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With Creativity and Coordination, Contractors Meet Schedule and Site Challenges in the K-12 Construction Market

On K-12 school projects, one theme prevails: deadlines, deadlines and more deadlines.

Whether a project is public or private, time is of the essence. Construction can’t take place while classes are in session, requiring creative scheduling and an immense amount of communication to keep everyone on task and prevent interference on tight jobsites. And, with both public and private education budgets still constrained, contractors must work within the school’s means to provide the most value to the client.

So how do contractors keep such challenging projects on point? The approach is multi-faceted: A mix of creative problem solving, early involvement in the design process and employing BIM technology has proven to be the formula for success in delivering high-quality school projects on time.

“Almost all school districts have the same objective: Be an instrumental part of the community by offering quality, safe facilities that are reflective of their communities for children to receive the best education and for taxpayers to be proud of,” says Robert McFarlane, vice president of operations at Lakewood Construction, Holland, Mich., which has focused on the K-12 and higher education markets for more than 25 years.

“We try to get the whole team swinging in the same direction as soon as possible,” McFarlane says. “A successful project is made before construction even starts with careful planning and good strategy—bidding in the first quarter, qualifying contractors, ordering product months in advance, identifying the best systems to meet the owners’ needs, and squeezing every minute out of the school’s schedule that we can.

“All schools push for the best bang for the buck,” he adds. “Due to limited operational funding, they are looking for any way to optimize their investment, resulting in lower operational costs.”

For Unity Christian’s new 143,000-square-foot high school in Hudsonville, Mich., “bang for the buck” meant using tilt-up concrete to save money per square foot and speed up the construction timeline. Lakewood Construction also is using tilt-up construction to help it meet a highly intense schedule for Black River Public School, where it has only three months to build a new 26,000-square-foot facility in Holland, Mich.

“This is crazy, most say, but not impossible with good planning and good thinkers,” McFarlane says.

The company is not alone in needing to meet seemingly impossible school construction goals. S/L/A/M Construction Services, a turnkey design-build company that specializes in both the public and private K-12 markets, has performed more than 13 projects for the Kent School, a private boarding high school in Kent, Conn. To keep the client’s projects moving as quickly as possible, S/L/A/M Construction Services organizes segments of construction to begin during students’ winter or spring breaks so that full-fledged construction can start as soon as school lets out for the summer, and then wrap up before classes are back in session in August.

“By creating these pockets of work, we can get the demolition going in December, so that we’re at the next level come March and ready for building come June,” says Gene Torone, president of S/L/A/M Construction Services.

In addition to planning around the school’s class schedule, the company must look ahead to ensure its subcontractors’ labor force is aligned with the needs of the project. 

“In the K-12 market, we all face the same dilemma about construction. Everybody is building from May to September. We are all competing to hire the same subcontractors, many of which downsized after 2008. So, we always talk to our clients about labor and staffing constraints, and we are conscious about it when we bid projects,” Torone says. “We avoid summer bidding to avoid this competition, and we give the subcontractors enough time to catch up on their backlog and procure materials. We also have to allow extra time for materials to arrive onsite.”

Because it is a design-build firm, S/L/A/M Construction Services can integrate a project’s design means and methods early into the construction process, well before ground is broken.

In the case of Kent School’s new Hoerle Hall Dormitory, which was completed in just a few short months in time for an August 2013 opening, the single-source design and construction team coordinated to overcome construction challenges on a tight jobsite that posed serious soil, flooding and load-bearing capacity issues.

“The design for the foundation was analyzed several ways—whether we were going to surcharge the soil, build a structural slab, or raise the building completely out of the ground and build a floodable surface with the slab elevated,” Torone says. “We analyzed many options before we got too far into the design. With cost, logistics and sequencing considered, we ultimately decided to go with a combination of pre-load import fill and site retaining wall to anticipate the flooding, which it did twice during construction.”

