Robbie Ferris: Persisted to Deliver a Rural K-12 School at Ultra-low Cost

More than 13 years in the making, Jones County, N.C.’s new kindergarten-through-12th grade school has proven to be a multidimensional godsend for the highly rural, underserved area. Constructed at a total cost of $47.7 million, the sprawling modern school facility nevertheless ended up only costing Jones County a remarkably low total of $11.4 million to build.

The mastermind behind that low cost is Robbie Ferris, the CEO and president of school designer SfL+a Architects—and owner of Firstfloor Energy Positive, the project’s owner and developer.

Ferris, who spent years pitching and otherwise pursuing a single-school solution with Jones County officials, ultimately led his development team to forge an unusual, multipronged funding package that lowered the county’s total cost to build the school. The exhaustive, multiyear effort was vital, because Jones County couldn’t afford such a modern facility otherwise.

With the states’ second-smallest tax base, a county increase in local taxes large enough to fund a replacement for its existing 1950s-era school facilities would have been so severe as to be “politically impractical,” says Franky Howard, county manager. “We couldn’t have put that burden on our citizens.”

Still, the need was great. Collectively, Jones County’s existing facilities had suffered through an estimated 60 combined years of deferred maintenance, and they had numerous mechanical and other shortcomings. The buildings “had roof leaks everywhere,” Ferris says.

Fortunately, Howard says, Ferris “kept kicking (the idea) down the road until we could figure out a way to do it.”

The solution proved worth the wait. In addition to securing tax credits and zero-interest loans for the project, Ferris’ team, along with Howard and other county officials, persuaded state legislators—including then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown (R)—to take the unusual step of directing state grants to Jones County to fund construction.

In all, Ferris estimates, tax credits and grants totaled $36.3 million, resulting in a total borrowed amount of $11.4 million—and no tax increase for county residents.

Built via a public-private partnership and opened in August 2019, the resulting energy-positive school—estimated to produce 175% of its needed energy—also provides Jones County with a 40-year life-cycle cost of just $13.6 million, according to Firstfloor.

By comparison, the firm estimates that a traditional delivery of a non-energy-positive school would have resulted in a 40-year cost of nearly $101.4 million.

In a July 2019 letter, Jones County’s then-superintendent, Michael Bracy—who now works for Ferris—stated: “The project would not have been possible without the creativity and energy of the team. We received a $47-million project for approximately $13 million.”

For Ferris, also the architect, the school is “a pretty special building.”

He adds: “It really set a new benchmark for us both architecturally and from an engineering systems standpoint.”

ENR Southeast’s Best Projects judges agreed, honoring the Jones County K-12 with the Best K-12 Education Award, presented in late 2020.




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