Mount Abe fix-it list: ‘more than a facelift’
BRISTOL — “It’s a well-built school. It’s a steel-frame building. It’s got a brick façade to it. It holds its heat very well,” Alden Harwood said of the Mount Abraham Union High School, which opened to students in 1969.
“But it’s an old building. It’s a 1960s-vintage building that needs more than a facelift,” he cautioned. “We’re starting to see many things that are at the end of their useful life.”
The question of renovating Mount Abe will again be before citizens of the five towns of the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union in the coming year.
The proposed $12.3 million Mount Abe budget that will appear on the Town Meeting Day ballot allots $1 million — either to fix the building immediately or as a placeholder for a potential future bond payment. And the Mount Abe board is looking for community members to serve on a Mount Abraham Renovation Committee, charged with determining the needs of the aging facility and with shaping a potential bond to go before voters in the 2017-2018 school year.
The board expects appointments to the committee this month.
Voters in 2014 rejected a proposed $32.6 million bond for Mount Abe renovations. So the Independent asked Harwood what the building needs now. He is the man who probably knows the district’s six facilities better than anyone in Addison County — he has served as ANeSU facilities director since 2011.
Here is Harwood’s immediate to-do list and the estimated price tags:
• Bring elevator up to code, $100,000-$300,000.
• Install a sprinkler system for the whole building, $500,000.
• Bring fire alarm up to code, $516,000.
• Overhaul the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, around $816,000.
• Renovate electrical system and bring it up to code, $1,100,000.
• Remove asbestos and replace asbestos floor tiles and other building components with non-asbestos materials, $2 million.
The list and the estimated price tags are based on Harwood’s own experience maintaining the facility and on the Dorr and Whittier feasibility study for the 2014 bond.
Overall Harwood said, just taking care of basics is liable to cost about $1 million a year.
“That’s the level we need to keep putting into that building. There are things that have been done but just not at a scale that’s equal to the scale of the building. It needs to get ramped up. It’s time to ramp it up. It was three years ago.”
The building has one elevator used by students, staff and custodians, and Hardwood said that elevator does not meet current building codes. For instance, code requires that an elevator be large enough for an ambulance gurney, which this one does not.
Harwood said meeting code would likely also include building a new “chase,” the shaft of the elevator, because the current chase would not be large enough to fit a gurney.
Asked if the school had ever had an incident where a gurney had been needed, Harwood said not that he knew of and that rescue workers would have to carry someone in a gurney down the stairs, given the present setup.
SPRINKLER & FIRE ALARM
Any new building would have to be fully sprinklered, said Harwood. At Mount Abe only the wood chip facility, installed in 2005, has a sprinkler.
The Mount Abe fire alarm system works fine, said Harwood, but “does not have the features that code would require in a new system.”
Code requires a fire alarm system that is “fully detectable,” meaning that “every device has a number and location so that the fire department can know exactly which alarm is going off.”
Mount Abe’s current system tells in which zones a fire or smoke have been detected, but not the precise alarm or alarms activated.
Likewise, although the school’s PA system would be used for any kind of a fire or other emergency, fire code now requires that a fire alarm system itself have a voice evacuation system.
The electrical system is safe but doesn’t meet code, according to Harwood. This is largely because of electrical components — switch gear, circuit breakers, conduit — left in place when the building was converted from its original electrical heat to a boiler and hot water baseboard system in the late 1980s.
Building safety codes are continually updated, and the Mount Abe electrical system is an example of something done according to code in an earlier decade that doesn’t meet current specifications, Harwood said.
HEATING, VENTILATION AND AIR CONDITIONING
Parts of the HVAC system date back to when the school first opened in 1969; parts are from the 1988 switch from electrical to water baseboard heat fueled by oil boilers, parts are more recent. The school can now run both fuel oil and wood chip boilers.
“It’s just old,” said Harwood of the heating/ventilation system. “The units are beyond their useful life.”
Harwood explained that over time he’s been converting the HVAC system to digital controls to achieve greater fuel efficiency, but that the older ventilators are on a pneumatic system that is so old that it leaks.
“I have a compressor over there that runs almost nonstop just to keep that pneumatic system running,” he said.
Over time, Harwood has been converting the HVAC system to digital controls to achieve greater energy efficiency.
“Energy’s a big thing for me,” Harwood said. He explains that the older ventilators bring in cold air from the outside every time someone adjusts the thermostat.
“Now we have much smarter units that monitor the CO2 levels and only bring in fresh air when it says so.”
The school was built with asbestos in ceiling and floor tiles, pipe insulation and even the joint compound used to put up every sheet of sheetrock, said Harwood.
“One of my goals I’ve set is I want to make all the schools asbestos free,” Harwood said. “So now we’re asbestos-free in Lincoln, in Bristol, in New Haven, and almost in Starksboro and all but one room in Monkton. We’ve spent a lot of money on asbestos in the last five years.”
Making Mount Abe entirely asbestos-free might not be possible, said Harwood, because of the asbestos in the wall mastic.
In recent years, Alden has replaced ceiling and floor tile there. He said that out of the building’s 165,000 square feet there’s about 100,000 square feet still to go.
Last summer, for example, the tile in the first floor hallways was replaced.
“For three weeks we had the building pretty well shut down, and no one was allowed entrance into any of those areas where we were doing the asbestos,” he said.
Harwood explained that day-to-day at school the asbestos is contained and the building is safe.
“None of this is a danger to anybody, as long as it’s managed, as long as it’s encapsulated.”
However, if a 48-year-old floor tile cracks or someone slams a wall with a hammer, that could release asbestos particles. He also said that when there have been plumbing leaks to be repaired, the school has first needed to have asbestos abatement done by professionals in “moon suits.”
“I had to keep a bucket under a leak for a week while we were waiting,” he said.
Harwood points to a shelf in his office lined with fat notebooks where he documents his asbestos management, as required by federal law.
Harwood said repairs and maintenance at Mount Abe have been ongoing — just not all along at the scale the building has truly needed.
In addition to the ongoing asbestos tile replacement, in recent years Mount Abe has seen walls painted, parking lot lights replaced, the wood chip boiler installed, indoor lighting overhauled, and of course, the gym floor repaired and replaced.
Some renovations result in long-term savings, Harwood pointed out. For example, when the school replaced 300 CRT computer monitors with flat screens it saved enough in electricity to pay for the new equipment.
Likewise, as Harwood has upgraded the school’s HVAC and electrical systems, he’s reduced the school’s monthly electric bill from around $15,000-$16,000 to around $11,000-$12,000, he said.
But no repair is ever entirely done on a building this old and this large, he said.
“The lighting that was done 10 years ago, that was considered state of the art then, is now considered obsolete,” Harwood said.
“And there’s also stuff that we never looked at like this whole issue with the gym floor and the leaky pipes.”
Looking over even his short list of repairs, Harwood sees reason in completing the list.
“Yeah this costs money,” he said. “But if you don’t do it, it costs money; and what’s it going to look like in another 10 or 20 year?”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].
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