School Climate & Safety

Pitfalls Lurk for School-Project Chiefs

By Joetta L. Sack — March 31, 2004 9 min read
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Clacy E. Williams knows that when you oversee school construction projects, it’s best to expect the unexpected.

Take, for example, a site that was selected more than two years ago for a new elementary school in Lewis County, W.Va. Mr. Williams, the executive director of the state’s School Building Authority, recalls how the contractor had begun excavating the site when an unexpected problem arose: An artesian well sat directly where the school was supposed to be built.

State school construction officials spent several months working with the state department of natural resources to dry up the well to alleviate potential water damage. The total cost for the repair was $750,000. “It took time and money to get it solved, but we did get there,” Mr. Williams said.

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View the accompanying table “Adding It Up: Three School Projects.”

While artesian wells rarely turn up on school sites, there are countless reasons that cost overruns and construction delays on building projects are common, and not always preventable by school officials. But facility planners and builders say there are plenty of examples of schools’ being built on time— sometimes even under budget.

Either way, a facilities manager’s job is often described as thankless: He or she gets blamed for nearly everything that goes wrong when a school is built or renovated, and is overlooked when everything goes fine.

“People don’t thank you, but they’re there to criticize if something doesn’t go right,” said David J. Peterson, the director of operations for the 75,000-student Mesa, Ariz., district.

But with recent spending on new facilities and renovations hitting record-high levels, the number of architects and builders drawn to school construction is surging.

Veterans of the field warn, though, that school construction has many added complexities that newcomers may not be aware of, and that can often result in higher costs and delayed schedules.

Building schools requires not only architects, contractors, and facilities managers to work together, but also several different, and often competing, parties: the school board, the superintendent, other school administrators, teachers, parents, and community members.

The ultimate goal, experienced hands say, is to have good communication between school officials and builders, not to mention a willingness by the school construction administrator to say no when too many people want too many things.

“If [architects and contractors] are not used to working with school boards and school districts, and don’t understand politics and communication flow, it can catch them completely off guard,” said Michael E. Hall, an architect and chief marketing officer for Fanning/Howey Associates Inc., a Celina, Ohio-based architectural firm that specializes in school design.

“It’s very important to get input from all of the players,” added Mark Mardock, the senior vice president of education services for McCarthy Building Cos., based in Newport Beach, Calif. “However, if you have six bosses, you’re going to have chaos, conflicts, and differing priorities.”

Fluctuating Costs

There are plenty of reasons that costs creep up and schedules are delayed—and sometimes, it is the fault of school officials or the contractors they hire.

In particular, last- minute changes by officials can drive up the cost of a project and cause delays, some builders and facilities managers point out.

Often, principals and teachers want to change such features as flooring, lighting, or placement of whiteboards and bulletin boards in classrooms, Mr. Peterson of the Mesa district said. He does not allow such customizations, because teachers will often move from those classrooms, he notes, and the new occupants might not appreciate the changes.

“People don’t understand if you change one area, it has a domino effect: As soon as you start doing that, your costs go up and it pushes back the schedule,” he said. “We do have to say no, and sometimes you’re looked at as the bad guy for doing it, but that’s why we’re here.”

Then there are the numerous things that fall outside the control of district officials and facility planners that can drive up costs and delay a school’s opening. Renovation and modernization projects, especially in older buildings, are particularly troublesome.

“With renovation jobs, you can get into the building and find surprises,” said Thomas A. Kube, the executive director of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, based in Scottsdale, Ariz. “Until you open it up, you don’t know what’s in there.”

The costs of labor and materials may also fluctuate.

A recent spike in the cost of steel has made it difficult for builders to estimate the costs of construction, said David E. Anstrand, the construction administrator for the 5,400-student Manheim Township, Pa., district.

“The cost of steel ripples through lots of different building materials,” such as framing, reinforced concrete, metal roofs and doors, and floors, said Mr. Anstrand, who is overseeing the renovation of his district’s high school.

He is now looking for ways to cut expenses in other areas of that project to offset the increased cost of steel.

Plenty of Surprises

The rise in steel prices has driven up costs of new schools in West Virginia by about 10 percent to 15 percent, said Mr. Williams, who has overseen the state’s efforts to consolidate about 200 schools and build new facilities.

Further, Mr. Williams said, the supply and demand for contractors and construction workers affect the price of a school construction job.

