HARVARD -- Residents aged 60 or over make up 24 percent of the town's population and nearly half of them used Council on Aging services in the past year, according to the Hildreth House Improvement Committee report presented at Annual Town Meeting Tuesday night.

The intro reads more like COA consciousness-raising than promoting the HHIC cause, while the rest of the report is all about the house. But it paints a big picture in which the council's and the committee's missions dovetail like a drawer built to last.

Headquartered at Hildreth House, which also serves as a meeting venue for town boards and as a senior center, the COA provides services and programs on site and elsewhere, the report stated. Services include outreach for homebound seniors, transportation to medical appointments, shopping and other activities via the MART van, communal lunches served twice a week in the Hildreth House dining room and home meal delivery.

Programs and activities hosted at the Hildreth House Senior Center include exercises and computer classes, men's coffee group, holiday events and the new "Life Transitions" educational series. The COA newsletter also lists a variety of "road trip" opportunities and other off-site events town seniors can sign up for, with buses provided.

Focus on the house

Hildreth House was one of the town-owned buildings analyzed by the Municipal Building Committee several years ago, as well as Town Hall and the Old Library. The aim of the study was to take stock of town assets with an eye to best uses, overall building condition, needed repairs and upgrades and estimated costs.

Sized up as a senior center, ADA requirements and all, the gracious hilltop Victorian that was once the Hildreth family's summer home didn't fare very well.

"It became clear that Hildreth House did not meet essential access requirements..." the HHIC report acknowledged. Most important, it lacked safe parking with building access as well as handicap access to the second floor.

But it was also clear that fixing those problems could create new and different ones. "Making any change to the building that cost more than $118,000, or one third of its assessed $365,000 value, would trigger state and federal building and access code mandates," the HHIC report states.

Original plan

Working with LLB architects and a resident-generated wish list that addressed current and future senior center needs, the MBC produced a renovation plan that included a 5,157 square-foot addition with a 74-seat dining room, new multi-purpose room and kitchen, classrooms and a "dedicated health room." The estimated cost was $5.5 million.

When townspeople said the price tag was too high, selectmen in 2012 created the HHIC to take a second look at the design plan and come up with an alternative. "Our further charge was to consider changes that would result in a better design and/or cost savings," the report states.

The final design must be "code compliant" and allow Hildreth House to "serve the physical, social and basic wellness needs" of the town's senior population, now and in the future. Also, it should preserve key program elements of the original version but cost substantially less.

Working with the architects since early November 2012, the HHIC came up with a new plan that includes a two-story addition less than half the size of the earlier version, with a smaller, 35-40 seat dining room and a multipurpose room above. Among other changes.

For example, in the new, downsized design, an enclosed wheelchair lift rather than an elevator provides access to the second floor.

The HVAC system design was also revisited. Because adding central A/C would have required new ductwork, which would have been pricey, the new plan leaves it out, opting instead to simply add wall units in the addition. The heating system in the existing house, however, would be upgraded, switching from oil to gas.

Improved parking with safe building access from the parking lot has been a goal from the first, the report continued, and the current plan addresses that, but more modestly than the MBC version did, leaving the lot in place rather than tucking it away out of sight.

HHIC submitted a revised project estimate of $3.7 million to selectmen last September, with break-downs for site work, renovating the existing structure and new construction. 

Striving for further reductions, the HHIC agreed to revisit the plan again. One cost-saving idea would be to phase the project, the committee said. To that end, selectmen approved $20,000 to fund a feasibility study, including another go-round with the architects.

HHIC members are Laura Andrews, Richard Blinn, Pat Jennings, Chairman Connie Larrabee, Fran Nickerson, Ann Taylor and co-Chairman David Vannicola.