Old-School Problem Solving

Low-margin commercial projects - especially for historical renovations - leave little room for error but lots for creativity.

July 31, 2003


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Newspaper Article From The Union Leader (Manchester N.H.)

Low-margin commercial projects - especially historical renovations - leave little room for error but lots for creativity

Returning an old building to its original appearance might not sound terribly creative. Having renovated a school for use as town offices, Tom Avallone can tell you that historical renovation, particularly in bad weather, can call for creativity in areas most contractors never contemplate.


Cobb Hill replaced these 1980s-era aluminum windows with mahogany windows, some of them 10 feet tall. The new units replicate the 19th-century originals as shown in old photos, except they are insulated.

Vacant since 1996, the school in Boscawen, N.H., had three sections: a worn, two-story brick Victorian building constructed as a private academy in 1866; a two-story brick and concrete addition built in 1961 after the school had become a public elementary school; and a connecting link between the two buildings.

After the school was "retired," the town of Boscawen bought it, planning to turn the historic 1866 building, one of the best remaining Victorian school buildings in the state, into town offices. Town managers soon decided to use the 1961 wing as a one-story police station, with rental space above. The connecting link would be largely rebuilt to house an elevator and reworked stairs. Kelly Davis of Sumner Davis Architects in Portsmouth, N.H., drew up plans for the project, and the town used them to apply for a state Land and Community Heritage Investment Program grant to help fund restoration.


"The three selectmen knew they had a gem on their hands" with the 1866 school building, preservation consultant Elizabeth Durfee Hengen says. "A lot of the original fabric remained inside and out, and nothing was removed" during the renovation. Cobb Hill restored the masonry and trim of the historic building, had KSD Custom Wood Products make mahogany entry doors exactly like the originals and reconstructed the entry balustrade. The 1961 building gained a new entry and a sally port for police cars. Cobb Hill gutted the link structure, removed one of its walls and added an elevator, new interior and entry stairs, and doors connecting the buildings. The structure connects the two buildings aesthetically as well.

Eighteen contractors submitted proposals to serve as construction manager of the project. Avallone's company, Cobb Hill Construction of Concord, N.H., easily made the short list, having been enthusiastically recommended by Elizabeth Durfee Hengen, the consultant hired to provide the historical preservation oversight required under the grant. Add to that the advantage of proximity and a good rTsumT that features preservation and restoration jobs about the size of the school project. Rhoda Hardy, chair of the town board of selectmen and the construction committee, says, "We felt we could work with Cobb Hill the best."

Boscawen awarded Cobb Hill a pre-construction agreement in February 2002, commissioning the company to do preliminary pricing and value engineering. The town signed a construction management contract with Cobb Hill in July 2002.

Grinding the numbers

The first creative challenge was budgetary. "When we were asked to price the job, we estimated $1.7 million," Avallone says. "They came back to us, asking what $1.6, $1.4 and $1.2 million would buy. We said $1.2 million was bare-bones." To arrive at that low figure, Cobb Hill's estimator trimmed back the exterior lighting system, cut the asbestos abatement in the old building's basement (because the town planned to close off the basement and use a new heating system instead of the basement boiler) and eliminated numerous features, including a copper roof for the cupola, camera monitors and an evidence locker for the police station, and landscaping and a granite sign.


Bad weather led the project team to an innovative plan for restoring the cupola. The team figured out it would be easiest and cheapest to take the cupola off the building with a crane, truck it to the roofing shop, re-roof it and then reinstall it by crane.

When the town received a $350,000 LCHIP grant and Boscawen voters approved a $1.2 million bond for the project, Avallone got $1.5 million for the project. Even that budget was tight. "We shopped our windows mercilessly," he says, "and still negotiated the final cost" of reproduction window fabrication with the low bidder, his preferred contractor. Avallone negotiated the mechanicals price down from $208,000 to $180,000 and the electrical price from $150,000 to $125,000.

Cobb Hill helped the town solicit donations, too. "We worked with the community to horse-trade" for gifts such as lumber, lighting, materials from The Home Depot for the entry balustrade, and bulletproof glass from a bank for the tax collection window.

"We have done this quite a bit," Avallone says. "Part of our role is to work with towns and nonprofits to create the environments they need, [even when that means] juggling donations." In all, the company negotiated price and donations on about 100 items.

Townspeople came forward to donate other things. The local police wives association, for instance, gave $2,500 to pay for the evidence locker. An elderly widow contributed the cupola roof in honor of her husband, a teacher who had grown up in Boscawen.

As is typical of municipal jobs run by a construction manager, Boscawen officials hired a clerk of the works to represent the town during the school renovation. As a daily, on-site presence, clerk Bill Murphy could have been a pain but wasn't, Avallone says. "He was invaluable. He turned out to be an ad hoc assistant production manager. He also did a lot of work himself." This work included removing stair railings and radiators for restoration and, most notably, donating his time to sand, refinish and rehang all 33 10-foot-tall doors.

