northeast. His experience was a key reason the Building Committee selected Pittsfield's EDM architecture and engineering firm to helm design of the station that the district wants to build on Main Street (Route 2) just east of the Aubuchon Hardware building.
Mitchell said there are two drivers that are pushing up his preliminary cost estimate for the structure.
The first is that the cost of construction has increased by 3.1 percent per year, on average, since the 2008 figure was discussed. He said the district got some incomplete information when a consultant more recently said the cost per square foot would increase by just less than 4 percent between 2008 and 2021.
"$382 [per square foot] in 2021 can't be a real number if $368 per square foot was a real number in 2009," Mitchell said.
A more realistic figure likely is a little less than $600 per square foot, he told the committee. He cited projects statewide completed over the last seven years where the average was around $607 per square foot, but Mitchell noted that includes a lot of projects in the Boston market
The second factor is the overall square footage that Mitchell says the Williamstown Fire Department will need to meet its needs now and long into the future.
The preliminary designs the district ordered from Foxborough's Maguire Group left out some elements that Mitchell said are essential to making the new station a safe, functional facility.
"In the previous scheme, there were all sorts of rooms they didn't have," Mitchell said. "They didn't have a [decontamination] laundry room. They didn't have adequate storage. The administration space is slightly larger [now]; part of that is the forest warden."
The Fire District took over operation of the forest warden from town government after a vote at this year's annual town meeting.
"The building [now] is a two-story building. In 2008, they didn't consider the possibility of a two-story building. One of the largest [additional] areas here is the stairs and elevator. There are some redundant rooms on the second floor, like an additional bathroom, a janitor's closet and a mechanical room."
Mitchell said adequate storage is a safety concern for firefighters who will have to function in whatever building gets built.
"They are volunteers, and their time is valuable," Mitchell said. "Injuries occur in fire stations if there are trip hazards. Items are left on the floor of the [truck] bay because there is not adequate storage."
Likewise, adequate space and equipment for decontaminating equipment is a requirement for a 21st-century fire station, Mitchell said.
He talked to the committee about how microscopic contaminants in smoke in a modern structure fire get absorbed into the skin of firefighters and explained that showering right after an event and thoroughly decontaminating turnout gear between uses can help.
"A saw a study that said 55 percent of retired firefighters in Miami-Dade [Fla.] have been diagnosed with cancer," Mitchell said. "It's a stunning number. In the design of the building, we can address some of this. The bigger piece is what happens at a fire scene, but we do have a role to play."
There were a couple of silver linings in Mitchell's presentation last week.
He told the committee he believes that the larger station he envisions could fit on the 3.7-acre parcel the Fire District purchased in 2017.
Mitchell also assured the committee and members of the town's Carbon Dioxide Lowering [COOL] Committee, who attended the meeting, that he is committed to designing a building that maximizes energy efficiency, working toward a net-zero emissions goal that town meeting approved in June.
Of course, even if the resolution passed at town meeting was binding on town officials, it is not binding on the Fire District, which is a separate taxing authority apart from town government.
And Mitchell's presentation to the Building Committee included some warnings about items that might be threatened in the "value engineering" process that municipal entities undergo in order to bring projects' costs in line with the voters' willingness to pay.
"Historically, in the work we've done, energy matters end up on the cutting-room floor for budget reasons," Mitchell said. "It doesn't have to be that way. People have to be engaged in the process. And, at the same time, the role of the building as a life-saving facility has to be maintained. That's the task.
"It's not an impossible task. It will ultimately come down to spending money people would rather not spend, but, amortized over the life of the building, it may be the cheapest way to do it today."
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