Staying on Track

From the moment a school or university commits itself to a construction project, the meter starts to run. Each time a storm soaks the ground, a site excavation unearths the unexpected, a shortage of qualified workers idles the building site, or a school official fails to relay critical new information to the contractor, the project can veer off course.

Every time the schedule is pushed back, schools face a greater risk that a project will exceed its budget targets and miss its deadlines. For an institution building a new school, that can mean scrambling at the last minute to find a temporary home for hundreds of students whose new building isn't ready.

“A school is different from an office building,” says Mark Ross, director of new construction for the Lewisville (Texas) Independent School District. “The bottom line is there is a date by which time the school has to be built. We have no leeway.”

Some factors are beyond the control of administrators, but many school officials, architects and contractors have learned from experience the steps they can take to rein in potential problems before they lose control of a project.

To keep a school construction project on track, administrators need to plan thoroughly, adopt a realistic schedule that all contractors and subcontractors accept, and communicate constantly and openly with architects and contractors to make sure that any glitches are identified and corrected before they mushroom into costly delays.

“You try to minimize surprises,” says Dirk Walter, manager of design and construction for the Deer Valley Unified School District in Phoenix.

Keep it real

Students, parents, school board members, trustees, faculty, staff members and the public at large all have ideas of what they want to see in a school building — and how quickly they want it — but those dreams and desires might not mesh with budget realities or the constraints of time.

“My experience is that there is always a substantial variance between a desire to build a high-quality building and the willingness to pay for one,” says Lew Moran, a principal with HGA, an architectural firm in Minneapolis.

So it's up to those directly responsible for construction projects — school facilities administrators, construction managers and architects — to separate the feasible from the fanciful and devise a workable plan.

“Everyone wants things cheaper and faster — and they want better quality, too,” says Jim Wages, director of construction for the Douglas County (Colo.) School District. “You need to make sound decisions based on sound data. If you have unrealistic expectations, you're going to fail. We know how long it takes to build things. We know when to begin a project in our climate.”

In Arizona, Walter says the Deer Valley district ran into problems a few years back when the state's school facilities board established construction timelines that were too tight.

“We had construction workers shoveling and sweeping dirt off the sidewalks as kids were walking up to the building on the first day of school,” says Walter.

The schedules are more realistic now, he adds. “For a K-8 building, we allow 11 months,” says Walter. “It's adequate. It's not super-tight.”

Moran says that a construction team can accelerate its schedule, if necessary, but not without drawbacks.

“We can always work faster,” says Moran. “Construction companies can, too. But it will cost the project more money.”

Follow the plan

Devoting attention to planning at the outset will help a school or university sidestep bumps in the road when construction is under way.

“The amount of time you plan is paramount to your success,” says Wages. “The actual physical construction is the shorter side of things.”

The planning should begin as early as possible.

“You need to determine the scope of work out front,” says Ross. “Change orders can really lead to time problems.”

As a school design is put together, administrators should always be weighing whether the plan is practical. “You need to think about ‘constructability’ while you're designing,” says Moran.

Conversely, once construction is underway, it's beyond the time officials should be pondering design changes.

“It's difficult to solve planning problems when you're in the middle of construction,” says Wages.

In some cases, after plans have been set in motion, teachers or building administrators may try to add elements. Their ideas may be worthwhile, but the construction team has to decide whether such late changes will jeopardize the schedule or budget.

“You've got to keep everybody to what was agreed to,” says Rolland Schlosser, director of planning services for Barton Malow, a construction-management firm based in Southfield, Mich. “The construction manager assumes the role of the heavy, of saying ‘no’ and getting things back within scope.”

Common pitfalls

Even when a project has a meticulous plan, unforeseen problems can crop up.

“Sometimes it's some of the contractors that don't perform well,” says Walter. “Sometimes we run into site-work that is more intensive than we anticipated.”

In recent years, construction schedules have been knocked off kilter because of a shortage of tradespeople. “There are only so many to go around,” says Walter.

Moran notes that a few years back, contractors couldn't find enough masons for their projects. “You had masons from around the country flying in to some areas,” he says. “In those situations you might consider other materials.”

Schlosser says that because of that mason shortage, some designs switched from masonry-bearing walls to steel-frame walls.

Schools also need to keep abreast of what projects are in the pipeline for nearby schools and universities, as well as the overall construction market.

“You need to keep track of who else is building,” says Wages. “You're not in a vacuum. We pre-qualify our contractors and sub-contractors. It confirms who we have in our market that is interested in the work.”

Some contractors rely on computer programs to help them set up their construction schedule. Wages says that can be a problem if the contractors rely too heavily on the technology.