Torone credits the ability to overcome such challenges to bringing all disciplines together during pre-planning. “With a design-build approach, we could get a decision made between the architect and the contractor without the drop of a toolbelt,” he says.

Schedule and Labor Coordination: BIM to the Rescue
For Gould Electric, Inc., Poway, Calif., which specializes in electrical construction services for the K-12 education market, innovation and resourceful planning have proven essential to working on fast-paced jobs for more than 40 school districts in San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange County and the Inland Empire.

In the case of Sage Creek High School, a new 139,000-square-foot public institution recently completed ona 56-acre site in Carlsbad, Calif., the electrical contracting company needed to overcome extreme site elevation challenges and work with diverse types of building materials to manage the installation of power, lighting, deep underground utilities, and fire alarm and communication systems. 

Gould Electric was responsible for $7 million of electrical work in five buildings—a library, classrooms, science and technology labs, administrative offices, a gymnasium and a cafeteria—all located on a highly sloped site. “Providing power in this sloped environment was extremely challenging,” says Robert Edmondson, Gould Electric’s vice president of operations. “The solution demanded intense and precise coordination with the general contractor and other trades.”

In some cases, the solution was BIM. For example, during construction of Sage Creek’s administration building, the electrical team had trouble finding routing for the underground communication and power conduits between the two levels of the structure. Prior to any site construction of the building, the electrical team coordinated with the structural engineer and general contractor (Balfour Beatty Construction) to determine the best route to avoid footings and minimize the impact on the site grading of the slopes.

“By using BIM, we were able to identify and plan the routing early, which eliminated significant risk and potential delays from the construction process,” Edmondson says.

To keep up with the overall schedule throughout the project, Gould Electric reviewed all of the critical path tasks with the MEP trades and the general contractor to coordinate jobs and deliveries. Also, the electrical team met frequently with the architect (San Diego-based RNT) to ensure the project maintained the design intent.

“This type of teamwork and collaboration was key to our success,” Edmondson says. “Our belief is to actively engage the design team to identify valuable innovative solutions to complex challenges that either impede the construction schedule or impact the budget.”

What Will the School of the Future Look Like?

As school facilities continue to show their age—and technology and teaching styles continue to advance—there’s no shortage of demand for school renovations and construction to keep up with the needs of growing student populations. Several trends are here to stay.

BIM: Sophisticated models and clash detections are revolutionizing the way projects are built; however, some owners still need to be convinced that the extra technology-related costs will benefit the project as a whole. “From the owner’s standpoint, he’s asking: ‘What’s in it for me?’” says Gene Torone of S/L/A/M Construction Services. “While it’s a challenge to convince the owner of the value of using BIM, we as a company decided it’s something that we always want to do; it’s the way of the future. It’s here to stay.” 

Geothermal heating and cooling systems: These systems will be the norm for most new schools looking to save operational costs. In the case of Kent School’s new Hoerle Hall Dormitory, S/L/A/M Construction Services designed and installed 20 geothermal wells located about 500 feet deep each. They serve an in-slab radiant floor system to heat the building.

Security: Many school districts are imposing requirements for secure entrances with barrier systems, camera systems, and components for safe lockdown and egress. For example, Lakewood Construction is implementing security upgrades for Caledonia, Saugatuck and Zeeland, Mich., schools.

Wireless technology: Technology must be integrated into the classroom via wireless Internet and mobile docking and charging stations. No longer will technology be hard-wired to fixed desks; instructors want to have the ability to move furniture and lab spaces around the room, creating flexibility for breakout sessions or collaborative learning sessions. While some classes may be completely virtual in the future, K-12 education leaders and contractors that build for this market sector don’t believe the traditional campus is going away anytime soon. “Virtual learning environments won’t take the place of the talented instructor = who inspires the students to learn,” says Robert Edmondson of Gould Electric, Inc. “But collaborative teaching environments will increase, literally breaking down the walls between classrooms.”

Lauren Pinch is a writer for Construction Executive. For more information, email pinch@abc.org or follow @ConstructionMag.

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