Architects tapped to tweak design

By M.E. Jones

Correspondent

HARVARD -- The proposed Town Hall renovation project that for a time seemed at risk of withering on the vine has been reinvigorated, even reinvented, with a downsized wish list and a recent mandate set by the selectmen to move forward based on the current design but with an "acceptable" price tag. That is, about $2.4 million, which is the balance left from the $3.9 million Town Meeting appropriated for the job in 2012.

From their ongoing discussions, the selectmen's vision now is a back-to- basics version of the existing design townspeople have come to know over the last couple years but leaving out some of the pricier components. For example, the addition and HVAC system will remain in place, with repairs. And instead of gutting the interior of the 19th-century building to create an entirely new look, the new floor plan will be functional but less ambitious, moving all offices downstairs and leaving the second floor pretty much as is, gracious front staircase and all, adding a lift for access.

Selectmen as THBC

Selectmen assumed the mantle of de facto building committee in November, 2013 after voters resoundingly rejected a bid to up the original bankroll by another $1 million to cover a sudden, unexpected spike in the construction cost estimate.

Acting under new marching orders, selectmen discussed next steps with a jeweler's eye to cost control.


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Having rehashed the issue at their own table, with public input, they took the question back to the people in December via public forums, trolling for new ideas.

With summarized outcomes from those forums in hand, the selectmen discussed the matter again at their Jan. 7 meeting. All things considered, they agreed it was time to talk to the architects - LLB, of Rhode Island - about a design fix.

Citing the contract, Chairman Marie Sobalvarro suggested at the time that there might be no additional cost to taper the design to fit the budget, but even if the architects charged an added fee, money in the schematic design budget should cover it, she said.

Thus began a back and forth with the architects that included a sit down with Sobalvarro and Selectman Leo Blair, who apparently came away with an upbeat outlook. He left the meeting thinking, "We can make this happen," Blair told "The Harvard Press" last week.

At their Jan. 21 meeting, selectmen voted unanimously to accept LLB's proposal to prepare a new "architectural and engineering feasibility study" for $25,000, with the cost deducted from the designated nest egg: $185,000 allocated for schematic designs for Town Hall and Hildreth House in 2011.

The Hildreth House design is still a work in progress, with the HH Improvement Committee working on a proposal for Town Meeting this year.

But the Town Hall makeover was headed for the construction phase, with plans to move to temporary quarters when the TH Building Committee presented a revised budget and townspeople balked at the higher cost. That's when - and why - selectmen stepped in, halting the project until budget issues could be sorted out.

The estimated price tag for the envisioned Hildreth House renovation is steep - $4 million - and has raised questions among the selectmen about how viable the plan is, given the cost and other considerations, such as whether the old manse, situated on a hill and built on ledge, is a suitable site for Council on Aging/Senior Center headquarters. But that's another issue to be wrestled with later, after this one is pinned down. For now, Town Hall is front and center on the selectmen's building project agenda.

Moving in the same direction but on a different track, selectmen have asked the architects to revisit the schematic designs for Town Hall and come up with a list of options that include major cost drivers such as second floor access, heat and electric, insulation, plumbing, fire protection and other design elements, with estimated costs for each item.

The $25K study will not include energy modeling, furnishings, landscape or security system designs, artist's renderings or mock-ups. Nor are the selectmen looking for the "phased-in approach" that some residents at last month's forums seemed to favor. 

In developing a new, pared-down proposal, the selectmen plan to take one step at a time. First, LLB delivers a "base plan" with a menu of options, with a second list of "enhancement" can-dos if there's money left in the budget to pay for them.

Once the BOS selects options from the list, LLB will provide a final, detailed proposal and cost estimate to be presented at the April 1 Town Meeting.

This time around, the project should fit the budget. Quoted in a local newspaper, Selectman Stu Sklar summed it up succinctly. "Last time, we gave LLB a list of needs," he said. "This time, we gave them costs."