Construction in the Mix

Aug. 1, 2002
Tips for managing construction projects on campus.

Once projected space needs exceed existing capacity, every educational institution contemplates expansion. A feasibility study usually is required in order to understand and evaluate the available options. Proactive expansion for other reasons is always possible, especially in private institutions. Depending upon the speed of growth and change, three primary strategies are evaluated: renovation, addition and new independent construction. It is not unusual for plans to include all three.

Regardless, each strategy is synchronized with the ongoing academic needs. Planning this “phased construction” well is critical to the final cost, ultimate success and overall satisfaction with the project.

Demolition and construction on a site where classes are in session are, at best, a distraction; at worst, they also can be dangerous. The worst-case scenario occurs when renovation must happen within an occupied building. A key ingredient for evaluating the potential of such a renovation is whether swing space can be occupied during construction. The amount and location of swing space has a direct impact on how long the distraction must be endured and who must endure it. If temporary space must be leased, such costs become part of the overall new construction cost.

If a school addition is required, a common strategy is to build that first — minimizing or avoiding the expense of leasing. Then the new space can be used as swing space when renovating the remainder of the building. The key constraint involving swing space is maintaining circulation between functioning facility spaces while avoiding active construction. When a gymnasium or auditorium is involved, offsite temporary facilities might require busing. Even when only new building is contemplated, site construction adjacent to a functioning school needs careful coordination. One activity can impede the other.

Scheduling variables

For school projects, optimal construction scheduling is defined by key academic dates — the first and last day of an academic term and vacations — when school is not in session. Even so, there are preferred vacation times: it is preferable to do construction work during daylight hours, during a season when weather is mild, and when seasonally busy crews of key trades are available for the tasks at hand at normal wages. As a result, at least part of every new school project schedule is planned to happen in the summer.

The construction funding availability is the first consideration of construction scheduling. For public and private educational projects alike, funding for construction often is delayed. A downturn or upturn in the economy affects private funding. The legislative schedule at the local or state level may have the same effect on public funds. A project may have to begin at the wrong time for all of the right reasons.

Another important variable is the weather. Construction must respect the climate. Water-based materials — paints, adhesives, mortar and concrete — can freeze in cold weather. Roofing must not be installed until rain-drenched surfaces are dry. Insulation and interior finishes also can be ruined by leaking water. Snow and sleet on the highway delays deliveries. Each region of the country has its own organic limitations.

Wet construction also has an impact on the shoes of the students and the maintenance expenses that result. Once a building is enclosed, weather is still an important variable, but less likely to result in serious delays.

Underground, and therefore unknown, conditions offer another source of surprises. Historic building sites can be delayed for months while archeologists retrieve uncovered artifacts. Hazardous materials may be discovered beneath the surface and require careful, expensive disposal. Unexpected underground water or other unusual soil conditions can cause delays and even the complete redesign of building foundations.

Interior renovation projects typically have more predictable schedules. A recently constructed building may have products and materials that are still readily available. The sizes and product numbers may be researched. Pure renovation projects, however, may have another negative scheduling ingredient: the age of the existing campus or building.

With time, when construction documents deteriorate and are lost, destructive research may be required to understand how an older building is built. Concealed asbestos may be present, along with lead paint. Foundations settle. Floors cease to be level; doorways may no longer be square. Even the dimensions of lumber used in construction have changed with time. Therefore, even when products are delivered on time, they may not fit. Accessibility problems, fire codes and structural requirements have evolved with time. The younger the building, the less guesswork is involved in the preconstruction scheduling and cost estimating. The older the building, the more risk of error.

The construction process

Once all of the scheduling factors are taken into consideration, the construction process itself must be analyzed and coordinated with that of the educational institution. In short, when portions of a school construction site are occupied and in use, a plan must be in place that separates the demolition/construction activities from the educational activities. Both must be allowed to flourish. When necessary, the two separate activities must be successfully coordinated.

From a construction point of view, phasing plans must pay special attention to:

  • Utility services

    It is not unusual to share utility needs with the occupied portions of the building. Contractors must always meet all safety requirements, and not disrupt service to the occupied building.

    Example: Nothing is more vital during a school renovation than the school's alarm system and an operable public-announcement capability.

