School Construction Management: Expert Administrators Speak

The need for new school construction, combined with tight construction budgets, has led school districts across the country to improve their construction management capabilities. Even so, administrators charged with managing costs and quality approach their jobs from different points of view, depending upon their backgrounds.

Thomas D. Rushin, associate superintendent with Yuma School District Number 1, in Yuma, Ariz., for example, sees his role as that of an education construction manager. “In our system, general contractors manage the actual construction,” Rushin says. “What we do is insure that we are getting a building that satisfies educational needs.”

Rushin doesn’t second-guess basic design and construction management decisions, but he does set and monitor criteria related to educational performance of the finished space.

Christina Lighthall, senior director of facilities planning and construction with the Wake County School District, views her role in the district’s construction efforts as that of facilitator. “My job is to make sure we deliver quality projects on schedule and under budget,” she says. “I’m here as a facilitator when issues create barriers to that objective.”

While Rushin and Lighthall execute their construction management responsibilities from different points of view, both believe that one of their jobs is to keep their teams looking to the future.

Educational Construction Management

Rushin’s background wouldn’t seem to qualify him to manage construction. An administrator who comes out of the classroom, he holds degrees in design and art. Then again, his educational perspective makes him an ideal school building consultant for architects and contractors who design, manage and build schools. In fact, he has managed more than $50 million in school construction projects since 1991.

Rushin’s job begins well before design. “We determine needs for the district and calculate how much funding is available for individual projects. Then we gather information about those needs from constituents including the general public, students, teachers, the custodial and maintenance staffs and parent support groups,” he explains.

After selecting an architect, Rushin organizes meetings between the architects and a committee drawn from his list of constituents.

From the beginning of a project, Rushin aims to ensure that the final product reflects the district’s needs. In particular, Rushin and his staff strive to communicate how various building systems affect the educational process, from teaching through maintenance.

In describing his role, Rushin notes that he has to know what to manage. For example, temperature control of the HVAC system is important to the environment in a school as well as to construction costs, and Rushin makes sure he understands the various choices an architect might make. “In the southwest, heat is not a big issue,” he says. “This suggests heat pumps. We cannot build economically if the HVAC system includes a heavy heating component, because we don’t use heat that often.”

Rushin has studied school needs and compared them with what various HVAC systems provide. “These systems must provide the proper humidity and proper temperature, while allowing for some level of individual control by those using the rooms,” he says. “I’ll often give about three degrees of freedom on either side of a basic temperature specification.”

Rushin also asks his maintenance staff to evaluate proposed HVAC systems, asking if the staff has the expertise to maintain that system. “A system might save $28,000 in electricity costs, but require the special skills of a new $35,000 staff member for maintenance,” he says.

While architects and contractors think about light levels in terms of foot-candles, Rushin modifies those views with quality considerations. “Does the lighting make it easy to read?” he asks. “Does it produce glare on television screens and computer monitors? How does the light react to the new flat screens coming out? These considerations affect the types of fixtures and their placement. You can’t expect a lighting engineer or contractor to think about these issues. You have to know.”

Then there is the volume and feel of a room. A classroom must accommodate many people. If a school renovation design drops a 12-foot ceiling to eight feet to accommodate a new HVAC system, it may make the room feel too small for comfort to a full class. In such a case, Rushin might argue against dropping the ceilings or suggest increasing the numbers of windows to make the smaller room feel larger.

The Role of Facilitator

In Wake County, N.C., Christina Lighthall leaves the details of specifications to those who are better qualified. Instead, she focuses on the role of facilitator, creating consensus, moving projects along and occasionally saying no to principals for the sake of a schedule or a budget.

Lighthall’s facilitation talents displayed themselves during a recent renovation. The school district purchased an abandoned manufacturing research center, with the goal of renovating it in six months to meet the needs of 1,000 middle school students.

Facilitating that project required winning a special dispensation from the state legislature to alter the generally required multi-prime contracting system specified by the state, as well as generating consensus regarding a variety of serious construction decisions, all while maintaining the tight schedule and budget.

Lighthall made the case to the legislature for awarding the job to a single prime contractor. “We believed a single prime would allow better collaboration and communications without the disagreements often created by the multi-prime system,” she says. “This was essential to completing the project in six months.”

Even with the slimmed-down decision-making organization, several serious construction questions cropped up. Code considerations, for example, required the construction of two new stairwells within the existing structure.

“Another important decision involved whether or not to raise the roof over the gymnasium,” Lighthall says. “Our standard ceiling height is 21 feet, and the existing ceiling was 19 feet. Recognizing that this was a unique facility that would require compromises, we opted not to spend the $300,000 it would cost to raise the ceiling.

“What was great about this project was how we managed to meet all of our program specifications except for the roof in the gym. The finished building has four classroom clusters, vocational teaching spaces in the interior of the building, a media center, a home economics lab and everything else we needed. We accomplished all of this without making any structural changes except for the two stairwells.”

Lighthall brought the project in on time, at a cost of $17 million, about 13 percent over the estimated cost of $15 million, and within the contingency allowance.

The Key to Managing School Construction

According to Rushin, the key to managing school construction projects goes beyond specifics into the future of the structure. “As you go through the process, you continually refine costs and building system options,” he says. “In doing this, it’s easy to fall into the trap of building for the present. But these buildings are going to be used well into the future. One of my main tasks is keeping everyone’s attention focused on the future rather than the present.”

Lighthall, too, conceives of her facilitation work in terms of the future. “I’m first and foremost a long-range planner,” she says. “We have to pull together a building program that runs for three to four years, for buildings that must serve students for much longer.”

While each takes a different approach to managing construction, both end up in the same place: the future.

Michael Fickes is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with experience in education issues.