School work has been construction's fastest-growing market during the last decade and this extraordinary growth has put some extra pressure on building costs, according to a special study conducted for ENR by Dodge Analytics, a division of McGraw-Hill Construction.

Last year, the average cost of new senior high schools, excluding renovation and additions, was $115.91 per sq ft, or 45% more than in 1992, says Dodge Analytics. During the same period, the average cost of a junior high school increased 47% to $106.53 per sq ft and the cost of a new primary school rose 36% to $104.23 per sq ft, it reports.

(Source: Dodge Analytics)

Building costs for higher education experienced similar increases. Over the past 10 years, the average cost of building a new community college increased 44% to $148.40 per sq ft, while colleges and universities rose 30% to $154.96 per sq ft, Dodge Analytics reports.

These school construction costs far exceed increases Dodge Analytics tracked for other kinds of buildings. During the same period, the average cost of new office and bank buildings increased just 14% to $89.73 per sq ft while the cost of warehouses rose 16% to $55.88 per sq ft.

But school costs can vary widely on the individual project level, according to a study by Marshall & Swift, Los Angeles. It has broken down parameter costs for nine K-12 schools built between 1999 and 2003 at an average cost of $101.36 per sq ft. In Oregon, a 275,000-sq-ft high school cost $113.97 per sq ft while in Wisconsin a high school of the same size cost $97.78 per sq ft.


"While the shell is the largest component, it has been the mechanical work that has really been driving costs recently," says Richard Vishanoff, the M&S analyst who compiled the report. He notes that some school districts are installing ground-loop heat pumps, which are more expensive up front but save on utility costs in the long run. Vishanoff also says that some districts are saving on utility costs by having controls for school HVAC systems placed in their administration building, which adds to initial electrical costs.

Pressure on school costs may start to ease due to competition among the many industry firms pouring into the market from the depressed commercial sector.

"This market is now extremely competitive," says Marc Poskin, Chicago-based senior estimator for Turner Construction Co. "We are building for the same numbers we were two or three years ago because of the competition," he says.

Masonry is one item school estimators are keeping an eye on, says Poskin. "Masonry is at a premium in the Midwest," he says. But the price in Chicago of $8.50 per sq ft is nothing compared to the West Coast. "We are paying upwards of $20 a sq ft," says Sacramento-based Turner estimator Steve Schultz. "It was $12 to $14 a couple of years ago. It's gotten crazy."

Some contractors moving from the commercial market to the relatively strong school market are grappling with some of the special issues that drive school costs. "We are building our first K-12 facility," says Linda Pearson, head of the education committee at the traditional private-sector builder Swinerton Inc., San Francisco. "It takes two and a half times longer to bring a school to market than a comparable sized office building," says Mike Newman, Swinerton project executive. "That's a long time to keep people tied up.

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