New Westport school doors — tall order

Doors prompt debate: Is it time to start spending the surplus?

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 11/27/19

A debate about doors for Westport’s new school gave rise to a bigger question at the November 20 School Building Committee meeting. 

Since recent bidding for the project is tracking …

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New Westport school doors — tall order

Doors prompt debate: Is it time to start spending the surplus?


A debate about doors for Westport’s new school gave rise to a bigger question at the November 20 School Building Committee meeting. 

Since recent bidding for the project is tracking under budget (better than $2 million at last count), is it time to start spending some of that money on things that had previously been cut?

With most bids now in, “We are very confident to say that we are at $73 million very comfortably,” better than $2 million under the construction budget of $75 million, said Robert Gilchrist of Agostini Bacon Co., the firm the town hired to serve as Construction Manager at Risk to manage the project.

“This doesn’t mean you can go crazy and start adding crap back in,” another member of the construction team said at the previous meeting when the good bid news was  announced.

In defense of doors

Early in the year, when first bids for the school came in a stunning $10 million over budget, the committee launched a desperate search for places to cut, a process that changed the look and feel of the design in many ways.

Among the likely victims of that search were interior doors, lots of them, that the architect had originally drawn at 8’8” tall, but that a proposed cut would have trimmed to 7 feet tall for a savings of around $40,000.

Building Committee members were told that the Design Subcommittee had “voted and decided to recommend keeping the 8-foot doors,” at its last meeting, rather than opt for the shorter doors, an option that would have provided “a very minor savings.”

That prompted Building Committee Vice Chairwoman Tracy Priestner to say that it is her understanding that any such decisions are “to be made by the entire team.”

Those taller doors were important to architect Jonathan Levi, committee Chairwoman Dianne Baron replied because they would make the school look nicer. “To accommodate his wishes as the architect, we decided to have a Design Committee meeting to revisit it.” Any final decision would be up to the full committee, she said.

As a “finance person,” she is struggling with this, Ms. Priestner said.

“We voted as a committee to remove a lot of aesthetic features that we really wanted and we presented to our public … We had talked about that (the school) would have a traditional flavor” with features like roof caps. “We took some of those things off to save money and to bring it into budget yet some things we are (now) letting go for a design standpoint that don’t impact education and function.”

The height of the doors is indeed important, Mr. Levi said.

“Schools are different than office buildings. We think that a child walking into a classroom should have a feeling of being in a dignified place. The height of those doors is something that communicates that kind of dignity. I do think it is an educational issue because it has to do with the way students feel about themselves, the way they feel about the importance of learning,” Mr. Levi said. “We know that when we walk into a special building it has taller doors.” That $40,000 amount “is very small compared with the impact it will have on the perception of the building both by the students that will occupy it and the public that enters it.”

Ms. Priestner disagreed — As someone who works in schools, “$40,000 is an awful lot. We are struggling to put computers in classrooms — we are hoping to get a one-to-one (laptop per student) system going and we don’t know how to pay for that.” She said she knows the struggles the School Committee goes through “to make ends meet every year.”

Committee member David Cass said taller doors will also make a big difference by allowing more outside light into corridors. Such design considerations are important for 

“this building that we are going to be living in for 50 years.” 

“I don’t think you can equate things we are designing into the structure of the school with computers — it is apples and oranges” since this money can’t be used to buy computers.  

“We had a beautiful, fantastic design,” committee member Jeff Wade said, but when there was a need to save $10 million, “we went after everything.

“Well we are at a point now where, I’m not saying to open up any floodgates, to start spending … but I think we have certain things that are important to the feel and the pride that the kids and the people are going to feel in this space … I don’t want to get to the end and have everybody go there and say, ‘We paid how much for this?’”

Things like these doors “take you from that typical lower end construction to step it up a notch,” Mr. Wade added.

$40,000 is a lot of money, he agreed, but an amount that is diminished since the state will pay nearly half. “I think for that money, the impact is tremendous.”

Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Shana Shufelt suggested holding off on the door decision until all bids are in and the committee knows for certain “whether we are comfortably under budget,” unless, she added, there is urgency to the decision.

“The door frames we need yesterday,” a member of the construction team replied.

Ms. Shufelt then made a motion to accept the Design Committee’s recommendation to go with the taller doors.

The committee voted 7-6 in favor of that motion.

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