We all know 2020 has challenged everyone, medical professionals, first responders, leaders in government, anyone in hospitality, and especially our friends in the business of educating our children. While DLA’s clients were figuring out how to continue to educate students in a pandemic, many also had ongoing construction projects vying for whatever valuable time they had left in the day. A few clients chose to postpone projects, a few construction projects were already underway, and many projects continued despite the chaos of 2020.
Construction wisdom nuggets from our conversations with clients...
After a remarkable year that has slapped us in the face multiple times and caused us to ask the question “What is next?” We thought it imperative to follow up with our clients who opted to juggle protecting and educating students and maintaining/upgrading their facilities. Contemplative discussions yielded many lessons learned that may be valuable information as you move forward into the unknown of 2021 and decision making for facility changes in general over the course of the next several years.
The impact of Covid-19 on school construction and what kept administrators up at night?
While it won’t surprise many that budget and timeline seem to be the number one answer to this question, there were other insights and concerns that were revealed.
- Moving timeline for occupancy (due to Covid-19) was both good and bad for construction this summer. Not being able to rely on a definitive timeline for the return of students or when to invest in overtime to meet the deadline if needed or when to leverage the unoccupied spaces caused a great deal of stress for administrators. Some contractors were able to take advantage of empty classrooms in late Spring and late summer. Most of the time, this was advantageous for both the School District and the contractors; however, there were occasions when some contractors assumed schools were not returning and they needn’t adhere to the schedule regardless of the pandemic. Nevertheless, in the Fall of 2020 school facilities needed to be in a constant state of readiness due to the evolving plan for return.
Recommendation: More coordination and more communication with every construction contract.
- Material delays occasionally happened but were more of a fear than a reality. Yes, some items like parts of lighting, bleachers, wall coverings, and casework were unavailable or delayed at times due to production shutdowns or travel restrictions but for the most part, some finagling of construction sequencing and product swapping remedied the issue.
Recommendation: Provide flexibility and constant communication with the contractors to manage and report expectations to administrators/school boards.
- Cost overruns while this is a continual worry among clients, the pandemic actually didn’t cause construction overruns in general. In fact, currently we are seeing quite the opposite. The bidding climate is excellent. There is a lot of interest in all types of projects and contractors are continuing to keep overhead and profit low in order to secure work for 2021. While hesitation to spend money in this environment is understood and expected, construction projects that do move forward also help contractors stay in business and maybe more cost effective than postponing.
Recommendation: Maintain a healthy fund balance as well as healthy facilities, implement prioritized maintenance projects as soon as you can, deferred maintenance has repercussions.
“As far as [how COVID impacted the timeline], it actually made it go faster from my perspective… Because the building was empty for a month or so, and then we were like ‘should the kids come back or not? Should we start the project?’ And then finally at some point we said they’re not coming back so we had all our ducks in a row… and we were available to move forward… we could start earlier, and this helped negate the effect of any delays.”
“We got things done on time and on budget…we were already looking at a later start because of construction and then we added another week and a half on because we needed to do more planning because of COVID. We were planning an in-person return to learning and it was very, very complicated having really little to do with our facilities but that extra time I think helped everybody.”
“I’m not sure that COVID impacted the project very much. We had some issues with some cabinetry being late because the factory had to shut down, but outside of that, I don’t think we had much of an issue. I think that we were very lucky that construction projects were allowed to continue and we were able to keep going.”
“If school had resumed on time, we would have done it, but it would have been a scheduling or planning nightmare. Some of the materials [for the interior finishing touches] were delayed from manufacturing plants closing down and the workers on the site had to social distance… but all things considered it didn’t have a real effect.”
“Understanding your finances and knowing where you are [is important], and if there are projects, see if there is a way that you can take advantage of this situation, this particular economy. So, if you do have something that [needs to get done anyway], is the timing right for the project to go out to bid right now? Maybe there’s an opportunity [to save money or experience a better timeline].”
What did we learn from the last 8 months and how might this change the design and construction process for schools?
- Virtual platforms for collaborating enabled DLA and our clients to have efficient and consistent means of communication. The zoom platform for soliciting community engagement was a great success. Stake holders were more likely to tune in from the comfort of their respective homes to give valuable input on school facilities.
