The Construction Insiders: Episode 6
Jason: Welcome to the latest episode of the Construction Insiders podcast, where our host, Jessica Busch, talks with industry experts about new trends, best practices, and how to successfully deliver construction projects in today’s market. Whatever your role on a project, we think you’ll find these discussions interesting and worth your time.
Jessica: Alright. Today we are talking all things school construction and we are onsite at the CASH conference down here in Long Beach, California. So, there is noise. There are people. There’s a lot going on. It’s exciting. We’re taking some time out to talk with two experts in the field: Julie Strauss with HMC Architects and Dana Grudem with Irvine Unified School District. These two ladies know what they’re doing. They know a lot more than I do about school construction. I hope this will be insightful and we can explore all things when it comes to building these schools for our kids. So, welcome ladies! Thanks for taking the time to sit down with me. How has it been going so far? Good?
Julie: Good. It’s been busy. I’ve been running around. It’s good. There’s lots of people here. It’s a nice change of pace from Sacramento. It’s been a good conference so far.
Dana: The weather is amazing down here. Absolutely amazing.
Jessica: Gotta love that Southern California vibe. Perfect. Without wasting too much time, we’ll jump right in. Talking about school construction, when we’re planning for a major construction project in the public education sector, it comes with a lot of extra steps, approvals, hurdles, red tape. Where do you start with that? It seems a little overwhelming as an outsider looking in. Step one, when you’re approached or you see a need, where do you begin?
Dana: Let’s start with the fact that you have to determine what that need is. Is it a new school? Is it an addition to an existing campus? Or are you having to remodel? Let’s start with a new school, a brand–new school. Your district is growing. You have that need. If you don’t have your developer partners or you don’t have partners at the city, the first thing you need to do is identify a school site, potentially three schools sites, to evaluate to see which one is going to be the best suited for your needs.
Jessica: Almost a quote process for the actual building site.
Dana: Correct. It’s going out and it’s taking a look at different locations, which one is centrally located for the needs that it’s going to serve.
Julie: And then also factoring in Title 5 and which site would best fit the needs of Title 5 and the requirements that the California Department of Education looks at in reviewing sites and ranking them for a school district.
Dana: Yeah, you don’t want to be too close to an airport or railway station.
Julie: Or even underground utilities if you have pipelines that are running through the site. There are setbacks you need to take into account and factor in. The Department of Education looks at all of that in evaluating the sites and how safe they would be for our students to be at.
Jessica: Ok, step 1. Seems like a basic step, but seems like a lot involved already.
Julie: Maybe even before that. The district needs to identify where the funding is going to come from and how they’re going to pay for these projects before even looking at identifying a site. Because if you don’t know what your budget is and how much money or where the funds are coming from, what is feasible for you to do?
Julie: And that will actually help dictate the scope of the project as well, based on what your funding sources are.
Jessica: Before even the formal planning process starts.
Jessica: And so, this planning phase and everything with public education, how far in advance do you recommend? What’s ideal? I know there’s probably a spectrum of what you’ve been able to pull off, but what’s ideal?
Dana: It depends on the type of project you’re doing and how actively involved your community is. For us in Irvine, we like to bring in an entirely new design committee when it comes to a new school project. We’re going to have teachers, we’re going to have educators, we’re going to have parents. If we’re at the higher level like a high school, we might even bring in some of those students so that we can hear from them what works and what doesn’t work.
Dana: That doesn’t work for every school district, but that definitely works for us. We want to make sure this is an active, collaborative process that occurs. If it’s an addition to an existing campus, then we’re going to just focus on those that work at that campus, your administration team, you might bring in a couple key leadership teachers into that discussion. If it’s a remodel, the same thing. We’re going to also include maintenance staff and ED services staff and so forth.
Julie: And also in the modernization or the addition portion, the district will refer back to previous planning processes that they’ve done. That’s where they’ll go to their facilities master plan and look at what the facilities master plan is calling out for those campuses and their educational specifications, and what the district’s educational programs are and what the modernization or addition might need to do to bring that campus up to meet the facilities master plan.
Dana: It’s critical. We discussed this yesterday in planning 201, for those that were here, the importance of having ED specs, the importance of having a facilities master plan. That’s your guiding document that helps your facilities team, your ED services team, your business team kind of help to shape what that project is going to look like and what the priorities are depending on the type of project it is.
Jessica: So, you talk about this facilities master plan and the need and how critical it is. Can we talk a little bit more about that? I have to say, it was really impressive to hear how, from the beginning, in terms of what Irvine does, it sounds like transparency is included in the planning, it’s the first step. Being in our role, we see a lot of times the districts not including all of those individuals top to bottom, and so it’s interesting to see through the process how it’s accepted, not accepted, feedback, pushback. It’s interesting that you guys take such a comprehensive, transparent approach at the beginning.
