Net-zero school could add $7.7M to cost, consultants tell Amherst boards

  • Fort River Elementary School

Staff Writer
Published: 9/19/2019 10:58:06 PM
Modified: 9/19/2019 10:57:53 PM

AMHERST — A new elementary school that produces as much energy as it uses, mandated by the town’s net-zero energy bylaw, would add millions of dollars to the cost of the building, according to a summary of a 600-page report presented to the School Committee and Town Council this week.

If the town proceeds with a new $64 million, 85,000-square-foot replacement for the aging Fort River School, solar panels alone would add $6.4 million to the project cost, while extensive energy improvements, in combination with the solar panels, would add $7.7 million, architect Ryszard Szczypek told the elected panels Tuesday.

Szczypek represents TSKP of Hartford and Boston, which has handled the $250,000 study for replacing the South East Street school.

The consultants note that these costs are not out of line with the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s expectations for energy-efficient buildings that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“An elementary school which complies with the zero energy bylaw is feasible and can be constructed for an estimated premium of around 10%. The project cost still falls within the range of similar MSBA projects,” the consultants write.

In December, officials will learn from the state whether the district can proceed with a project that would replace the Fort River and Wildwood schools, both 1970s-era buildings using an open-classroom model that limits natural light and creates noisy learning settings. The proposal to the MSBA from Superintendent Michael Morris would seek state financing for a new school to house 600 students from kindergarten through either fifth or sixth grade, while the study by TSKP is for a school with 465 students.

The exact configuration of any new elementary school, and whether fifth and sixth graders might attend class elsewhere, such as the Amherst Regional Middle School, are still being discussed.

When Amherst was previously accepted into the state funding program, a $66.37 million project with $34 million in MSBA assistance was developed to build twin schools at the site of Wildwood School on Strong Street. That project, which would have also replaced both Fort River and Wildwood and convert Crocker Farm School into an early childhood center, did not move forward because it failed to receive two-thirds support from Town Meeting.

Efficiency, moisture

The consultants’ report outlines how two distinct energy use intensities, or EUI’s, will determine how expensive it is to meet the net-zero energy bylaw.

The “EUI 50” version, in which the building envelope and systems are designed to only meet code requirements, would see significant use of solar panels mounted to the roof, over the parking lots, and on the ground adjacent to the building. In the “EUI 30” version, the building is designed to reduce energy demand and exceeds basic energy code, through strategies such as increased insulation thickness and radiant heat on the ground floor. That version also needs fewer solar panels.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said she is excited to see possible technologies such as geothermal and radiant floors used in a new building project.

One of the other concerns the consultants address is whether the Fort River site could be used for a new school. Szczypek said the site is buildable and that it is not a swamp, even though the building has had moisture problems in the past and there is concern the flood plain might be encroaching on the property.

Szczypek said problems with moisture can be addressed through use of vapor barriers and increased ventilation.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said she worries whether this assessment of the site being buildable is accurate. “I sure hope we don’t build a new building and find you’re wrong,” Griesemer said.

School Committee Chairwoman Anastasia Ordonez said questions about whether the Fort River site can be used have been important to answer in advance of any MSBA decision.

“This report will be helpful to the Town Council and community when we receive state funding and when we are ready to move forward with a new project or a renovated building,” Ordonez said.

The report also includes a series of options that, instead of a new 85,000-square-foot building, would include additions with renovations. The cost for these starts at $47 million, with a net cost of between $19 million and $37 million to the town depending on which project is pursued.

These options include a two-story addition that would expand the school to 87,000 square feet at a cost of $55.3 million; a one-story addition of 80,000 square feet for $48.8 million; multiple small additions to bring the school to 86,000 square feet at $55.1 million; and a single addition to make the school 81,000 square feet at $47.4 million.

A simple code and accessibility project, meaning that the existing building remains but eliminates problems with the open-classroom model, would cost $28.3 million.

Except for the project that would fix the accessibility issues and other problems at the school, all the design options satisfy educational programming needs and offer a range of possible heating and cooling options that take into account the town’s net-zero energy bylaw.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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