Friday, May 24, 2024

While excited by the opportunity to improve the King School and bring it in line with the Innovation Agenda, some question if demolition of the existing building and the construction of a new school is the best approach.

Like most Cambridge residents we are excited by the opportunity to improve the King School and bring it in line with the Innovation Agenda. But we are concerned about whether the proposed demolition of the existing building and the construction of a new school is the best way to meet the needs of the city and its residents. We have reviewed the studies to date and do not believe that the option to renovate the building has been adequately evaluated. We believe a “second opinion” peer review is prudent given cost and importance of this project, and urge the City Council not to allow demolition to proceed without further study. We think that the renewal of the King needs to proceed expeditiously, but that a delay of several months for additional study is warranted.

When the King school opened in 1972 it replaced an older school on the site that was deemed unable to meet the standards of the day. The current school was designed to meet those expectations: massing in scale with the neighborhood, plentiful glass to bring in light, flexible spaces that supported innovative educational programs while allowing for change and using the latest building technologies. Those goals are very similar to the goals expressed for the proposed King School, and we question whether the current building needs to be demolished rather than adapted for the city’s ambitious new programs and environmental goals to be achieved. Are our schools really just disposable commodities to be hauled off in a dumpster when agendas change?

Cambridge has a distinguished record of renovating rather than replacing its buildings to meet changing needs, and there are many reasons to do so:

  • The “greenest” building is a reused building, given the vast amount of energy embodied in the materials and construction and the environmental impacts of demolition and disposal. It takes decades for even the most efficient building to make up for the energy it takes to demolish and build from scratch.
  • Buildings offer valuable links to the past, and once demolished those links are broken. The King was design by one of the most distinguished architects of the last century, Jose Luis Sert. Buildings of this era may not be in style, but like the once detested Victorians they may again be appreciated for their strength and integrity.
  • Decades of neglect can tarnish just about any building, and the King has certainly seen better days, but peeling paint and dirty glass, or even the need for new mechanical systems, don’t mean that demolition is the only solution.

In a throw-away culture Cambridge has the opportunity to show that aging schools can be brought back to life as an example of our progressive values. Along with a number of other architects, engineers and concerned citizens we have looked carefully at the studies prepared by the city’s architects for the King School reconstruction, Perkins Eastman. As experienced professionals who have prepared similar studies we are concerned that the conclusions they draw about the difficulties of reusing the current building are not supported by the facts that have been made public. Our concerns include:

  • The conclusion that reinforcement to meet current seismic codes is not possible or cost effective. This is at odds with our experiences and the opinion of engineers we have consulted.
  • The existing building is supported on columns and subdivided by nonstructural walls that can be removed easily. We believe that the study has not explored how the building’s flexibility can be used effectively as an alternative to complete demolition.
  • The floor-to-floor height, although low, still allows plentiful light to enter and space for mechanical equipment — while keeping the overall height compatible with that in the neighborhood. The floor-to-floor height has pros and cons, but should not prevent the existing structure from being reused.
  • Underused areas in the building, the courtyard or on the site offer additional opportunities for accommodating new needs that have not been investigated sufficiently.

Perkins Eastman suggested at its presentations that a new school would solve many problems associated with the current building. Again, we question whether the evidence supports the conclusion, and whether a new school won’t bring many significant problems.

  • The proposed building is unlikely to solve current traffic problems in the area. Any school in a dense urban neighborhood will have conflicts between drop-offs and neighborhood residents.
  • The current school stands out as an institutional presence in a residential neighborhood. The proposed school is significantly taller than the existing building — and we believe more out of character — which will be of concern to the neighborhood as design progresses.
  • Open space is limited on the site. The proposed school has even less open space.
  • Renovation will require some demolition, dust, street closures, noise and traffic backup. Demolition and new construction will have a much larger impact on the neighborhood.
  • Renovation will be costly. We question whether demolition and new construction won’t be far more expensive. Reutilization of the concrete foundations and structure would seem to offer significant savings, and we question whether this has been adequately considered.

We understand that it is important to move forward on this important project and that significant delays can be costly. But we also believe, as taxpayers and voters, that we need to be sure we are headed in the right direction. We feel it is prudent to have an independent architecture/engineering team do a peer review of the work that has been done to date. They should be experienced in both new construction and the renovation of similar buildings. Peer reviews are common for architectural and engineering projects to ensure that the public interest is protected. And this is particularly advisable when the same firm that has done an initial feasibility study also has the contract for design and construction and perhaps an incentive for favoring new construction. A “second opinion” might take several months but would provide the kind of oversight a project such as this demands.

The study would include these important components:

  1. A careful analysis of whether the existing building, with additions or renovations, could accommodate the Innovation Agenda programs.
  2. Life cycle energy use evaluations that would include the energy embodied in the existing construction, and the energy required for new construction, in long-term comparisons of energy use for renovation and demolition/new construction options.
  3. A detailed cost analysis comparing a renovation vs. demolition/new construction project.
  4. A review of the conclusion that required seismic upgrades preclude reuse of significant portions of the building.
  5. A comparison of the impact on the neighborhood of renovation vs. demolition/new construction including: the noise and vibration of the demolition and new foundation excavation; and the increased building height and larger footprint with associated reduction in open space.

The controversy surrounding Newton North is an example of what can happen when too much faith is placed in demolition and new construction to meet our schools’ challenges. And Fenway Park is an example of what can happen when a little more time is taken before bringing in the wrecking balls. Initial reports said the structure couldn’t be saved, when further analysis proved this wasn’t the case.

We appreciate your consideration of the future of the King School. We would like to follow up with a brief meeting to answer any questions you might have.

Bill Boehm, David Eisen, Max Moore