Increased Construction Costs Hit Falls Church HS Renovation

The latest effects of inflation and supply chain troubles have hit Falls Church High School hard as district staff and school board members try to find ways to mitigate the impact of rising costs on the school’s ongoing renovation. The project, which began last spring, is slated to increase the building’s square footage, capacity for students and update aging facilities. 

Planning for the project began in 2017, after Fairfax County voters approved a bond measure that provided funding for the design of the renovations and addition. In June 2020, Fairfax County Public Schools staff presented the school board with a $107 million price tag for the renovation, a number derived from the architectural plan created by Perkins Eastman and current material and labor prices. 

Fairfax County Public Schools, which owns 198 schools and centers, funds its major capital improvements through bonds. In November 2021, voters approved a $360 million bond that earmarked $130 million towards the renovation of Falls Church High School, according to documents released by the district. Subsequently, Fairfax County Public Schools solicited bids from construction contractors to build the updates to the school.

The lowest bid came from Grunley Construction, a Shady Grove, Maryland, based contractor that submitted a bid price of $142.6 million. Fairfax County Public Schools later negotiated the contract down to $133.6 million.

In negotiations, Fairfax County Public Schools staff worked with Grunley on a “value engineering process” which resulted in thirteen modifications to the original plan for Falls Church High School. This process is done for every major capital improvement project, according to people familiar with the matter. 

The largest reductions in cost came from revising the plan for updated athletic facilities. Deferring work on baseball, softball, press box and sports lighting facilities reduced renovation costs by $3.1 million. Additional cost saving measures include material and product substitutions, saving the district $1.3 million. This involves substituting finishes “with durable, but more cost-effective materials” in areas such as drywall, tiling and a gymnasium wood floor, according to documents reviewed by the News-Press.

Other features have been cut all together. A planned bridge over the cafeteria that would have connected two hallways for improved egress was scrapped to save $221,000. Plans for solar hot water heating and the conversion of the auxiliary gym to a courtyard have also been removed. 

Some responsibilities have been shifted out of the contractor’s scope of work, including invasive species remediation, furniture removal for classroom moves, and lead paint abatement, which will now be handled by the Office of Facilities Management. 

In instances of altered or removed features, people familiar with the planning said those elements could be added back in later rounds of funding. 

Falls Church High School, whose renovation is considered long overdue by many in the community, occupies the building of the former Whittier Intermediate School, a building constructed in 1959. Capacity enhancements were made in 1989, but much of the original building from nearly 65 years ago remains untouched and still in use. A 2008 report by consulting firm Samaha Associates found the building’s code compliance severely deficient. Falls Church High School will be the last high school in the county to get a sprinkler system. 

Paula Prettyman, the vice president of the PTSA at Falls Church High School, said she hopes the renovation will be equitable. 

“The FCHS community shouldn’t have to take cuts because of inflation,” she said. 

Prettyman and other parents in the PTSA and Athletic Boosters organizations plan to “audit” the project later in the construction by comparing its features to other recently renovated high schools, like Fairfax High School and Oakton High School. 

Craig Day, a Falls Church High School alum, former substitute teacher and track coach said the school community has waited long enough for the renovation for it to be cut back by pandemic related cost increases. 

“I want the best for Falls Church,” Day said.