The cafeteria building committee appointed by the Board of Selectmen is pushing back against a cost increase for the Darien High School cafeteria expansion project after being told that acoustic panels included in the original site plan will not be ready for installation until December.

During a recent meeting of the cafeteria building committee, which includes the full Board of Education, Paul Drummey of CREC and Erik A. Kaeyer of KGD Architects explained that the subcontractor responsible for the panels, KSR Construction, had run into engineering problems, leading to a revised design, an increased cost, and a lengthier timeline for installation.

KSR originally submitted a bid for $46,204 to complete the acoustic panel work. However the original design for the panels was determined to be unsound, and a subcontractor working with KSR pulled out of the project in February. This led KSR and KGD to seek additional subcontractors to revise and manufacture the parts.

At a July meeting of the cafeteria building committee, Drummey said that a new subcontractor, Gasparri Construction, had redesigned the panels and would be able to manufacture and install the product for $63,399.29. Committee members immediately objected to the steep price increase from KSR’s original bid and asserted that the contractor should be responsible for delivering the product as requested.

Drummey returned to the committee’s Aug. 24 meeting with a proposal from a new subcontractor, Decoustics, who would be able to manufacture the panels, while KSR would be responsible for the installation. However, due to the shifting timeline, the panels would not be ready for installation until December, a month after the rest of the cafeteria expansion is expected to be complete.

The estimated cost of working through Decoustics is $55,045.28, an increase of $8,841 from KSR’s original bid. Drummey and Kaeyer explained that about $4,000 of the additional cost would go towards the redesigned panels, while roughly $5,000 would go to KSR for their December installation. Kaeyer suggested that the project could lower the cost a bit by reducing the total number of panels, but the committee felt that more information would be needed before making a change to the architecture.

“The original design is what everybody wanted”  Interim Superintendent Elliott Landon said during the meeting. “The fact that we can’t have it is not the owner’s fault, the owner is innocent in this. Why can’t they have the original design and why does the owner have to pick up the cost?”

Committee members argued that they shouldn’t be forced to pay for the missteps of the contractors, both in the design of the panels, or the failure to secure a subcontractor on time. They also took issue with the timing of the project change; the original subcontractor withdrew from the project in February but the committee remained in the dark about the acoustic panels until July.

Drummey defended the increased cost, saying it was not out of the ordinary for this type of project and would typically be covered by the project contingency fund.

“Having worked on several public projects, no design is ever perfect and there are always omissions on every document that need to have a contingency to help when those conditions arise,” he said. “It’s my experience that we would bring it before the committee and it would be a justified use of contingency.

The cafeteria expansion’s contingency fund has already been heavily depleted by another unexpected issue. Shortly after breaking ground on the project the construction team found a duct bank containing utility wires that needed to be relocated prior to moving forward. To cover the cost of relocation, the committee successfully appealed to the town for $262,000 in additional funding and used $60,000 of the project’s  $93,310 contingency fund.

Committee members asked Drummey if it would be possible to negotiate the cost of the acoustic panel installation with the contractor. Drummey, who serves as the owner’s representative on the project, said he had already pushed KSR on the pricing.

“We’ve been battling every part of this change order to try and save our clients money,” Drummey said during the meeting.

Committee members mentioned the possibility of arbitration or litigation to hold the contractors responsible for delivering the panels at the original bidding price, but Kaeyer suggested that because the original panel design was not obtainable, the original bidding price would not apply. Board of Education Vice-Chairman Elizabeth Hagerty-Ross said the increased design cost is understandable but paying KSR additional money to install the panels after the project’s completion was a non-starter.

“I think the hardware change is easier to swallow as part of the contingency,” she said. “I think the major issue here is, these acoustical panels have been in the project from day one, and the remobilization for the contractor to come back in is what’s holding everybody up here. You would have an approval for the $4,000 hardware change but you won’t get the $5,000 because it’s part of the contract that we signed that the finished product has to have these hanging.”

The committee expects to hear more information about acoustic panel project modification this Friday. The existing cafeteria space has been renovated and is set for the start of the school year, while the full expansion is expected to be done in November. Originally estimated at $1.6 million, the finished product will add 95 new seats to the cafeteria, which currently seats 330 students.