Recommendation: Continue to utilize virtual platforms for stake holder engagement post Covid-19.
“I think the engagement we can have now with zoom actually makes it easier for people to participate [in the Visioning and Programming Process]. I’ve done other projects where when you have community meetings it takes a lot for people to come out of their houses to a meeting at night versus being able to zoom in. I’ve been happy that we’ve been able to have such participation… incorporating the needs from the Park District and the community and the school, listening to feedback from all kinds of different groups and perspectives.”
“Generally speaking, we’ve been able to work well [through the Visioning and Programming Process] despite COVID… I think ironically the zoom environment that we’re in may actually allow for more flexible and more consistent engagement than we might have had… the breakout sessions are a little crisper and more efficient”
- Flexible furniture and flexible learning spaces proved very useful when it came time to adopt Covid-19 protocols in an existing school facility. Multi-use spaces have been and continue to be in demand. Schools that have been designed in clusters or neighborhoods allowed natural partitioning of the building occupants. Flexible furniture was able to be configured to allow for social distancing and compact storage.
Recommendation: Continue to incorporate flexible spaces within your facilities, it makes sense for foreseen and unforeseen changes in education.
“The students are in four self-contained communities so we can make sure that our students are educated in a safe environment. [We worked with DLA to create] something that could endure changes in society… that 10 – 20 years from now we’d feel comfortable using this space even though education has changed. Well look, education has changed significantly and we’re still able to use the spaces designed 3 years ago.
[People] from our area were shocked at how effective it was at dealing with a crisis that no one knew would happen. I’m really proud of that. We talked about the importance of creating an environment that was really enduring and to be able to see the proof that it actually was, was exciting for me.”
- The pandemic highlighted the importance of school facilities, in-person learning and the value of educators. The administrators we spoke to hope this also helps School Boards be more willing and open to take the architectural expertise offered in the planning and facilitation of school construction.
Recommendation: Work with architects who have your best interest in mind and are able to stay in front of things and above all, let them do their job.
- The intangible benefit of modernization of school facilities. Renovations have a direct positive impact on school pride and culture. While one could argue that this has always been the case, it seems students, staff and parents all appreciate the built environment even more this year.
Recommendation: Remind school board members that facility maintenance and modernization add more value than the cost of the project, some of which cannot be quantified.
“There’s an intangible benefit from the work we’ve done with DLA. It started when we did a complete overhaul of the tennis courts, a year and a half ago, now with the gymnasium and the resurfacing of the track, it’s just created this noticeable impact on pride and school culture. Truly building upgrades positively impact school culture. You know intellectually that it does, but when you see it and you witness how fired up people are, and they are excited, and they are proud. It’s just remarkable.”
- More time to construct or renovate existing facilities. Moving beyond the pandemic, the world may seldom see another school day cancelled due to snow or extreme temperatures. Distance learning will most likely help to maintain a set summer construction window which will add precious days to tight summer construction schedules. In addition, distance learning may be integrated into the planned school year to accommodate construction schedules/sequencing on major facility renovations.
Recommendation: Maximize summer construction as much as possible and examine the potential benefit of distance learning to leverage cost and timeline savings.
Some of the many projects completed in 2020
In a year that seemed to present new and unique challenges every few weeks, we and our school colleagues leveraged the situation to accomplish a lot together. You all did a remarkable job and dealt with the stress the pandemic presented with grace and fortitude. In a time when so many businesses were struggling, your resilience not only kept your own organization functioning, but you provided stability for the essential businesses in your respective communities. Together you not only improved your facilities, but you invested millions of dollars in construction and kept people working. All this in addition to educating students during a pandemic. That is worth an award in itself. Let’s take a glimpse at your 2020 accomplishments.
“Boards have to be willing and open to taking the expertise… [For instance] the LT Boards want professionalism and rationale. And they want reasoning by the experts. It’s the expectation of having that high level of professionalism and responsiveness – especially during COVID because resources are drying up – that is what’s going to keep things moving. That becomes even more critical for Boards because now they know we don’t have a ton of money on our hands, so we really need to know this is being spent properly. DLA Architects is positioned to do this.”