Odyssey of an Organ Factory

The brick middle school at 215 Sydney St. in Dorchester, Boston’s largest neighborhood, dates back to 1905 when the Skinner Organ Company built it to manufacture its world famous organs.

In 1973, Skinner sold the building to an office furniture company. Some years later, a developer acquired it and began converting it into artists’ lofts and an art gallery. In 2009, the developer abandoned the project.

At the same time in 2009, the Boston Collegiate Charter School (BCCS) was looking for a building within walking distance of its two schools located at 11 Mayhew St. The Sydney St. building was a 10-minute walk.

“The Mayhew Street facility housed grades 7 and 8 in an old convent and grades 9 through 12 in an aging Catholic school building,” says Marion McDaid, director of finance with BCCS. “The buildings are connected but we view them as two schools.”

Following a major renovation, 215 Sydney St. became the third school in the system, a lower middle school for 5th and 6th graders.

It is also an example of a successful adaptive reuse project — a project that alters an old structure for a different use.

Can You Make a 21st-Century School Out of this Building?
Adaptive reuse projects can create financial disasters if the existing building turns out to have costly hidden problems.

To avoid that, owners can commission feasibility studies. BCCS selected Boston-based Pinck & Co. Inc. (PCI) to determine if re-making 215 Sydney St. would fit the school’s needs and budget.

PCI provides design and construction management consulting services and acts as an owner’s project manager for all phases of capital projects. The company also manages sustainable design and construction.

“This building posed extra challenges,” says Jennifer Pinck, president of PCI.

Indeed, several features of the site had changed since 1905. Adjacent to the building — up in the air — an overpass on Boston’s Southeast Expressway hovers, flinging traffic noise and dirt at the building. On the ground, about 10 feet from the building, train tracks carry commuter trains back and forth all day.

In addition to the noise outside, Pinck identified interior acoustical problems that would transmit noise — like kids yelling and running — between floors.

“The site was also complicated by ground water,” Pinck says. “This part of Boston is marshy land that has been filled. When heavy rain saturates the ground, water can run into the basement through porous masonry walls and seep up from the ground below.”

Finally, the site suffered from a shortage of parking spaces. The main building, spanning 25,000 square feet, sprawled all the way out to the property line. The building came with an 800-square-foot garage across the street, but there were too few spaces for the faculty and staff.

Pinck decided that none of those problems amounted to a deal breaker, considering the pluses the building offered.

“The building had a big, open floor plan,” Pinck says. “It was like a clean canvas. The dimensions would enable us to put the classrooms on the street side of the building, away from the noisy train and car traffic. We would put the offices against the noisy wall.”

The loft developer, the previous owner, had already made key improvements. These included a second exit, a second stairway, new double insulated windows and a new roof.

By reusing major components of an existing structure — essentially recycling those components — adaptive reuse projects can significantly reduce costs.

In this case, the work required to remedy the building’s shortcomings and then carry out the renovation would cost $3.8 million.

Without the building’s attractive features, it might have been necessary to demolish the structure and build new. Pinck estimates that would cost in the range of $5.5 million, about $1.7 million more than the adaptive reuse construction work.

Innovative Finance to Buy and Build
In 2000, Congress enacted the Community Renewal Tax Relief Act, which included a financing program called New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC). That program provides federal tax credits to businesses and individuals that invest activities that will help generate economic activity in low-income and impoverished communities.

NMTC financing enabled BCCS to refinance the original two schools at 11 Mayhew St., while contributing to the acquisition of 215 Sydney St.

Another investor bought $6 million in Qualified Zone Academy Bonds, a federally funded school finance program that enables qualifying schools to obtain low- and even no-interest loans. The cash from the bond purchase provided funds to complete the acquisition and pay for construction.

‘You Can’t Miss That September Date’

In April of 2009, BCCS asked PCI to act as owner’s representative, manage the project through completion and finish within 17 months so the school could open in the fall of 2010.

“It was an aggressive schedule,” Pinck says, “and a school really can’t miss that September date.”

Challenges arose immediately. Massachusetts requires that the Commonwealth Designer Selection Board select school architects. The process takes three months.

While the board made its decision, PCI carried out the programming or basic planning for the school. The programming called for nine full-size classrooms, five small-group teaching spaces, library and media center, conference room, and a large multipurpose space for physical education classes, assemblies and community events. The space would also house offices for administrators and teachers.

“When the board selected the architect, we handed off our plan,” Pinck says. “That saved two months.”

The architect went to work on the design, and PCI dealt with an array of permits and community approvals, securing permits, approvals and agreements from at least 12 city and state agencies and several neighborhood organizations.

Among the challenges overcome in this phase of the project was parking.

Boston zoning rules require an organization that cannot provide enough parking spaces on its site to seek a variance for parking — unless you can lease sufficient parking within 300 feet of the site.

“We were lucky,” Pinck says. “We found some under-utilized public land belonging to the Mass Bay Transportation Authority within 300 feet. We were able to negotiate a license to use the land for about two dozen parking spaces.”

Design and Construction

PCI managed the design process to remedy the building’s known problems and create a warm, inviting school.

Placing the offices on the side of the building nearest the expressway and train tracks and making sure the new double insulated windows were well sealed took care of the exterior noise problem.

Complex acoustical systems were installed to isolate noise from the outside and to deaden noise traveling between floors.

“It’s amazingly quiet,” says McDaid, whose office is next to the expressway. “It’s also quiet from floor to floor.”

Since the building extends to the property line, the contractor couldn’t waterproof from the outside  — without digging up the St.. “We waterproofed from inside,” Pinck says. “We put a drainage mat against the masonry and stone foundation in the basement and removed the basement floor.

“Then we put in a layer of rock with perforated pipe around the perimeter that ties into a sump pit with a sump pump. Finally we put in a new concrete floor. Now when the water rises, the system pumps it out of the building.”

PCI also solicited bids, awarded contracts and managed a number of separate construction tasks related to special building needs. Those included hazardous material abatement, early demolition, exterior masonry restoration, elevator modification, telephone and data cabling, security technology and building signage.

Building systems that required a complete overhaul included the electrical and heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems.

The finishes are simple. The architect and owner worked together to choose a palette of light greens and blues. “It has a sophisticated look,” Pinck says.

The interior design elements took advantage of the building’s existing style. “It is a beautiful old building with timber columns and beams,” Pinck says. “We left the brick and wood exposed and cleaned it by sandblasting. The high ceilings remain.”

The design exposes some modern elements, too, like the sprinkler system. “We painted that, and it gives the space a modern industrial feel — kind of hip.”

Today, the old Skinner Organ Company building has a proud second life as part of the Boston Collegiate Charter School.

BCCS prepares students to go to college. That’s the mission. The school doesn’t, however, cherry pick the best students. BCCS requires no entrance exam. School officials believe that every student can do well enough in high school to get into college. So BCCS chooses its students in an annual random lottery that attracts applicants from across Boston.

This year, 1,200 applicants entered the lottery, each hoping to come away with one of the 100 or so available 5th grade slots.

The school serves more about 600 students from across Boston. Most live in Dorchester, where the school is located. About 44 percent of the students come from families living at or below the poverty line. Yet 100 percent of the school’s graduates have been accepted to college — every one of them.

So in a way, the old Skinner Organ Company building is making music again. 

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