“They let the system tell them what to do, instead of them telling the system. Too often, when they get behind, they are relying on a computer program.”

Come together

With a design drawn up and a construction schedule in place, administrators need to make sure that everyone involved is kept fully informed about how the project is progressing — and what difficulties have arisen.

“You sit down with the entire team and define the sequence of critical dates,” says Schlosser. “You make sure everybody is working from the same game plan.”

Frequent meetings are a critical part of the process in the Lewisville district.

“The contractor meets with the architects, mechanical engineers and school personnel each week,” says Ross. “Problems are discussed and dealt with in a timely manner so that construction can continue, instead of waiting weeks for an answer.”

Wages says Douglas County has a similar procedure. “We have a weekly meeting and go over what work has been done that week, and what is proposed for the following week,” he says. “We ask a simple question: Are you on schedule or not? If not, we set up a remediation plan to get back on schedule.”

The frequent meetings won't be effective unless those involved feel that they can be honest about the situation.

“You have to be very clear what a delay in decisionmaking will mean in terms of delaying the project,” says Moran. “We want to know about what can derail us. You have to have a relationship of trust.”

It also helps move along the process, Ross says, if smaller project decisions can be resolved at the construction meetings “so we do not have to take every little thing to the school board for approval.”

Let's do it again

One effective way for schools and universities to save time and money on projects is to repeat themselves. Many schools seek out the same architects, dip into the same pool of contractors and subcontractors, and use prototype designs to build similar facilities. Those steps shorten the learning curve and expedite the schedule.

“We use prototype designs,” says Ross. “We don't have to learn things over and over again. It frees up time in the schedule. And we use one architectural firm. That is to our benefit. We know them, and they know us.”

In Douglas County, using prototype designs “improves a project's predictability,” says Wages. “We know what the schools are and how long it takes to build them. We can incorporate changes and make continuous improvements to the design as we build each school.”

The administrators who are best positioned to oversee a school construction project effectively are those who have done it before; for schools and universities that have not pursued a construction project recently, experienced designers and contractors can fill in knowledge gaps.

“You can tell the difference with someone who is unfamiliar with the whole process,” says Schlosser. “There is a lot more hand-holding. It's a matter of explaining the steps along the way.”

As school construction boomed in the 1990s, and more emphasis was placed on high-quality projects that would endure, school administrators have become more proficient in dealing with the ins and outs of a project.

“In general, owners are more knowledgeable and sophisticated about design and construction,” says Schlosser. “They want to be involved in the whole process.”

Remembering the ultimate goal — a facility that will improve the educational experience for students — will help administrators make the choices that will result in a building completed on time and within budget.

“As long as you're able to keep the project as the focus of what you're going to do, you'll be on the right track,” says Wages.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

Building in phases

One way to keep a construction project manageable is to not try to do too much at once. At the California University of Pennsylvania in California, Pa., the school is tackling a major overhaul of its student housing in three phases.

The first two phases are off-campus housing — phase one was completed two years ago, and phase two will be finished next year, says Barry Niccolai, dean of student services and executive director of Student Association Inc., a not-for-profit company established by the school that is overseeing the projects.

The school broke ground last May on phase three — a $36 million, three-building on-campus student complex that will house 705 students when it opens in August 2004.

In all three phases, the school has formed public/private partnerships to carry out the construction of the projects.

“It's important to pick a good developer, one with experience who can guarantee price and delivery,” says Niccolai.

The school may have private partners in the project, but officials stay deeply involved in the construction process. Those involved in the construction hold meetings every other week to make sure the project is progressing as planned.

“You can't give away the final product,” says Niccolai. “You have to be involved with it from day one.”

Learning by experience

From 1992 to 2003, the Lewisville (Texas) Independent School District has grown from about 23,000 students to more than 44,000. Keeping up with that growth has enabled administrators in Lewisville to become well-seasoned in the field of school construction.

“Over time, you learn from the projects you've completed, and from other district's projects,” says Mark Ross, the district's director of new construction.

The experience has allowed the district to identify the design and construction partners with whom they can work effectively.

“You need good architects, good mechanical engineers,” says Ross. “You need to have everybody on the same page.”

Constantly facing a heavy load of construction projects, the district's staff often is called on at crunch time to help make sure projects are completed before the school year begins.

“In our department, we pitch in and do things at the end of a job to get things ready,” says Ross. “Whatever it takes.”

Lewisville opened two elementary schools this fall and has another under construction to open next summer. The district will continue to tap its staff's construction expertise, as demographic projections show student enrollment growing to more than 64,000 in 2012. District voters approved a $306 million bond issue in 2001 to pay for construction of the many schools that will be needed to keep up with the growth.

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