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Construction Interruption

In the real world, renovation problems happen. Here are tips for dodging and, if necessary, dealing

What happened to B.J. Gatten smacks of an absurd sitcom episode: The Ridgefield (Conn.) High School sophomore struggled through a semester of geometry while construction workers built a new wing onto the school on the other side of the wall. "Sometimes it would get so loud, you couldn't hear what the teacher was saying, and I was in the front row, a foot away," he reports. The class switched locations for the final, but Gatten still heard the ruckus.

In the late '90s, the Atlanta-based firm Heery International completed an impact study that found two-thirds of teachers caught in this renovation-during-education fix say it negatively affects students' ability to learn. Today, architects and project managers strive more than ever to ensure the next school district due for bulldozers doesn't join those statistics.

Basic modernization projects--replacing mechanical, electrical, wiring and plumbing infrastructure--rate as the noisiest, says Robert Simons, principal of MVE Institutional in Irvine, Calif. New wing additions like the 26-classroom expansion he's currently overseeing for Carlsbad High School actually allow for better isolation.

But in either case, how you design and then execute your blueprints makes the difference between a bearable project and a nightmare.

Planning Smarts

You can't overplan when mixing students and saws, say administrators who have weathered the construction storm. That's why Heery Program Manager Alan Stewart, who is in charge of Charleston County (S.C.) School

District's $600 million renovation of 70 schools, urges each principal to form a committee that meets from the design phase until the last nail is hammered.

"Just make sure you don't elect a negative whiner to this team," Stewart cautions. He suggests asking a group of five teachers and maintenance representatives to hash out the ramifications of each design idea. For example:

"How will upgrading technology affect my room?" "How do we control security under these conditions?"

Unfortunately, too many principals let these get-togethers slide over time, notes former superintendent Frank Cosca. This is the most common mistake, says Cosca, who oversaw several construction projects in Ontario-Montclair (Calif.) School District, the second largest elementary district in the state. Each week, the architect should meet with the team, record the conversation and get out action sheets the next day listing people responsible for each task, he says--"so these details don't fall through the cracks."

"My son is a principal who just went through a construction project," Cosca adds. "He'd call me about snags. I'd tell him to hold a meeting and fire off some e-mails. ... Things always smoothed out."

Planners must work around classes needing a particular type equipment or space, such as band, chemistry or industrial arts.
-Robert Simons, principal, MVE Institutional

While inconvenience may top the list of immediate concerns for teachers and students, administrators should fret more over access points than noise, offers Mark Mardock, senior vice president of education services for McCarthy Building Companies in St. Louis. Construction workers arriving on the job as buses pull up isn't efficient. It's best to have the tool belts on site before students. Restrict delivery and trash removal times, too. "A truck driving through a gate where kids are walking to and from school isn't a pretty picture," he says.

To solidify this separation between caulk and chalk in the parking lots, establish isolated spaces for contractors to leave their personal vehicles.

It's all a mindset as much as a practicality. Still, kids and contractors do the darndest things when living side by side. Experts recommend that districts build into the project contract specific understandings on:

Personal conduct. Construction site language leans toward colorful during ordinary chit-chat and profane when minor accidents happen. Spell out which words you will and won't tolerate. And definitely address potential clothing issues, ranging from suggestive logos to waistlines that bag below the hips and tank tops. Bare-chested men and teenage girls in particular beg trouble.

Days off. Specify your core testing and finals dates, and insist that contractors pause their work.

School rules. If a worker violates an agreed upon procedure or schedule, the principal should reserve the right to toss him without waiting for the manager to arrive, says Ralph Rohwer, a vice president and program director at Heery.

In addition, quiz your construction team on the latest techniques available to avoid common bugaboos. For instance, roofing has a strong asphalt smell that tends to upset people because they assume it's a dangerous odor, says Stewart. Insist that your crew uses odorless kettles to melt the asphalt and circumvent those phone calls.

Stashing Students

It makes sense to execute heavy-lifting procedures--earth movement, footings, barricade fencing--during summer months. But with year-round schools, summer sessions and narrowed breaks, no one can count on finishing a project during such small windows.

For sizable projects, administrators may temporarily redistrict to empty a building for its renovation turn--a musical chairs-like strategy. Seattle Public Schools, for example, took the last school on its repair list, reassigned its students to other schools, and then used that building as interim housing. Once all temporarily housed students have gone back to their alma maters, the building will be converted to a school with different grade levels.