“Usually, the cost of construction is determined by what else is going on, and a lot of it has to do with how busy are the local contractors,” he said. “If the contractors are hungry, we get a lot more, and lower, bids.”

Mr. Williams has also had to replace substandard contractors or firms that go out of business in the middle of a project. Currently, he is working with a third contractor on one school project because the first two contractors went out of business before they could complete the job.

Unpredictable weather is one of the most frequent complaints by builders. And every site can also have hidden environmental problems, particularly in urban areas where land is, over the decades, used for a variety of purposes.

One of the most notorious examples is the site where the Los Angeles Unified School District planned to build the Belmont Learning Center.

Former district officials began designing the controversial project in the early 1990s, when the district acquired a prime 35-acre property adjacent to downtown Los Angeles in an area where existing schools were overcrowded. Originally, the district planned a $60 million state- of-the-art, multi-building campus that would seat 5,000 students.

But construction on the project was stopped in 1999 because of concerns about toxic gases rising from the site, which had been an oil field. After extensive tests showed the site to be safe, construction was scheduled to resume. Those plans were scrapped in late 2002, however, when an earthquake fault line was discovered under two of the campus’s buildings.

The Los Angeles district’s chief facilities executive, James A. McConnell Jr., who was hired in 2001 in part to help restore confidence in the district’s ability to build schools, is hoping that schools can still be constructed on the land, now called the Vista Hermosa site.

Today, the fenced-in, abandoned construction site includes hollow shells of brightly colored stucco buildings, some with boarded-up windows, and the foundations of other buildings. New plans call for buildings on the fault line to be demolished and for a 2,600-student high school and a park to be built on the land.

Sizing Up Abilities

With potential delays and hidden costs a fact of life in many school projects, opening the doors on time for teachers and students is almost always a challenge.

Mr. Mardock said his California company finds that many districts plan construction so that they can move into and open a school just three weeks after its completion. He believes that schools should plan for at least a six- week window between completion and opening to help accommodate construction delays.

Last year, a new elementary school in Pennsylvania’s Manheim Township district ran several months over schedule, owing in part to problems getting building permits and to weather delays. Rather than move students in the middle of the school year, though, officials decided to wait until the beginning of the 2003-04 school year to open the new school, Mr. Anstrand said.

Hiring capable architects and contractors, many school leaders say, is the first step to avoiding lengthy delays. Sometimes, a smaller district may also need to hire a consultant who is well-versed in construction management to oversee the project.

Fred C. Smith, the construction manager for the 268,000-student Clark County, Nev., school district, advises districts aiming to build one or more new schools to “take a hard look” at the ability of their staff members to manage such a project. Often, districts will need to hire a construction consultant, he says. Or, if a district is planning to build several new schools, it should consider hiring a full-time construction manager for the projects, he adds.

Mr. Mardock said many smaller districts do not have full-time construction managers or other staff members to oversee construction projects. In California, many of those positions have been eliminated because of budget cuts, he noted, even though there has been a statewide school construction boom.

In such cases, he argued, it is vital for the district to hire a good consultant early in the process to manage a project. “It is very important to get them involved early so they can learn what a district’s priorities are and the political issues,” he said of consultants.

Mr. Hall’s firm, Fanning/Howey Associates, has designed a program for districts and architects, called Steps: Building Consensus One Step at a Time, that helps guide the process of working with school districts to build new schools.

Under the process the Ohio firm lays out, the architects first meet with district administrators and school board members to get a general idea of their goals and vision for the project, then approach community members for their feedback.

Listening to as many factions as possible is vitally important for the architects and builders, Mr. Hall said. For instance, his firm recently held meetings with parents and school officials in a Virginia community that is planning to build a new secondary school. The firm had suggested building one school to house the middle school and high school grades, because of concerns about cost. But, after meeting with parents, the architects found that the community wanted two different schools.

“It might make economic sense, but it might not make sense for that particular community,” Mr. Hall said of the one-building idea.

Despite the headaches, the professionals who oversee school construction projects say there are plenty of hidden rewards.

“The number of people involved in a school make it special compared to other projects,” said Mr. Anstrand of the Manheim Township district. “It’s always worth it, to be able to be a part of providing good environments where students can learn.”

Added Mr. Peterson of Mesa: “One thing that makes the biggest difference of all is to go to the first day of a [new] school, and see the kids and their eyes light up.”


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