Build It Right

For most schools, a major construction project does not come along very frequently. Accordingly, school administrators generally lack the in-depth knowledge and experience required to manage the complex process and oversee the roles of the many players involved. As a result, these decision-makers can find themselves facing a very costly enterprise, for which they rarely have the expertise or the time required to handle effectively — and expensive mistakes too often ensue.

Because of this problem, many school officials immediately turn to an architect for guidance when they are faced with a construction project. However, an architect (or even a general contractor or construction manager) only offers services that address specific issues. Such a specialist does not always have an overall view of the full array of construction and development services necessary to achieve project goals. And that can have devastating financial and scheduling consequences.

Consider Delegating
One way for the school administration to solve this problem is to delegate the project management responsibility to an experienced third party. That is what a real estate project manager (PM), also known as an owner’s representative, is for. A PM’s function greatly differs from that of an architect, for the PM participates in every step of the project with broad oversight of budget, schedule, and quality of work. The PM is an advocate for the client, assisting the school in the decision-making process by presenting every advantage and disadvantage, and with no other motive or intention.

For example, a PM/owner’s representative helps the client to organize the project team and aids in handling matters such as the following:
  • setting a project’s program and budget;
  • assembling a qualified design and construction team, selecting a suitable compensation method for, and negotiating contracts with, each team member;
  • choosing a construction contracting method suitable for the project — whether it be using a general contractor for a stipulated sum (a fixed price for the entire project) or using a construction manager for a percentage of construction cost or cost-plus-fee (the cost of the construction manager’s operations, plus a profit factor);
  • assisting the client in setting insurance requirements and obtaining insurance, such as builder’s risk casualty insurance, comprehensive liability, etc.;
  • providing information to the client’s lawyers concerning any legal issues;
  • dealing with potentially complicated government matters, such as zoning and landmarks requirements, and obtaining the required building permits and approvals;
  • monitoring ongoing construction at the site;
  • reviewing all requisitions or invoices for payment and preparing monthly and final financial reports on the project;
  • conducting and recording weekly meetings of all key team members to address issues of program, budget, schedule, phasing, procurement, and other key areas of concern; and
  • meeting with all of the constituencies of the client throughout the decision-making process to present the advantages and disadvantages of each decision.

Well-Rounded Expertise
Because of the inclusive nature of the project manager’s position, the role demands a comprehensive understanding of finance and management, design, construction, and costs. As a result, a good PM is essential in making construction and design decisions that most education administrators are not equipped to answer on their own. It provides the school officials with the kind of reasoned, well-documented recommendations necessary to facilitate decision making.

As mentioned above, the PM plays many significant roles, but one of its most important is to guide and advise the client in assembling a qualified design and construction team. The first step in this process is for the PM to thoroughly understand and get to know the school’s culture, its decision-making process, and vision for the project. Then, working as a team, the client and the PM develop and agree on a size and scope for the project and set a realistic budget and schedule. Once these factors are established, the PM can develop a list of probable consultants who will be required to achieve these goals, and determine at what point in the development process each consultant will be required.

Then, in close consultation with the client, the PM can begin to set down the appropriate requirements, criteria, and qualifications for the selection of each consultant and agree with the client on the method for selection of each consultant. Each project is different and unique, and each school will require special qualifications that will best meet the client’s goals.

Know the School Culture
A school’s organizational culture will strongly influence what the PM looks for in the project team. For example, one of the schools we worked with has a strong democratic culture, and wished to include all segments of the school community in the design and decision-making process — administration, faculty, parents, students, alumni, and donors. As a result, the school wanted to work with team members who would be open to group input and consensus-building, and would respond well to design commentary and construction review by non-professionals. For this project, in the selection of key consultants, we conducted in-depth interviews with each potential firm. We also drew upon our experiences and contacts within the development community for extensive interviews with former clients, previous project team members, and community leaders to develop cultural profiles of each firm we were considering. As a result, the team members that the school selected formed a coherent team that fit well with the school’s culture.

