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Managing the K-12 Portfolio

New Haven, Conn., is spending $1.5 billion on a 17-year program to overhaul its entire stock of schools, a massive undertaking for program manager Gilbane Building Companies.

June 01, 2007 |

In 1995, the city of New Haven, Conn., launched a program to build five new schools and renovate and upgrade seven others. At the time, city officials could not have envisioned their program morphing into a 17-year, 44-school, $1.5 billion project to completely overhaul its entire portfolio of K-12 facilities for nearly 23,000 students.

New Haven's massive undertaking is being handled by the Glastonbury, Conn., office of program manager Gilbane Building Companies (ranked #7 for CMs on BD+C's 2006 Giants 300 list), whose responsibilities on the project evolved along with the project itself.

Gilbane was originally hired as one of three construction managers who were to divvy up work on an 11-school, $23 million program. It didn't take long, however, for New Haven school officials to realize that they lacked the skills and resources to oversee the project, so Gilbane found itself competing for—and winning—the role of program manager. In 1998, the firm was asked to review the district's master plan; two years later, they unveiled a new multiphase plan that involved construction and renovation of 46 schools (later trimmed to 44), with a budget exceeding 10 figures.

Gilbane VP Tom Rogér says it took some time for the firm to gain the city's trust. “The first couple of years, there was a real learning curve on both our parts,” says Rogér. “What helped us a lot was that when we said something was going to happen, it happened. That was something they weren't used to. It was a revelation!”

Those hallelujah moments led to the city's approval of the dramatically expanded construction program. “After things started happening and they believed that our project work wasn't b.s., the city's board of aldermen asked why we weren't doing every single school,” says Rogér. The city even used the construction program as an opportunity to realign its grade structure, eliminating middle schools (which had performance, staffing, and safety problems) and creating K-8 facilities and 9-12 high schools.

Funding the original 11-school program involved a “stroke of genius” by the city's finance director, according to Rogér. The finance director bundled 300-400 tax-delinquent properties and sold them to a developer for $23 million, all of which went into a school construction trust fund. Later, the city relied on its bonding authority to fund the projects without having to rely on voter referendums.

One early decision rested on the design of the schools. “From a cost and schedule standpoint, I suggested using templates, and I got an emphatic no,” says Rogér. “They wanted each project to have its own architectural identity.” As a result, each school has a program appropriate to its neighborhood and academic focus. To maintain consistency and continuity, however, Gilbane authored a set of building standards (now in its ninth edition) that Building Teams are required to follow.

Working with 20 different architects and 10 different construction management firms proved wearying at times, but Rogér says that Gilbane made it clear that their firm was running the program and that they would manage it to everyone's advantage. “That added a lot of trust and credibility,” says Rogér. While Gilbane manages the RFQ process, however, the city makes the ultimate decision on which firms get the jobs.

Currently, there are 22 completed school projects and 10 active projects: five under construction and five in the design phase. The first was completed in 1998 and the last school is expected to be finished in 2012, at which time the program will have constructed 4.5 million sf. At its peak in 2006, Gilbane had a dedicated full-time staff of 22 on the projects; current staff totals 17. About 80-90% of the staff came from within Gilbane.

“One of the biggest benefits to New Haven—or any school district—is that hiring an outside program manager lets you hit the ground running with experienced people, systems, and relationships to make things happen,” says Rogér. “A public entity has to staff up or convert existing in-house staff to run a program of this size. Your building engineer who's been doing sidewalks for the past few years should never be put in the position to oversee a $1.5 billion program.”

On the other hand, Roger acknowledges, “there are some programs where the in-house people hate you because they think they could do a better job. We were lucky, in that the city tried to do the work themselves for a couple of years and they saw how hard it was. New Haven is happy to have us.”


Barnard Environmental Magnet School

Architect: Roberta Washington Architects, New York, N.Y.

Associate architect: David Thompson Architects, New Haven, Conn.

Construction manager: A. Prete Co., New Haven, Conn.

Project scope: New Haven's first LEED project, this 94,748-sf elementary school involved the renovation of the original 34,000-sf 1913 facility, the demolition of a 1950s addition, and the construction of a new wing. A walking bridge over a four-lane road connects the school to a park and new 1,200-sf nature center. The 619-student school has two green roofs, 196 roof-mounted solar panels (the state's largest solar installation), daylighting design, recycled materials, and energy-saving equipment that will make it 40% more efficient than a base school building. It is expected to save 228,600 gallons of water annually. The school, which opened in September 2006, has applied for a LEED Gold rating.

Worthington Hooker School

Architect: Amenta Emma Architects, Hartford, Conn.

Construction manager: Tri-Con, New Haven, Conn.

Project scope: Built in 1900, the 28,000-sf Worthington Hooker elementary school needed extensive renovations and upgrades. The 173-student school is one of New Haven's architectural gems, so the project team took great pains to restore some of its showcase features: original tin ceilings, decorative woodwork, and hand-painted beams in the lobby and first-floor corridor. Classrooms were enlarged by 100 sf each, and the school was finished with high-level materials, including solid-wood cabinets, granite countertops, and “cloud ceilings” that improve classroom acoustics. The lower level café/gym/auditorium was excavated so the space could open onto an outdoor plaza. The school was completed in August 2006.

Cooperative Arts and Humanities Magnet High School

Architect: Pelli Clarke Pelli, New Haven, Conn.

Construction manager: Giordano Construction Co., Branford, Conn.

Project scope: This $66 million, 145,000-sf performing and visual arts high school is the first public school designed by Cesar Pelli of Pelli Clarke Pelli, and it is the state's first performing arts high school. Situated on a tight 1.5-acre urban site, its performance spaces include a 350-seat theater with fly loft, a 150-seat black box theater, a video production studio, music studios, and a two-story dance studio overlooking a busy street corner in the city's theater district—a little bit of Broadway in New Haven. The school is set to open in time for the 2008-2009 school year.
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