Freeze action

The "link" building now functions as the main entryway for the town offices as well as for the upper level of the 1961 building.

The timetable changed when Cobb Hill determined that the basement of the 1866 building had to be used as a mechanical room rather than be sealed off. Because the asbestos abatement had to be completed before general demolition could begin, this pushed the start of production from summer into late fall - and most of the construction into the heart of a devilish winter. "We had our first snow in October, and by Thanksgiving the ground was covered with a foot of snow," Avallone says. "We didn't see ground again until late March or early April."

The arctic conditions called for creative problem solving. Paving the grounds was slated for the fall, but the weather zapped that plan. "We used ground heaters to thaw out and prepare the area to be compacted and graded," Cobb Hill production manager Claude Dupuis says, "and it would be frosted over the next day." So the paving was postponed until spring, extending project completion into April.

At least three times a week, Cobb Hill's crew began the day shoveling. Even the window installation was slowed by the weather. To limit the exposure to cold inside the building, "we budgeted no more than two or three installations a day" in the 1866 structure, Avallone says. Matters were complicated when the out-of-state contractor hired for the exacting job of installing the large, weight-driven sash windows disappeared before the work was to start. "At the last minute, we paid a bunch of finish carpenters by the hour to install them," Dupuis says. "It took six hours for the first window. We got down to a couple of hours per window and ended up one week late on the windows."

The granddaddy of cold-weather challenges was how to construct a new foundation wall for the linking structure and a well jacket for the structure's elevator. "We moved the south wall out 6 feet," Dupuis explains, "so we had to take out the existing foundation wall. The challenge was to keep the roof and north wall intact while building a new structure inside this."

Cobb Hill's creative solution saved the $10,000 that would have been spent digging a pit for a truck to make the elevator hole. "We left the foundation wall, drove a well rig over it, put out the rigging legs" over the old foundation wall and bored the hole, Dupuis says.

Once the rig was gone, Dupuis took out the old foundation wall and built both the new foundation wall and the masonry well. The link building was supposed to be completed in January. Because of the rough winter, the masonry shaft took longer to prepare, and that extended the schedule for the link into March.

To get around the cold-weather problem when pouring concrete for the link structure, Dupuis scheduled separate pours for each level. This solved the problem but was "expensive from a time point of view," Avallone says. And outside the link structure the company rigged up a tent containing space heaters so the masonry walls could be built in midwinter.

Unobtrusive updates

Retrofitting the 1866 building without compromising its historical integrity challenged Cobb Hill's creativity in other ways. "The building was old and tired," Avallone says. "The plaster was cracked, the wood floors squeaked, the stairs were gouged, the railings were loose, balusters were missing." The heating system dated from the 1800s.

"We had to wire and plumb the building and install HVAC without disturbing the building," Dupuis says. How? Davis' architectural plan called for a wide new corridor on the first floor. "Everything was crammed into that hall," Dupuis says. "We created a chase from the basement to the attic through a closet" and a chase "to the first-floor corridor in a side wall." Ducts run above the hall ceiling. Electricians cut 4-inch round holes at the intermediate wall blocking, ran wiring through the chase and then patched the holes. The sprinkler system ran up the chase to the attic and down through the ceiling to the second floor. On the first floor, the sprinklers are side units with special extended heads.

Cobb Hill re-plastered all the walls, shimming out a number of unfinished spaces that were discovered behind old blackboards. The company obtained approval from the preservation consultant and the town to drywall the ceilings, as new plaster simply would have cracked again.

Dupuis reused all the restored doors in original or new locations. All the wood floors were refinished. A new patch at the site of an old stage blends so well "you cannot tell old and new," Hardy says. Cobb Hill freshened the moldings and wainscots without sanding the irregular-width boards in order to retain their character, says Hengen.

The design called for construction of a two-stall garage for police cars in the 1961 structure. To build the garage, Cobb Hill had to cut into the front curtain wall, meaning there would be no support for the garage door. Dupuis and Murphy devised a way to install a lightweight steel header across the wall. The header carries the curtain wall, and the door mechanism hangs off the concrete floor above.

Cobb Hill had to renovate the lower half of the front curtain wall and leave the top half unchanged. The original system was built to weep condensation, and "tying in the old and new systems wouldn't work," Dupuis says. So he constructed the new lower wall with plywood-backed stucco panels that do not interrupt the water flow.

"Cobb Hill made very sound decisions along the way," says Hengen, while "respecting the building." Hardy is equally complimentary. "It's a wonderful recycling of a building," she says. In fact, pretty much the whole town is happy with the project.

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