Renovations, regulations contribute to high cost of school buildings in S.C.

Lauren Williams's picture
Thursday, August 29, 2013

On the first day of class at Buist Academy, a K-8 academic magnet school in downtown Charleston, crews were still at work laying bricks and sod along the Calhoun Street side of the building. After deciding in 2010 that Buist and four other district schools needed structural upgrades in order to withstand potential earthquakes, the Charleston County School District Board of Trustees had promised those schools' parents that their children would return to their original campuses by August 2013. The district kept its promise at Buist, and right in the nick of time.

Now more than two years into its 2011-2016 building program, which includes the seismic school upgrades, the school district has finished the contractor bidding process for eight of its 21 planned school construction projects. The projects vary widely in terms of overall cost, and all of the bids except for Charleston Progressive Academy came in at or under initial budget estimates. Still, one pattern that has emerged is that schools cost more to build than they once did.

Chief Operating Officer for Capital Programs Bill Lewis says that when he started working at the school district in 2001, the rule of thumb was that new school buildings in Charleston County cost about $100 per square foot in hard construction costs. Now, after more than a decade of dollar deflation and strengthening of building code requirements, the median hard construction cost of elementary schools built in the latest phase of new construction is $198 per square foot — just under the national median for elementary schools, $205/sq. ft.

The rising hard construction costs in Charleston County School District line up with a nationwide pattern. According to the School Construction Report, an annual publication put out by School Planning & Management, median construction costs per square foot have indeed been on the rise at least since 2001, when the national median for elementary schools was $113.30/sq. ft.

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