WHS – A Building That is Obsolete

by cbohne on September 24, 2013

Winchester Star, September 26, 2013

WHS: A Building that is Obsolete


In recent years, Winchester has addressed the aging and inflexibility of its high school facility through numerous patch and repair or small renovation efforts.  Today’s pressing and recurring needs simply cannot be adequately and cost-efficiently addressed through continued small-scale interventions. Why? The building has become obsolete. (See a full list of building deficiencies.)

Failing building systems and exterior

We increasingly spend scarce dollars to deal with problems due to air and water infiltrations.

These are not the consequence of a simple failure of a replaceable wall component, but rather the deterioration of a nearly 50-year old composite envelope design.  This very design—a largely un-insulated brick façade and single-pane windows—contributes to being the largest consumer of power in town.

The roof has reached the end of its service life as we continue to chase the leaks, water damage, and unpleasant interior environments that result—including the shut-down and gutting of a classroom last year due to mold and mildew.

Mechanical and electrical systems—all in need of replacement—must be relocated out of the flood-prone basement to a first floor area facilitating easy access and maintenance.  The first floor of the school is presently two feet above the flood plain, and when flood mitigation measures are complete, it will be five feet above the flood plain.  With reconstruction, we’ll no longer spend precious resources renting portable emergency generators to temporarily replace one that has failed and is unserviceable.

Is the school really sinking?

It’s not—but everything else is.

The site work, not the building, has been settling for years. While the structure itself stands firm on deep-driven pilings, the walkways, courtyards, and parking areas have sunk due to underlying organic material that was not excavated during construction in 1970-71. In some instances, sewer lines have shifted and storm water now flows in the wrong direction.

The proposed renovation includes complete site reconstruction with excavation, structural fill, and piers to prevent this phenomenon from continuing, saving us on-going costs and liabilities.

The inside matters

Poorly sized and configured labs, inadequate library/media space, and under-sized classrooms ill-equipped for 21st century instruction directly impact student learning today.  Twenty-five of thirty-nine general education classrooms—and all of the science labs—are below state size standards.

Interior space is inefficient with most instructional spaces – over 75% — towards the interior of the building with little or no access to natural light or operable windows. Some spaces are accessible only through other classrooms, creating distractions for students and teachers.

The building does not provide adequate accessibility for the disabled or optimal security for students.

Couldn’t we just fix the code deficiencies?

A so-called “Code Upgrade”—in which building systems are replaced and brought up to code with seismic structural upgrades and remediation of ADA issues—has been estimated at as much as $28M. A new energy-efficient façade and roof could add another $19M to this figure. Another $7M is estimated to permanently address the settling site, walkways, and utilities.

However, such a $54M “upgrade” scenario makes no physical changes or additions to the existing academic spaces, which are undersized and poorly configured, nor does it meet the educational program and growth in student population, which requires ten additional classrooms.

The MSBA’s substantial financial support for a new or renovated high school in Winchester is driven in large part by this enrollment growth, which is the subject of a separate “white paper” by Superintendent William McAlduff (read it at www.winchesterhsproject.com).

A la carte is inefficient, expensive

Although we could address the school’s failing systems, exterior, and inadequate interior spaces separately, it’s neither educationally nor fiscally sound to do so.  Breaking up the work over time only “kicks the can”, adding complexities, cost escalation and delay that we cannot afford.  A piecemeal approach cannot transform this obsolete building into the facility that a quality high school needs.


Christian Nixon
Forest Street
Vice Chairman, Winchester School Committee

Mr. Nixon holds two degrees in Architecture from Rice University and has over 20 years of experience in the programming, planning, design, and construction administration of nearly two million square feet of institutional projects. He is also a Muraco and McCall parent with two children in the Winchester Public Schools, and a third soon to start.

Previous post:

Next post: