School design, construction doing more with less

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School design, construction doing more with less
By Ann Ali, Managing Editor, The State Journal

In the face of sweeping budget cuts, rising construction costs and increasing calls for technological upgrades and safety measures along with environmentally friendly designs, the School Building Authority continues to navigate the treacherous waters of school design and construction.

At Williamson Shriver Architects Inc., Ted Shriver said budgets have already been tightened. Shriver said he and his partner Greg Williamson have been designing and performing infrastructure administrative services for educational projects since 1984.

Shriver said he has seen several changes in construction over the years, and a common tongue-in-cheek phrase at his firm is that they must remain in a rigid state of constant flexibility.

“All of the buildings we design are very efficient,” he said. “I’m not sure what can be done to make it more efficient, but I’m sure we can all put our heads together and come up with something.”

Shriver said the SBA has a new policy to facilitate meetings with architects and engineers, and despite about 100 registered resident architects in West Virginia, only a handful of architectural businesses do school planning.

“We’ve been designing (safety) into our structures for a number of years,” he said. “Schools also need to be a good environment to learn in as well — we don’t need to make them prisons, but still make them as safe as we can.”

Shriver said communities are considered now in school design as well.

“I think creativity does help, but obviously as you add scope to a project and it costs more unless you can trade it off with something else,” he said. “I think the facilities, not just our firm but all the firms in West Virginia that are designing — we have become very creative in making sure that they are quality facilities for years to come.”

In-house savings

“We’re starting to do some of the things we’ve had the architects do — we’re starting to do them in-house,” said Scott Raines, who has spent the past five years with the SBA as director of architectural services and recently received a new title — director of educational planning and construction administration.

Raines said things architects had been doing for years, such as educational planning, are being done by licensed architects the SBA has on staff, making the agency a little more of a service agency than it’s been in the past. The SBA has one licensed architect, Joyce Van Gilder, on staff to assist all 55 counties.

“It helps on a number of fronts,” he said, including becoming more engaged with the state’s 55 counties. “And we’re hoping it will also help cut some of those up-front costs and pull some of those responsibilities in-house.”

The School Building Authority was formed in 1989 after a court decision found the state’s school financing system to be unconstitutional. To carry out the equitable funding of capital projects, the SBA became the sole state agency to administer state money for school capital projects.

Efficiency has been an ongoing project for the SBA, Raines said, pointing to several suggestions in the 2012 Education Efficiency Audit of West Virginia’s Primary and Secondary Education System performed by Public Works. The audit called for hiring state employees to replace some contracted professional consultants, such as architects and engineers and a change in state code so the staff and responsibilities of the Office of Facilities became the responsibility of the SBA. The audit pointed out that SBA projects require the use of several types of building professionals, such as architects, engineers, construction managers and clerks of the works, but the contracted professionals are more expensive than in-house staff.

While the SBA claims to be cutting back on hiring outside professionals, a recent policy revision will increase the use of construction managers, and several people disagree with the claim that the construction managers will pay for themselves by identifying cost savings.

A closer look

Sen. Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, is a professional engineer who has done some SBA work during the past seven years. He said he is familiar both with the old standards the SBA had in place as well as what it recently implemented and said the Legislature will be looking at the issue when the next session starts in January.

He explained that the newly implemented Building Information Modeling, or the BIM process, is intended to provide coordination of various trades, such as electrical or mechanical engineers, to alleviate conflicts during the design and construction processes. But, Boso pointed out, high-speed Internet access is necessary to properly utilize the BIM process, so implementing it is not exactly cost-effective in areas where it can’t be accessed.

“From what I’m reading in the standard it is not going to change the funding program for architects and engineers on a compensation basis,” Boso said. “The new policy, the construction manager, is actually going to be hired and retained by SBA, and it’s another level of bureaucracy, in my opinion, that is going to cost the state additional money with no discernable benefit, unless the project is more than $15 million or $20 million.”

Boso said the construction manager process can save money on projects that big, and West Virginia has had some projects that big, such as school consolidations, but he said the process should be monitored closely.

Boso said speaking as a senator, the SBA process needed “some tweaks,” but he does not agree with “the full scale modification to the process.”

“What they’ve done, in some respects, is strapped the architects in the design process in such a way that it limits the creative prospective of the design professional to achieve cost-effective designs,” he said. “I think there are some opportunities that we could have capitalized on that we didn’t because of the SBA standards and the way they’ve got it tailored; in many respects they have throttled the creative process.”

Boso said during the 2016 legislative session, he plans to ask for reports to get an understanding of the new SBA procedures, especially since comments from architects submitted during the comment period did not seem to be taken to heart nor acted upon by the SBA.

“The amount of money we’re committing to the school construction process is less and less and less,” he said. “Yet we’ve got the SBA operating and taking on more and more and more, and I’m a little concerned about us taking on more staff, and more consultants directly for projects that we’re doing versus trying to streamline the process.”

“According to a recent SBA study, the agency spends about 6 percent of construction costs on contracted building professionals,” the audit reads.