Cosca chose to use portable classrooms, since many of his schools already rented them. But this option isn't as simple as driving some walls to the school and parking them anywhere on campus. "How do students get to them?" asks Stewart. "You can't say they'll walk across the grass when you have a low spot that will be six inches deep with water when it rains."

The third option, which Ridgefield is using for both its high school and middle school construction projects, is known as "phasing." Students are relocated within the building to put as much distance between their classrooms and construction as possible.

This is easiest at the elementary level--as long as you meet code requirements for bathroom access in the first and second grades. The planning becomes more complicated with middle and high schools, warns Simons. In these cases, planners must work around classes needing a particular type of equipment or space, such as band, chemistry or industrial arts.

"It's cost prohibitive to put these [classes] in a temporary classroom," Mardock says. These projects are best saved for summer--and typically not the first one because of lead times to bring in the right materials. "Plan it late enough in construction so all materials are there, everything is approved," he advises. "As soon as school dismisses we can charge in and do the work."

But never doubt that there's a way to separate the two worlds, no matter the obstacles. "I can't think of a project I've done in my 20 years where the work was actually happening while the students were in that space," Simons says.

Walking the Talk

Students at all grades tend to dramatize construction interruptions, project managers concur, but faculty, too, can prove thorny. "Some teachers are always looking for something to hang their hat on for poor performance," Stewart says. Cosca has heard his fair share of "We didn't know about it," "We didn't hear in time," and "We didn't have enough warning" complaints.

To head off gripes, host a kick-off evening to explain the project's goals and stages to parents and staff before the equipment rolls in. Follow with updates posted online and sent home with kids on custom flyers. Newspaper ads work for some districts. Require your project manager to attend PTA meetings and give the lowdown on progress. Many administrators add a renovation newsletter in addition to any normal public correspondence. It's best to produce an issue after every milestone, says Stewart.

Simons reminds clients to pepper updates with the positive, such as cost savings that a new heating system will bring and specific ways students will benefit from improved teaching spaces.

Ultimately, it all boils down to conveying processes, listening to reactions and responding before the complaints fester. "It will be disruptive," Mardock says. "But when everybody knows what to expect, it's a lot easier to deal with. Surprises are a problem every time."

Indeed, staff at Ridgefield High School have bucked up well, says Jeffrey Jaslow, a biology teacher and assistant principal. Many classrooms in the pre-existing building do deal with intrusive noise, he admits. "You look up and see open ceilings, and you're kinda horrified at first until you get acclimated. It's not a pretty setting to be in, but it's not necessarily always in your consciousness, either."

Jaslow adds that the administrative team has "conveyed the message from Day One that we're still going to learn here. As long as there doesn't seem to be any question about that, the kids adjust accordingly. I think we've proceeded amazingly well in a far-from-ideal situation."

OOPS! Don't Do It Again

Project managers and principals have their share of horror stories. Take heed from their hard knocks:

Early in his career, McCarthy Buildings Companies' Mark Mardock failed to plan for the systems in buildings he was working on. Trying to patch the new versions to the older counterparts left clocks that didn't work, silent bells, security systems on the fritz, faulty HVAC controls and unplugged cable TV channels. "Designers have a habit of saying, 'We'll put the new fire alarm panel right where the old panel is and wire everything back over.' They don't realize we'll only be able to do eight to 10 classrooms at a time," he says. "You must have adequate space and plan to do parallel systems for awhile or you end up with a lot of headaches and unhappy faculty."

One anonymous soul witnessed a construction crew bring pets to the work site. "That's a big distraction if the dogs get loose, and a danger if they bite a student," he notes.

Ralph Rohwer of Heery International won't forget the day an electrician showed up late to his high school assignment, and then promptly began installing light standards with his small crane at the front of the building--while students entered through the door below. "My lesson learned: It isn't the contractor who usually violates the law, it's the subcontractor doing his own thing," Rohwer says.

Poor Rohwer also painfully learned to prevent his construction projects from becoming attractive vandal spots on weekends. Objects near a fence invite mischief makers to leverage themselves over the barriers, and anything stacked next to a trailer invites an upward climb. Stay one step ahead of kids by preventing site access, he advises.

Julie Sturgeon is a freelance writer based in Greenwood, Ind.