Projects often require intangible qualities in the project team that go beyond mere technical expertise. My firm’s work with a medium-sized urban girls’ school exemplifies this process. We served as the project manager for the renovation of, and five-story addition to, a landmark townhouse to create a new middle school. This was a particularly sensitive project since it involved a landmarked property in a primarily residential neighborhood, and our client had a strong commitment to being a good neighbor. We realized that we needed team members who were experienced in working with landmarked structures and who would be sympathetic, respectful, and sensitive to the concerns of the project’s neighbors.

So, when it came time to select a construction firm for the project, we only included those who had worked on several landmark construction projects of similar size and who had demonstrated successful experience responding to community concerns. As a result, the client selected a firm whose experience, familiarity, and diplomacy became a remarkable asset to the team.

Sub-Consultant Roles
Even a modest school project can require a dizzying list of consultants that goes far beyond just a designer and a builder. You may require the expertise of specialists in fields such as zoning, municipal codes, hazardous materials, fire alarm systems, landscaping, lighting, or LEED (Leadership in Environmental Design). It is important to identify these key sub-consultant roles early in the process, and to accurately determine when to bring the required specialists on board to avoid project delays. Knowing which roles to fill and when to retain certain team members requires experience and forethought, which is a key attribute of any good PM.

For example, when we worked with a major K-12 independent school in New York, the school administration was strongly committed to green design from the very beginning and to submitting the project for the United States Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED certification program. We recommended an expert LEED consultant, who guided the design team through the process of including environmentally-friendly features into the project. The consultant developed a checklist of achievable LEED-credit points and aided in properly documenting the design for submission to the USGBC. He was helpful throughout the entire process by continually providing advice to the design team on the green features and green products.

 In addition, this school also called upon the expertise of a specialty consultant who served as the school's advisor on site safety, focusing on the safety of students, staff, parents, and visitors on the school property. Having a safety specialist on board put the minds of students, parents, and faculty at ease.

The PM’s role also includes the creation of collateral materials on the project to send out with Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for each consultant. The RFPs are sent to firms recommended by both the PM and the school decision-makers. Once responses are received, the PM will read and analyze the responses, and present his findings and recommendations to the client. With advice from the PM, the client can then select a consultant without further information, or request interviews with one or more of the respondents. The interview process differs with each school’s culture; it could be a casual and conversational experience or an extremely formal presentation. Usually, it is a little bit of both — an initial formal presentation by the consultant followed by an informal conversation. The purpose of these interviews is not simply to uncover the firm or professional’s qualifications, but also to test out the potential “chemistry” with the client and the other members of the project team. The interview is always followed by a “debriefing,” which is when we gather everyone’s initial reaction and assemble follow-up questions. The final decision-making process depends on the school’s preference — it could be a formal vote or a discussion and consensus.

But the work doesn’t end with assembling the project team — not by a long shot. After hiring a team, the PM remains involved throughout the project — intensively involved in all major (and many minor) decisions and, of course, chairing weekly meetings to address any issue. At times, the PM even plays the role of peacemaker of sorts when the views and priorities of the key parties involved differ.

Let Educators Educate
With so many professional disciplines involved, and with so much at stake, it makes sense that more and more educational administrations are turning to a PM to coordinate the various professional activities and to keep the experts involved on budget and on schedule, to see that they don’t trip over each other, and to make sure the client is getting what it bargained for.

A project’s success depends upon the combination of a strong decisive owner; a talented design team, and an experienced, diligent, and ethical construction team. Working with a project manager not only allows school officials to concentrate on educating, but also ensures that the many pitfalls inherent in complex school construction projects are avoided.

Projects of this sort are rare for schools. Getting them right is vital — for the school, for the board, and most of all for the parents and the children.

Kenneth Levien, AIA, is president of New York City-based Levien & Company, Inc., specializing in project management and owner/tenant representation services to not-for-profit educational, cultural, and religious institutions; property owners and tenants; public corporations; and private firms. For more information, Mr. Levien can be reached at [email protected] Website is