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Construction Pitfalls 101

If you want to avoid a school renovation nightmare, read on

By Pamela Wheaton Shorr | April/May 2004

McKinley Technology High School is rising from the proverbial ashes of the old McKinley High School in downtown Washington, D.C. Built in 1928, the school closed in 1997 due to falling enrollments. Daniel Gohl, hired to be principal of McKinley High in 2002, is currently overseeing the last stages of the construction project. Gohl believes McKinley will be a wonderful school when it opens this fall, but he says its resurrection has been painful and frustrating. Here he recounts the renovation's troubled story—from major delays and political wrangling to demolition problems. The McKinley rehab offers ideas about what to avoid when facing your own school construction project.

"Back in 1998," explains Gohl, "then mayoral candidate Anthony Williams—now Mayor Williams—campaigned on a promise to build a technology high school on the east side of the Anacostia River, one of the poorest and least served sections of the city." But a group of McKinley alums and City Council representatives, he says, successfully lobbied the Mayor a year later to refurbish McKinley instead. (To appease residents on the east side of the river, the mayor and the school district agreed to add a $5 million technology renovation project to the area's high school.)

To complicate matters, the school district was on the brink of bankruptcy. The superintendent left in 2000 and the school board was effectively eliminated by Congress, thus putting oversight for McKinley construction in the hands of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a federal agency. Given the involvement of the mayor, the Army, influential alums, and the community, McKinley was a political hotbed early on.

The Takeaway: The more political the situation, the more important it is to have a clear plan for decision making and communication. It may be best to hire an outside consultant from the get-go to not only manage the construction company and the architectural engineer, but also to help all parties get on the same page. In a politically charged environment, consultants can help keep the peace.

Once the architectural engineers for the project were chosen in 1999, they held a year's worth of public meetings for community input. From these meetings, three areas of technology upon which the new McKinley would focus were identified: biotechnology, broadcast technology, and information technology. The architectural engineers announced that the school would open in the fall of 2002.

However, the final construction contract wasn't signed until May 2002, and a number of design issues remained unresolved. That meant ongoing clarification and 'Requests for Information' (RFIs) during construction that further slowed the process. Plans for opening the school were delayed twice.

Gohl says it takes 18 to 24 months from completed plans through demolition and reconstruction. In addition, he says, it's critical to remember that plans arrive in stages and to warn constituents that they are not a promise of specific design elements. "The first plans you're likely to see have about 35 percent of the information in place," he notes. "The next set of plans is 50-percent complete, then 80, 95, and finally 100 percent."

The Takeaway: Make it clear to constituents and everyone with an investment in the school construction project—administrators, politicians, etc.—how often early design elements can change. Anything left unresolved on a construction project's final plans will absolutely delay the completion date.

According to the basic construction process, architectural engineers are required to do only what a contract holder tells them to do. Because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held the contract, Gohl notes, there was a lot of confusion in the community about how to get feedback to the contract holder in this unconventional set-up, and also about who had final say on design elements. In the end, some constituents made suggestions that never even made it to the designers, while other constituents, who thought they had the ultimate power to make design changes, were powerless because they didn't actually hold the contract.

The Takeaway: Get the word out early to all stakeholders on how suggestions, recommendations, and decisions will be made. Create a clear chain of command and remind constituents of it each time a set of plans or revisions is released.

Gohl thinks the turmoil in D.C.'s school leadership might have been a factor in some pretty rudimentary design omissions. The architectural engineers designed classrooms that worked beautifully for the three technology programs, for instance, but were just too big for basic courses such as Language Arts and Social Studies. "The curricular discussions were limited to the broad areas, and the finer points were not adequately explained to the [architectural] engineers," Gohl says.

The Takeaway: Think curriculum first. "How you teach should drive the furniture in the classroom, the shape and size of the classroom," says Gohl. "You really have to have a thoroughly thought-out educational program before beginning something of this magnitude."

The decision to rehab a building from the 1920s, rather than build from scratch, had profound effects on the way the construction eventually played out, says Gohl. For example, the original design called for cable to run underneath a raised floor. But early on, site demolition uncovered light concrete fill riddled with asbestos, which meant changing to a fixed floor. More asbestos than anticipated was found in the building, and airflow, plumbing, and heating weren't thoroughly coordinated, all of which raised costs and delayed construction. "The thing about working on a rehab is that there are usually no records of what went into the site, so you have to keep demolishing and testing to see what's there," says Gohl.

The Takeaway: Do your due diligence. It's critical to anticipate potential problems in your plan as best you can. Do preliminary demolition testing- or, if possible, extensive testing- if you are planning to rehab an old school.

About the Author

Pamela Wheaton Shorr is editor of The Heller Reports' Educational Sales and Marketing Insider, and is a frequent contributor to Scholastic Administr@tor.

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