Raines said West Virginia was one of the first agencies of its kind in the nation to both fund and oversee construction. He said SBA officials go to several nationwide conferences each year and deal with many contractors, so they are able to look to other states and exchange ideas for savings.

Creative cost-cutters

Raines said when he started working for the SBA in 2005, construction costs were about $114 per square foot for an elementary school. Today that cost has inflated to $256 per square foot, he said, and the SBA has seen a decrease in the state funds available to build schools.

“We’re physically building less schools and the cost based on the Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plans submitted by the counties, the cost of the need across the state continues to grow,” he said. “Right now in the 2010 CEFPs submitted, there is $3 billion in need across the state, and we can’t keep up with that — based on the inflationary rate and the amount of money we have to fund, we just can’t keep up with that pace, so we have to look at different delivery methods and project delivery methods.”

Raines said the SBA has found that if one contractor is hired to work on an entire building, from the plumbing to the electricity and mechanical, it costs between 6 percent and 8 percent more than if a several contracts are let on a new school.

“We’ve also determined if we bid work before June 1 or July 1, it saves us again between 8 and 10 percent, just by bidding early when the contractors don’t have as much work,” Raines said.

In the March 2015 regular SBA meeting, Raines provided a report from the construction committee, pointing out that “for some time the SBA has experienced problems with the project development, planning, design and construction process.” During the meeting Raines said budget deficits and a “creep” in a project’s scope had not been addressed in the pre-submission or planning phases of projects.

“Too often these problems have led to costly resolutions later in the design or construction phases,” Raines said in the meeting, according to the SBA minutes. “The introduction of our Construction Analysis has been very beneficial during the design phase and our Construction Analyst, working with the staff of the SBA, has been able to address problems with excessive square footage and costly design details.

“This partnership has saved over $8 million in construction costs and avoided several million dollars in construction change orders.”

Analyst assistance

Raines said in a telephone interview that SBA hired a construction analyst a few years ago on a task order agreement so the analyst can be assigned as projects need assistance. The SBA voted to enter into a one-year contract with the analyst, Project and Construction Services, or PCS, in June 2010 when SBA Executive Director David Sneed was chief of architectural services at the SBA. Sneed said at that meeting the SBA staff “had compiled information regarding the benefits of providing this service and determined that the cost could be factored into the overall cost of each individual project’s funding.”

During the June 2012 SBA meeting, then-Executive Director Mark Manchin announced it would be Sneed’s last meeting working for the SBA and presented Sneed with a plaque. During the meeting, Sneed provided an overview of the Construction Analyst contract with PCS, which was up for renewal.

“Mr. Sneed informed the Authority the SBA feels this process is benefiting the quality of the bidding documents provided to our contractors and consequently is reducing post-bid change orders,” according to the meeting minutes. “PCS reviews also help provide clarity to the bidding documents from a constructor’s perspective, thus reducing uncertainty which in turn reduces contractor risk and costs on bid day. PCS has been very successful with offering cost saving suggestions during their reviews that have saved counties a significant amount of money when bids are received.

“Based on these factors, I respectfully recommend approval of the extension of the PCS construction analyst contract for 2013.”

In September 2013, Sneed attended the SBA meeting on behalf of PCS. During that meeting Manchin said “keeping projects on schedule is a constant battle.” In October 2013, Sneed attended the SBA meeting on behalf of PCS again. According to the minutes, SBA staff members “performed interviews with the firms deemed most qualified and then selected Project and Construction Services (PCS) to recommend to the full Authority to fill the contracted position of Construction Analyst for the SBA.”

After PCS was again hired by the SBA, Sneed returned to the SBA as its executive director July 1, 2014.

But some have said the analyst only duplicates services and the fee that gets added on construction when the analyst is assigned is money wasted.

Raines said the analyst looks at plans from a constructor’s point of view, such as HVAC equipment planned for a rooftop but too close to the high wall of another roof. And with nine months to a year span from the time a school is planned until its bid, a lot of variables need checked, from site work cost estimates to constructability reviews.

“We look at not only doing things in house and trying to get construction analysts to look at constructing the buildings but we continue to look at alternative construction methods and save on material costs,” Raines said.

Raines said insulated concrete forms, which look a little like a LEGO and snap into place in a wall then get pumped with concrete in the middle, can reduce the time involved in the labor of laying a wall because it doesn’t take two people to lift it like concrete blocks do.

Doing more with less

Ernie Dellatorre, president of McKinley & Associates, said his firm has handled nearly $500 million in construction projects in about 30 years, and both school design and school construction have evolved a lot — becoming safer and more environmentally friendly.

“Our job is to work with the clients and our school district,” he said.

Dellatorre said it will be interesting to see how the SBA is able to allocate its budget this December, with roughly $150 million in projects requests from about 20 counties and only $50 million to give out.

“The SBA has to go out and evaluate all these projects and see which projects are going to be awarded,” he said. “Obviously there’s going to be a lot that don’t get awarded this year.”

Dellatorre said the SBA always does excellent work with the tough job of determining the distribution.