Day Expansion, Modulars, and the New Sprinkler Law

The following Newton TAB Blog thread addressed the expectation that the application of a new state sprinkler law would result in less funds to directly solve the short-term space needs at 6 of our schools.  DAY EXPANSION AND MODULARS LIKELY TO BE SCALED BACK.  Here are some of my thoughts on this issue: 

First, I agree with Kurt Kusiak (the chair of the School Committee’s Facilities Subcommittee) that major school projects will only be done through overrides, and preferably debt exclusions. But that won’t be happening this year, so how can we address these enrollment infrastructure needs for this fall?

Let’s start by reexamining the detached building option. If the modulars are separated from the host building by sufficient distance (variable number, spelled out in the state building code) they are not considered to be “additions” and the sprinkler law is not triggered. This would result in nearly $2 million of sprinkler money not taken away from our elementary school space crunch project. Space the modulars a nominal dimension off of the host building and buy a sturdy canvas canopy to cover the gap between each modular and the host. In my mind this is better than abandoning the elementary schools that so desperately need the space this fall. Our children will survive the cold-weather passage between buildings.

Over the next year, build into our city’s capital plan sprinkler upgrades for buildings around the city, starting with the schools that are hosting modulars. As this work is completed over the next few years, more substantial links between the modulars and their hosts can be constructed. This scheme will allow the City to phase the sprinkler upgrades on our own schedule without being subject to the uncertainties of the sprinkler appeals board.

This phased sprinkler upgrade plan for all city buildings can be placed before the voters in the form of a debt exclusion override (DEO) request. This will be a terrific way to demonstrate DEOs for the voting public, on a topic of obvious merit and need. Successful DEOs for schools are more likely once the public understands how this mechanism works.

The modulars will only draw up to $1.65 million from the $5 million that the Mayor has offered for space crisis solutions. That leaves $3.35 million for Day. If the sprinklers there will cost $900 thousand, $2.45 million is left for the physical improvements. There are many solution components that will substantially address the Day space issues including a cafeteria expansion, for the available money. I won’t go into details here but they are among the options presented by planning consultant Raymond Associates.

I want to be clear that I support the goals of increased life safety that the new sprinkler law advances. And if I thought for a minute that full sprinklering of all the subject school buildings would measurably increase the safety of our kids I would not be suggesting the broader phased installation I described above. In this case I am advocating for a measured approach to school project management.

Consider that the safety concerns addressed in building codes is about risk management, not risk elimination. For example a direct stairway to the street from every second floor classroom could be argued to be safer than exiting out a common hallway during a fire. Yet our current approach is adequate for nearly every forseeable crisis, and a cost-benefit analysis helps us cement this design decision. Nobody claims that we are compromising the safety of our children by making this choice.

Let’s look specifically at the Zervas School where my kids went. It is a single story, brick, block, concrete, and steel building. Every classroom space in this fundamentally non-combustible building has a door or window to the outside. The immediate known crisis to the well-being of students at Zervas is not the risk of injury or death by fire, but is the compromise to their education that we believe will result from unchecked class-size growth and the lack of classroom and support space. This is a crisis coming to a head when school opens this coming September. Suggesting that the only way to address this space issue is to simultaneously deal with an essentially non-existent fire-safety issue is not the high road. Instead it demonstrates a lack of the perspective and priority setting that most of use to guide our everyday lives.

This discussion is not about finding a way around the law, it is about sound application. For example I think that Day MS should be fully sprinklered as part of its renovation, based on the specifics of that building and renovation proposal, and how they align with the details of the new law.

Yet unless we consider it imperative to sprinkler every school in the city right now on life safety grounds, it reasonable on cost, timing, and priority grounds to space modulars off of the host buildings so they avoid the definition of “addition” and don’t trigger the new sprinkler law. Let’s phase sprinklers into all of our public buildings as part of a deliberate, well paced, comprehensive capital improvement plan, and de-link sprinklers from our school modular installations.

Like it or not, we are out of time. Our elementary school children are waiting for us to demonstrate our sound judgment.