Facilities (Learning Spaces)

Nailed It This Summer

school construction project

PHOTOS COURTESY OF ANDREW LAROWE

This is the time of year school districts look forward to the completion of many of their facility projects. New schools, additions, or major renovations that have been in various stages of development over a course of many years are at long last ready to open their doors. At the same time, smaller capital improvement projects were squeezed into the summer vacation and are set to finish just before the return of teachers and students.

Facilities administrators are consumed with punch lists and working through the details of project completion and before they know it, they are onto the next round of projects without taking a moment to evaluate what they have just experienced and attempt to gain something from it, Leadership in the practice of facilities planning, design, and construction requires the vision to not only see what the completed project will look like and how it will ultimately be used, but also the ability to identify the likely pitfalls along the way.

Process mapping is increasingly used to visualize the workflow. This is more than a resource-loaded Gantt chart. It is a diagram of each activity and decision point within the project. A generic map can be annotated for each specific project. Another technique for risk management is an in-house pre-mortem that identifies what could possibly go wrong on each specific project and how it will be addressed including proposed schedule and budget.

A project’s scope has very little to do with the time spent by district staff and designers. Even relatively small projects sometimes require an investment of time and commitment not necessarily related to the size of the budget. The difference between a multimillion dollar high school and a project to install floor to ceiling partitions into an open-space elementary school may only be in the duration of the project, and not necessarily in the time spent while the project is underway. Regardless of size, there are some aspects of all projects that provide lessons for the future. An exercise to explore lessons learned should go back to the beginning, including why the project is needed in the first place?

Building the List

The general rule of thumb for items on the capital project list is that they should outlive their funding vehicle. Since many of these projects are funded through general obligation bonds, that usually means a 20 year lifespan. Exceptions are sometimes made for expenditures related to a construction project such as furniture, technology and sometimes project management personnel.

The following categories should be included in the proposed capital project list:

  • Existing inventory that has aged out or is in poor condition. This involves several elements including needed renovations/renewals, systemic improvements and facilities that instructionally obsolete.
  • Facilities that have experienced enrollment fluctuations. This involves increasing capacity if enrollment is growing, or repurposing/closing facilities that are no longer needed.
  • New facility initiatives involving any pivot for the district that requires a substantial investment. These can be instructional (sound enhancement for every classroom), operational (a roof asset management program), administrative (additional safety items) or a combination of any of these.

Facility assessments and educational adequacy evaluations are often used to provide better information for the list. Every project should have a total estimated budget that includes the actual construction cost, the cost of furniture fixtures and equipment, the cost of property acquisition, the cost of designing, managing and commissioning the project, the cost of project-related testing and fees, and a contingency. Contingencies added to the total bottom line of the project list are far more likely to be targeted for budget reductions, than those that are incorporated into each individual project.

Prioritizing and Describing the List

What needs to be accomplished first and why? Some districts combine all projects into a single prioritized list. Others maintain prioritized lists within various project categories. Either is effective as long as the methodology is transparent and the project descriptions are compelling. Boilerplate project descriptions rarely get the attention of decision makers. Care should be taken not to describe every proposed project as an imminent hazard. When misrepresented, use of this classification tends to minimize the importance of critical, life-safety projects. If a single list prioritization method with a running total is used, it becomes easier for decision-makers to understand which proposed projects would be done at various levels of funding. If the prioritizing formula is clear and comprehensive, it tends to reduce the political “noise” surrounding which projects are included. A calculation is agreed upon in in advance in the absence of a project list and then applied to every project accordingly.

Funding the List

General obligation bonds are the capital project funding vehicle used most often. This mechanism requires a public referendum. Following approval of the voters, the bonds are sold by the issuing authority (either the district or the local government). Where the school district is not fiscally independent, some local governments have restricted previously approved bond sales as an additional means of control over school spending.

Certificates of Participation (COPs) are another mechanism used by some agencies to fund capital projects. These are usually project specific and are issued by the governing body without voter approval. If the state regulations permit, sale leaseback and capital leasing can also be used to fund capital projects. In a sale leaseback arrangement an asset is sold and then leased back from the buyer after improvements are made. In a capital lease, the lessor provides the money to accomplish the improvements (either new construction or renovations) and then is paid back through lease payments over time. The interest rate is slightly higher than a bond rate, but there is no voter approval or bond issuance required and the time interval from inception to release of the funding can be as short as 90 days.

managing school construction project

PHOTOS COURTESY OF ANDREW LAROWE

Designing and Building the Project

A great project, whether it is a new building, a renovation, or a simple renewal, is usually the product of a working partnership between flexible design team and an organized and involved owner. Beginning with a program that not only specifies the “what” but also the “why”, it should also outline the operation of the facility during the school day. How is the day organized — is it a seven-period day or a block schedule? When do the students take non-core classes? When and where do teachers do their planning?

New digital tools including building information management (BIM) are increasingly used during the design phases to minimize spatial interference (vertical and horizontal) between building systems. BIM can also be used for three-dimensional walk-throughs as part of the design team/owner reviews. For remote desktop reviews by facilities and instructional staff, the latest versions of Acrobat Reader can permit reviewers’ to annotate plans with concerns and members of the design team to highlight or check off the notes as they are addressed.

Although multi-prime delivery is still used by many public educational organizations as state regulations permit, construction can also be delivered via construction manager at risk, construction manager, and design-build. Each method has their proponents and detractors, and none is without issues. Design-bid-build is often used by districts with fewer facilities’ staff, while those with larger in-house professionals tend to use some form of construction management. There appears to be very little difference in cost or completion times.

To ensure proper operational efficiencies, many owners have built commissioning into the final stages of construction. Commissioning (i.e. third-party verification that systems operate as specified) has been used for HVAC installations for many years. There has recently been an increase in the variety of third-party verification services offered including everything from roofs to instructional commissioning.

Occupying the Project

Seeing how the building is used and how it functions is part of the learning process for the next project. Communication in the form of an “owner’s manual” and an annual in-service at each facility can be the keys to effective operation. Documentation of the current warranties for the maintenance technicians will help prevent mistakes in the field and maintaining a list of the issues identified during the first year of occupancy will help avoid those issues in the future.

Nothing can compare to the satisfaction of planning and delivering a project on time and under budget that enhances instruction exactly as envisioned. Take a deep breath and enjoy. Tomorrow the cycle begins all over again!

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

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