Manchester Energy Efficiency Project: A Special Series
Chapter 5: Behind The Scenes
By Jim Farrell
Demolition, drywall, painting, plumbing, concrete, steel, roofing, flooring. The list goes on and on, as reconstruction of Buckley Elementary School is like an enormous, expensive jigsaw puzzle involving hundreds of workers employed by dozens of companies from 18 distinct trade groups -- each with a specific job to do and time to do it.
Coordinating at all: the team from O&G Industries, Inc.
“We expect excellence and don't take anything for granted,” said Mark Jeffko, an assistant vice president for the Torrington-based company, which since its founding almost 100 years ago has become one of the Northeast’s leading providers of construction services and products. “We’ve been doing this a long time and while every project is different the goal remains the same -- finish on time and under budget and make our clients happy.”
O&G builds everything from highways to hospitals, but has particular expertise with schools, with more than 300 such projects in its portfolio. These projects range in size and scope, from modest renovations to site development and multi-story new construction. Their organization routinely collaborates with design teams and the state Office of School Construction Grants & Review to achieve maximum reimbursements for their clients.
The Buckley renovation is part of an $88 million project approved by voters in June 2019 that also will include similar rehabbing of Bowers Elementary School (starting at the end of this school year) and Keeney (the year after that), with $7 million reserved for repurposing closed elementary schools.
The first big step after residents approved what’s known as Phase 2 (Verplanck and Waddell having been brought into the 21st century in Phase 1, which also included fifth graders moving to the renovated Cheney Building at Bennet Academy) was the selection of an architect and that was followed by the selection of a construction services manager.
O&G was among five companies that bid for that role, with each company making its pitch after digesting an almost 60-page packet that broke down all that would be required.
The Request for Proposal is a dense, detailed document and, just to give you a taste of the specificity, notes that everything must be done “in accordance with the High Performance Building Construction Standards for State Funded Buildings as outlined in Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies Section 16a 38k-1 through 16a-38k-9 and further defined by the Connecticut Building Standard Guidelines Compliance Manual …”
And on it goes for 14 pages, breaking down in detail the construction manager responsibilities through the four phases of the project, which are:
* Design and Pre-Construction
* Solicitation and Awarding of Bids
* Post-Occupancy and Warranty
“It’s critical that everybody involved understands exactly what's expected of them,” said Chris Till, the town’s facilities manager. “That’s true not only when we are deciding who the town will be working with but throughout every stage of the project.”
In addition to the RFP itself, companies bidding for what is technically considered the ‘construction manager advisor’ role also had to factor in the state’s Bidding, Contracting & Construction Guidelines. (After all, about 65 percent of the total project cost will be reimbursed by the state.)
That document outlines everything from Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities requirements (with specifics explaining how an organization receiving state funds must “aggressively solicit the participation of legitimate minority business enterprises as bidders, contractors, subcontractors and suppliers of materials”) to a template for the project sign bearing the state logo that has to be displayed at the site throughout the construction period (all letters and symbols have to be royal blue and in the helvetica medium typeface).
Till explained that Manchester is one of the few municipalities that chooses to take the risk of hiring the construction manager as an advisor (CMA), with the town actually holding the contracts directly with the trade contractors.
(Many municipalities hire a construction manager and have an agreed-upon guaranteed maximum project price that includes a contingency fund. That strategy puts the risks of overruns on the construction manager but also means the construction manager can spend the contingency with less oversight from the owner).
For the Buckley project, the CMA contractual arrangement allows the Building Committee control of the entire $1.4 million project contingency, which covers changes to scope of work for unforeseen/hidden conditions as well as owner-selected changes to enhance the design. Manchester town staff – Facilities, Purchasing, Accounting & Legal – all have the experience with school construction renovations to lead the process from beginning to end, said Till, adding that the Building Committee (led by Chair Brian Murphy) makes the key decisions throughout the project to keep it on schedule and budget.
O&G was selected as CMA in late March of 2020 and work at Buckley began in earnest 14 months later, when school got out in June 2021. For passers-by the first and most visible evidence was the aforementioned sign as well as the installation of a construction trailer, which is O&G’s site headquarters. For more than a year, though, O&G’s Mark Sedensky had been working with project architect Randall Luther to figure out how to turn Luther’s renderings into a reality.
“We work as a team,” said Sedensky, the pre-construction manager for the Buckley project. “You need to let the architects do their thing,” he said, but as Luther moved through his stages (check Chapter 3 for the sequence known as schematic design, design development and construction documents) O&G would weigh in and, critically, price things out.
