Manchester Energy Efficiency Project -- A Special Series
Chapter 6: The Contractors
By Jim Farrell
A quarter century ago James Maulucci and Bill Levesque were students at Cheney Tech but they didn't know one another. That’s mostly because they were a year apart and James (class of ‘88) was in the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning shop while Bill (‘89) was in electrical.
These days, though, they know each other pretty well and for the past few months have once again been in the same school building -- Buckley Elementary -- with James working as the foreman of the HVAC crew from HHS Mechanical and Bill leading the team from Custom Electric.
HHS and Custom, both based in Manchester, are two of the many contractors and subcontractors whose collective work will have Buckley renovated and claiming the title of the state’s first Net Zero Energy public school in the state come next fall.
“Every project is done by a different combination of contractors,” said Nelson Reis of O&G Industries, Inc., which is coordinating all the work. “Each contractor brings specific skills and experience to the job and each one has particular responsibilities. But they also depend on each other and making it all fit is the key to a successful project.”
HHS Mechanical actually won two contracts when the Buckley renovation went out to bid. In addition to the HVAC work, which is budgeted at about $4.1 million, HHS also is handling the plumbing (about $1.3 million)
As for electrical, that portion of the work is slated to cost about $2.4 million.
Among the other trades represented are concrete, flooring, fire protection, masonry, painting, roofing and sitework -- 21 different disciplines in all -- and with less than five months to go before students return Buckley is buzzing with more than 60 workers on site most days.
Maulucci and Levesque were among them on the first Monday in April, a crisp and overcast day.
Maulucci spent part of the morning in what will be a vestibule in the new main entrance, cutting into an existing brick and concrete wall to make room for a recessed heater. He and his team were also continuing to prepare ductwork as part of the DOAS that will be tied into the penthouse.
(As in every trade, HVAC has a language all its own. DOAS stands for dedicated outdoor air system and penthouse refers to a rooftop mechanical system of boilers, chillers, pumps and piping.)
One flight down, Levesque was in a classroom, roughing in wiring and conduits. Wiring is what it sounds like while conduits are tubes used to protect and route wiring and, perhaps more importantly, provide a way for new wiring to be added some day without having to tear a wall apart, as the top of the conduit will be easily accessible by removing a panel in a dropped ceiling.
The next day, the two men joined seven other foremen in the construction trailer for a regular weekly roundtable led by Tom Goizueta of O&G, who is the project superintendent.
No introductions were necessary and no agenda was needed. The men just took turns sharing out on the status of their team’s work, with Goizueta (mostly) and others asking clarifying questions. Some snippets:
“We’re just about done with what’s available for drywall.”
“I’ll get the inspection scheduled for tomorrow.”
“We’ll do all the heat pumps and the curb.”
“I’ve got to coordinate that with Silktown.”
“We need to start blowing heat down that corridor.”
To an outsider or eavesdropper, it’s cryptic and confusing but the foremen all follow along, making mental notes when things are relevant and scrolling their phones when not.
When it was Lee Setzler’s turn he mentioned that ceramic tile was on its way in a truck from Mexico.
“I thought it was in Hartford,” someone asked, referencing an earlier update.
“Not yet,” said Setzler, a Manchester resident whose company (the John Boyle Decorating Center) won the Buckley flooring bid. Another voice: “It’s on a highway somewhere.”
Supply chain issues, the labor shortage and the weather are among factors that force improvisation but everyone understands their fundamental role, which is explained in great detail in reams of documents.
Long before these tradesmen collectively converged on Buckley, O&G prepared separate, exhaustive detailed bid packages in conjunction with the design team led by Randall Luther at TSKP Studio. (Chapter 3 and Chapter 5 in this series have much more about these stages.)
Much of the information is the same in every trade’s bid package (for example, ‘construction project documentation’ expectations) but there’s also great specificity:
Electrical Section II (Special Instructions) Part 48. “The electrical contractor shall provide a junction box powered from a standby sub-panel, adjacent to all temperature controls throughout the building.”
HVAC Section II Part 36: “The HVAC contractor shall provide a 24” long strip of yellow or orange surveyor’s tape off of every isolation valve, balancing damper handle and terminal unit controller so that the location of each control device is highly visible.”
Plumbing Section II Part 46 Addendum No. 2: “The plumbing contractor shall be responsible for his own excavation and backfill … to bring storm, sanitary to 5’ outside existing building.”
The specificity of these packages ensures that the companies bidding on the projects know exactly what they would have to charge in order to execute their part of the project. Their bid is evaluated by the town Building Committee, which awards the contract to the company with the ‘lowest qualified’ offer.
The bid packages are just one dimension of the paperwork upon which projects are built; in rooms throughout the building there are bound pages of weathered, dog-eared architectural documents that workers consult to see exactly what must be done where and how.
Of course, work has to be done sequentially. Rooms need to be framed before electricians and plumbers can do their work before sheetrock can be installed and so on.
That sequencing drives conversation at the Tuesday foreman meetings and also leads to uncountable phone calls and sidebars and decisions all week long every week.
Consider materials and supplies.
“Things that used to take 4-to-6 weeks to order can take 12-16 weeks now,” said Levesque, of Custom Electric. But he added that, in a pinch, there are ways to improvise, such as ordering hangers and saddles (used to secure conduits) separately instead of in pairs.
That’s where Jim Butler comes in. Butler has been working at Custom Electric for 30 years and is the company’s project manager for the Buckley job. In that role he oversees everything from planning to materials to staffing while doing the same these days for two other big school contracts that Custom has -- the renovation of New London High School and the construction of North Branford High School.
Like Custom, every other contractor has indispensable off-site support.
“It’s all about coordination,” said Alan Harbec, a vice president of HHS Mechanical, citing both intra-company communications as well as the interplay between the many companies that converge at a single site.
Harbec manages many HHS projects but handling the Buckley job from the main office is John Maulucci.
While it’s not necessarily planned that way, James said he’s just fine serving as the foreman on a site when his brother John is serving as project manager.
“Maybe it’s a twin thing.”
Adding yet another dimension to every big project’s construction ecosystem are subcontractors.
In order to qualify for reimbursements through the state Office of School Construction Grants & Review, projects like the one at Buckley have specific requirements to ensure the participation of businesses that are considered small (the criteria vary by industry) and that are owned by traditionally marginalized groups.
Custom has subbed out some of its Buckley work to All Electric of New Haven (specifically low voltage stuff like the PA system and clocks) and also Beacon Light and Supply, which is an electrical parts wholesaler. Beacon, which is in Manchester, is state certified as both a Small Business Enterprise and a WMBE (as its owners include a woman and person of color).
Chris Till, who as the town's Facilities Manager is responsible for planning, developing, and directing capital construction and renovation projects, said having Manchester-based companies win competitive publicly bid projects brings some benefits.
“They’re taxpayers, too,” Till said. “In some cases they are more likely to live in town or nearby and maybe even have children or grandchildren in our schools.”
But Till said there’s no room for sentimentalism and that the priority is for projects to be done well, on time and at or under budget.
He also said that while the bidding process makes it impossible to predict what combination of contractors will wind up on a particular project, it definitely can be an advantage when the contractors have a decent relationship with one another.
“There are always going to be disputes,” he said. “It’s inevitable. Having good relationships make it easier to work through the things that come up in ways to that are fair to the contractors as well as the taxpayers.”
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.