  • Preparation for construction

    Many temporary protective steps during the construction process are needed: weather protection, site access and traffic control, storage of dangerous equipment or materials, and shoring of the structure.

    Example: Schools make abundant use of chain link fencing and rolls of warning tape. School security after hours is an important concern.

  • Salvage

    All such items must be identified, cleaned or repaired, carefully stored on-site, or removed.

    Example: Not much storage space is available in an active school. Storage in stairwells and dead-end corridors is common but invites vandalism. The rental of onsite storage trailers must be added to the overall construction costs.

  • Air quality

    The contractor must control dust and fumes while facilities are being demolished, new construction occurs, or the finished construction is cleaned.

    Example: Schools frequently hire an industrial hygienist to actively monitor air quality during construction. Student headaches and watering eyes are an undesirable next level of warning.

  • Disposal

    Usually, disposal means carting demolished materials to a place off site. In certain circumstances, a client may designate areas and methods of acceptable disposal on site. All hazardous materials need special care and attention to the safety requirements involved with disposal.

    Example: It is especially important to attend to exposed rusty nails protruding from demolished materials.

  • Schedule and sequence

    The contractor must always balance the construction process and educational convenience.

    Example: Jackhammers and pile driving are notorious for causing dramatic mismatches of construction and educational requirements.

  • The age and maturity of the building's current occupants

    Smaller children may not even be able to read or understand signs that are indicating safety directions or danger. Other young children may be easily distracted. With older students, construction vandalism may become a serious problem. Even senior citizens often use school spaces for classes in off-hours. Construction worker and vehicle circulation must be conceived in context with vehicle and pedestrian circulation of both student and staff population. In essence, the construction workers become building occupants themselves. For example, the smoking needs of construction workers are typically incompatible with strict school smoking regulations. The loud environment of the construction site is unwelcome in the classroom.

Continuing consensus

From an architectural point of view, each day that school is in session, the school must function successfully. Children must arrive and depart in a predictable way, circulate safely between classes and related functions, and be able to communicate effectively in class. This situation usually means that several complete “schools” must be designed and operated between the first and last day of construction. When phasing is an important ingredient of the design, a set of construction documents devoted to clarifying the quantity, quality and schedule of the activities is part of the construction documents.

A key ingredient in the success of each phase of a construction effort is frequent project meetings and good communication at all times. When school functions occur without warning the contractors, or important construction activities unexpectedly begin that affect school use, the stage is set for confusion.

Many schools hire a construction manager specifically for the project. The best of these professionals are experienced in educational projects and understand academic needs as well as the needs of the construction site. He or she must speak both languages.

Any plan, process or contractual relationship is improved by hiring experienced professionals early who can listen carefully and document all of the ingredients to the plan. Everyone involved must understand it and agree with it. Only good live communication can provide a bridge between the people and ideas on both sides of good school construction.

SIDEBAR: A phased addition

The phasing plans for R.J. Grey Junior High School in Acton, Mass., are shown here. The original building suffered from haphazard planning and growth over many years. It had inadequate classroom space and needed an upgrade of core facilities and systems. New additions are shown in gray. A typical array of phasing decisionmaking is illustrated by the small plans below. Phase I took place between fall 1999 and February 2000. Phase II took place from February through summer break of 2000. Phase III began in fall 2000.

  • Phase 1: The west parking area is prepared for contractor parking and staging. The superstructure is placed for new classroom construction. The new media center is completed but temporarily used as offices. A third atrium is enclosed.

  • Phase 2: Work on the main entry and gymnasium renovation begins. The new classroom wing is completed and can be used as swing space. Phased relocation of students can begin.

  • Phase 3: The auditorium renovation begins. Construction of the new network room must be completed prior to Christmas break. A switch over to the new network room will occur during Christmas break. More renovated classrooms are completed in time for February break. Allow one week to move in.

  • Phase 4: The classroom renovation is completed. The cafeteria also is completed. Completion of sewer lines and utilities for playing fields allow final paving of main access roads.

Rush, AIA, CSI, is an architect with The Office of Michael Rosenfeld, Inc., Architects in West Acton, Mass.

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