As any homeowner knows, even simple projects can quickly get complicated if for no other reason than the variety of materials available. (Hmmm, if I go with laminate flooring in the kitchen instead of ceramic tile I might save enough money to afford a new fridge).
For Luther, Sedensky and others the conversations and decisions were and are infinitely more complicated.
“As the design evolves, we put a number on everything,” Sedensky said. “And there are some times you just have to say, ‘we don't have the money.’”
In addition to keeping a micro-focus on each element of the site plan, the O&G team also has to ensure that the overall project is in compliance with environmental and building performance goals. And that all project budgets required by the Connecticut Office of School Construction Grants are scrutinized following a template format as well as criteria that includes differentiation of eligible and ineligible construction costs. Those are just a couple of the many required operational basics.
As the plans coalesced, Sedensky’s team put together 20 separate bid packages in different trade areas.
These, too, are meticulously detailed. They explain exactly what work needs to be done (for example, the square footage of each classroom and the exact type of flooring to be used) and also are aligned with a raft of state requirements. Notably, a good faith effort must be made to ensure that 25 percent of the state-funded portion of the contract be awarded to eligible subcontractors designated as small business, with 25 percent of that portion set aside for eligible contractors with owners who are women, BIPOC and or with disabilities. (The language is far more specific than captured here.)
Meetings are typically held with the two trade contractors that submit the lowest bids to review everything and the contract is awarded to the ‘lowest qualified’ based on a decision ultimately made by the town Building Committee.
As contracts were being bid and awarded and the Buckley ground-breaking approached, Nelson Reis was preoccupied with wrapping up a $63.8 million renovation of Nonnewaug High School in Woodbury. But since June he’s been focused on Buckley, serving as the project manager.
Reis has an office in the trailer at Buckley as does Tom Goizueta, who is the project superintendent, and they coordinate the daily work at the site.
“The goal is to be as efficient as possible, and for work to be taking place in every part of the building all the time,” said Reis, noting that O&G embraces what are called ‘Lean Construction’ principles popularized by Toyota after World War II. To generalize, this calls for designing a system with the aim of decreasing time, effort, and waste of materials to ensure projects are quickly done with lower costs incurred during the building process.
To explain how it all works at Buckley, check out the photo above that shows the O&G team in front of a wall of white boards adorned with multi-colored sticky notes. Each board represents a week of work (meaning six weeks are visible at any time). The horizontal lines are used to capture in shorthand the status of work each trade is doing, and there are 18 horizontal rows, essentially one for each separate trade.
To cite one example of sequencing, consider a single room. It first has to be framed, with steel braces erected that define the walls and windows. Plumbing and electrical work has to be done before walls are sheetrocked while ductwork must be installed above before the ceiling can be installed. That’s all followed by millwork, floors and doors.
“It’s like time-lapse photography,” Reis said, referring to the repositioning of trade-specific work crews as they move about the building, everything planned with adjustments made as needed. “We’re always looking for clean handoffs between trades.”
On a typical day there might be 60 or more workers at Buckley, which is for this project broken into parts A and B and further divided by floor.
The construction trailer is dominated by a large table where meetings are held regularly, with different combinations of the many stakeholders gathering for updates. The white board and sticky notes are referenced often.
The trailer is also where everyone checks in each day and, on their first day, gets a safety orientation from Goizueta that lasts about a half hour.
While there is natural flow and sequence to all the work that has to happen, the challenge for the O&G team is to make the myriad inevitable adjustments necessary to keep the project on track.
The weather is one such variable. Supply chain and labor issues are also factors, especially lately.
As a rule, work takes place from Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. but in a pinch things can be done after hours and on weekends.
“This is what we do,” said Reis, referencing O&G’s experience in the field and expertise with public schools.
Added Jeffko: “While every project brings its unique challenges, the goals remain the same – on-time, on-budget completion as well as meeting all of our client’s expectations.”
The Buckley project is about halfway done and things are on schedule, according to Till and others.
In the fall, the school will reopen as the first net-zero energy public school building in the state and attention will next turn to Bowers, a project that O&G will also oversee.
“There’s a lot going on and the work never stops,” said Till. “Having experienced, dependable partners is critical as we continue to upgrade our facilities. I’m proud of our team and the dedication they bring to the job each and every day.”
About this series: Buckley Elementary School in Manchester is being renovated to ‘net zero energy’, a project that is expected to take about 14 months (from ground-breaking to ribbon cutting) and during that time there are a series of other ambitious sustainability projects underway in public buildings throughout town. Jim Farrell, who is the school district’s communications director and a former career journalist with The Hartford Courant, is writing about the work in installments. Click here to see earlier chapters.