School Construction Costs are Skyrocketing

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Robison Wells
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In 2016, California construction company C.W. Driver began work on a new 94,000 foot school in Irvine, and the costs came in at $475 per square foot. Fast forward to 2019, and a similar school (both are K-8, and both in Irvine) is pricing out at $598 per square foot. That’s a 26% jump in just three years, and it’s not restricted to California.

“Over the last few years, the cost increase per square foot has been abnormally high,” said Jonathan Keene, senior project manager at C.W. Driver, which specializes in K-12 and higher education construction. “We’ve seen abnormally high increases in labor costs as well as huge increases in material costs like structural steel.”

Prices are exploding all across the country, but there are some places particularly hard hit, such as St. Paul Public Schools, where costs on 18 projects grew more than 60% between 2016 and 2019.

“In some of the bigger districts, where they thought they could do 30 schools, they’re now saying we can only do 18,” said Mary Filardo, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based 21st Century School Fund, a nonprofit that supports and advocates for improved school infrastructure nationally. “They’re definitely feeling it.”

So what is the cause? It shouldn’t be much of a surprise if you’ve been paying attention to construction trends: shrinking labor availability and rising cost of raw materials. Schools are particularly hard hit because they are trying to incorporate more technology into the buildings as they plan for long-term residency in the building. Schools have long lifespans, strict structural requirements, and more specialized HVAC concerns.

“Air inflow and the conditioning of air have more stringent requirements, because you're dealing with children, and children breathe at a more rapid rate than adults,” said Platenberg, assistant superintendent at Fairfax County Public Schools. He also noted that stormwater management requirements, due to schools’ large tracts of playing fields, recreation courts and expansive roofs, also drive up costs.

And labor is a constantly increasing expense and becoming even more unreliable. “You literally have a workforce that will walk off the job in the middle of the day to go down the street where somebody’s paying 25 cents more an hour,” said Schmitz, an architect in Kansas City. “The labor force bounces around daily.”

It’s also increasingly hard to get subs to bid on jobs. “We used to have six mechanical guys looking at a job, and now you'll be lucky to get two or three. They're booked. And for that reason, you've basically got two guys competing over this job, so you’re going to see a 10% increase right there, just because there's nobody else to do it.”

“With the increased focus on technology, science and the overall student experience, the projects we build today look much different than the ones we did a decade ago,” said Tony Church, executive vice president of operations, at St. Louis-based McCarthy Building Cos. “Some of our K-12 projects are more complex and costly than the higher-ed projects we’ve completed recently.”  

School security is also becoming an increasing concern and cost, with everything from electronic surveillance to defensive design elements in case of a lockdown scenario.

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