By the book

The new Norwood High, the first school to be built with a state-approved design, is set to open in a few months

The new Norwood High has columns and a clock tower similar to the façade of the old building. The new Norwood High has columns and a clock tower similar to the façade of the old building. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Jennette Barnes
Globe Correspondent / April 7, 2011

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When it comes to school design, why try to reinvent the wheel? Six years after the launch of a state program that encourages communities to ask that question, the first school to be built on a recycled design is getting ready to open.

The new Norwood High School, set to welcome students in the fall, follows one of three designs for high schools that the Massachusetts School Building Authority calls “model schools.’’

By reusing or adapting a model, communities save money on design costs, reduce costly change orders, and add 5 percent to their state reimbursement. It’s a significant departure from the old way of doing things, in which unbridled original projects have cost their communities much more than they had planned for — the $197.5 million Newton North High School being Exhibit A.

Tim Bonfatti, project manager for the $68.7 million Norwood school and president of Compass Project Management in Medfield, said Norwood will have saved 20 to 25 percent on design alone.

The school employs a design created for Whitman-Hanson Regional High School but adds columns and a clock tower very similar to the façade of the old, well-loved Norwood High. The new, nearly finished school stands closely behind the old, one clock tower waiting to shed the other like a skin.

“It looks like the Norwood High School people have come to love, the high school on a hill,’’ said James Hayden, who started as superintendent in July. The old school will be demolished.

Inside, Norwood created a larger arts area to accommodate the town’s strong drama and choral program, rather than build the kitchen Whitman-Hanson has for culinary arts, Hayden said.

Customizations reduce the savings. Communities can change the exterior to avoid a cookie-cutter look, and they can alter the use of rooms within the footprint.

Along with Whitman-Hanson, the state has accepted Ashland and Hudson high schools as models, for their quality, cost-effectiveness, and adaptability. One middle school (Lynnfield), one middle/high school (Ipswich), and four elementary schools (Fairhaven, Winthrop, Groton, and Williamstown) have also been approved as models.

The program aims to rein in soaring construction costs, which reached a zenith with Newton North High School. Opened in August, the school won state approval under the old school-building system. It cost $197.5 million for a student population of about 1,800.

Norwood has a smaller student body of 1,029, but the new building cost less than half of Newton North, at $68.7 million. It lacks some of Newton’s amenities — a pool, climbing wall, and student-run restaurant — but boasts an 800-seat theater, language laboratory, walking track above the gymnasium, and a 2,500-seat stadium, plus the expected updates in science and technology labs.

Other towns are close on Norwood’s heels. Plymouth North High School, Natick High School, Tewksbury Memorial High School, and Hampden and Wilbraham’s Minnechaug Regional High School in western Massachusetts are under construction using model designs.

In addition to Norwood and Plymouth, several other towns south of Boston have entered the model-school program or are considering it.

On March 30, Quincy learned the state will reimburse 80 percent of the $41 million cost for a new Central Middle School, one of five public middle schools in the city. The new building will replace one that dates to 1894; local officials consider it cramped and structurally deficient.

East Bridgewater’s high school project received the blessing of the school building authority in January and won Town Meeting approval on Feb. 7 for a $77 million debt exclusion.

Superintendent Susan T. Cote couldn’t hide her excitement: “I’ve been dreaming about this date for years,’’ she said.

Like Norwood, East Bridgewater will use the design the architectural firm Ai3 created for Whitman-Hanson.

“We visited all three’’ high schools, Cote said. “We just felt Whitman-Hanson was the most flexible.’’

East Bridgewater’s will be the first high school built under the program to house grades 7 through 12, and the architects adapted the plan to respond to parents’ wish for separate spaces for seventh- and eighth-graders, who will have their own entrance, academic floor, and music and art rooms, she said.

On Feb. 9, the school building authority’s board invited Marshfield to enter the agency’s capital pipeline for a new high school, according to Emily Mahlman, spokeswoman for the agency. Quincy and Duxbury are in the planning stages, Quincy for the middle school and Duxbury for a combined middle and high school.

In all, one school has chosen the Ashland model, two the Hudson model, and four the Whitman-Hanson model.

Scott Dunlap, a partner and principal at Ai3, said Whitman-Hanson worked well in part because educators and other town representatives were highly involved in the design.

The building also incorporates energy-efficient technology, including photovoltaics and rooftop water collection. School toilets use water from the roof and save 600,000 gallons a year, he said.

The school’s energy-saving features earned points in the state reimbursement formula.

Reimbursement starts at a base rate of 31 percent and runs as high as about 80 percent of eligible expenses, Mahlman said, depending on factors such as the relative poverty of the community, energy efficiency, forming a new regional district, and participating in the model-school program. Most expenses are eligible for reimbursement, but items deemed niceties, such as swimming pools and ice rinks, are not.

In Marshfield, conditions at the old high school have deteriorated to such a degree that, according to Marti Morrison, vice chairwoman of the School Committee, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges gave the town a warning. The School Committee will go to Town Meeting this month to ask for funds for a study to determine whether the model-school building program is right for Marshfield.

Sometimes, renovating to today’s standards costs almost as much as building new, especially when a town hopes to make a building energy-efficient and equipped to handle modern technology. In an earlier study of Marshfield High School in 2008, Morrison said, the town learned it would cost $92 million for a new school but nearly as much — $82 million — to renovate.

“If we renovate, we would have to renovate as new, which is not very cost effective,’’ she said, “and we would still end up with Band-Aids instead of something new.’’

Marshfield High would need a lot of Band-Aids. According to Morrison, the warning from the accrediting body listed 31 deficiencies. Some things, such as undersized desks and a lack of phones, have been fixed, she said, but others remain: outdated science labs; small, windowless classrooms with accordion walls that fail to block noise between rooms; a major structural crack across the building; a cracked gym floor; a leaking roof; electrical and climate-control issues; handicapped-inaccessible locker rooms; and too many outside doors, which in an era of terrorism and school shootings are considered a security risk.

Many aging schools have similar problems.

In Norton, Town Meeting in June will consider appropriating between $20 million and $30 million to build an addition to the 40-year-old high school and fund, among other things, a new roof, improvements to technology and science labs, and changes to comply with the latest accessibility and fire codes.

The electrical system is a problem in East Bridgewater, where Cote said a feasibility study showed renovating would cost more than a rebuild.

Although supporters of a new school for Marshfield hope to move quickly, the town will carefully consider all three model high schools, School Committee chairwoman Nancy Currie said.

Every community that seeks state reimbursement for construction projects must do so through the school building authority, regardless on whether it plans to participate in the model-school program.

Most communities fund their portion of the price with a debt exclusion, which excludes the borrowed money from the limits of Proposition 2 1/2, thereby triggering a temporary tax.

Jennette Barnes can be reached at