Dana: Sure. Part of that as facilities staff is you get a lot of educators in the room and they are great, visionary people. They have so many different ideas. It’s helping to hone those ideas down and narrow down what those priorities are so that you can make decisions that best represent the needs of the district, that best represent the needs of the students, so that you can continue to move forward. Otherwise, you’re going to end up stuck in this state of paralysis, of, “We don’t know which way to go, we don’t know which direction to go.” So it’s important to have everybody’s feedback and buy-in, but you also have to make those decisions as you continue to move forward, or you won’t be able to move forward.
Jessica: So, talking about those decisions and the feedback then that moves into that facilities master plan document, what are you looking at when you’re talking about current versus future? Are there historical documents you’re pulling from? Are there surveys? Where does this plan start in its most basic draft level?
Julie: It depends on if the district has a previous facilities master plan. You look at your existing sites, your basic campus plan, and then it’s the development of the ED specs that really help guide the facilities master plan and what’s needed at each campus. And that’s where Dana was talking about the involvement of the educational side and the district’s guiding principles as to what they are prioritizing for their district and their educational programs. And then, looking at how you can incorporate those into a facilities master plan so that your facilities are actually implementing and helping to deliver your educational program. So Irvine, they prioritize music and art. When they’re looking at a campus and their facilities master plan, many of their older campuses needed to add those components to a campus. They look at how to develop the campus into meeting the educational program.
Jessica: So, whether there was a previous one or not, in that ideal scenario, what does the master plan hold? What does it look like?
Dana: In the ideal scenario, you already have your district board–approved ED specs, which then translate into your district board–approved facilities master plan. We’re going to take that master plan and you’re going to create a project. Let’s take a new school for example. We’re going to build a new school based on that. We’re going to bring this committee together. In our particular district we do that. It’s going to be depending on your district and the politics of your district as to how that functions. But we’re going to bring this group in and we’re going to start looking through those ED specs and look through the master plan and start to look. Does this work for us? Does this not work for us? If you look at ours specifically, we have what we call a design lab, and that’s a dedicated science classroom at the elementary school level. And in the master plan, it is adjacent to our multi-purpose room and our music classrooms. During that design committee and through that vetting process, we determined that’s really not the best location for that particular program, and so we relocated it within the campus hub. It’s off the library. It’s next to what we call an innovation lab, which has now since changed as a result of all these discussions with all these committees, and relocated it. So, we want to take what’s going to work and function and adjust as we go along. We’re a district that believes in continuous improvement and a collaborative environment. At the end of the day, as facilities staff, we’re not living and breathing in those spaces. The educators and the students are, and they’re the ones that need to be able to function and be happy with that space.
Julie: So, in addition to looking at each campus and the adjacencies that might be needed for a new campus, there’s some specific requirements or necessary components of a Facilities Master Plan. One we’ve talked about in depth already, the educational specifications and how that plays into a Facilities Master Plan. But there’s also that needs assessment at each campus and that’s where you can actually work with your M & O department to help develop what actually needs to be done, what the needs are. Or you can work with consultants, evaluating each of the buildings and structures to see what needs to be done. Typically, a Facilities Master Plan includes an inventory of existing sites and that kind of goes back to where do we start. Well you start with your existing campus maps and you have your basic what buildings you have on each campus and how many classrooms. So, you have your inventory of existing facilities and sites. Also very important is you have your capital planning budget and your funding and financing sources as to the funds that are available. And then when we’re looking at Prop 13 and a potential new program and the requirement for this board approved Facilities Master Plan, there’s a couple additional items that are outlined in AB48 for a Facilities Master Plan. So a district would also need to include a capacity analysis for each site, enrollment projections for the next 5 years, a deferred maintenance plan so that’s more of the collaboration with your other departments, also the district’s current assessed value and an LCAP correlation or narrative as to how the campuses, how the facilities are actually helping deliver and meets the needs and the goals of the LCAP.
Jessica: Just to go back a little back when you’re talking about future facility needs, I know in California and I’m sure in other states, there’s a lot of changes when it comes to new legal requirements, things like EDA. How do you plan for that when you’re building so many years out? How does that play into the budget financially? Is there always a pot you have for changes? How can you constantly tell the future?
Dana: You can’t. The truth is you can’t. In California, the code cycle changes every 3 years. And then there’s this buffer. We know it’s coming. We already know what those changes are and depending on when you’re submitting to the division of state architect. In the state of California we have to submit to the division of state architecture, DSA. Those are the folks that review our plans to make sure that we’re fire life safety, accessibility, structurally sound for a school project. We know what’s coming and what those changes are so that we can start to incorporate those. Typically, a planning project is anywhere from 3 months to about a year and a half depending on the type of project the size of project. You’re going to spend a year and a half, maybe even 2 years on a brand-new high school. You could spend as little as three months planning a portable addition to an existing campus. With that said, you’re going to kind of know what those codes are going into it. The biggest challenge that we have is your technology component. So the infrastructure to your technology.
Jessica: Technology changes daily.
Dana: You design CAP5 and by the time you go out to bid you’re CAP6. So, having to get all that updated and even sometimes halfway through construction that technology changes. Those would be your biggest challenges associated with that. But with accessibility, with fire life safety, we kind of know what those are. We see it coming and we can prepare for it.
Julie: And also architects look at it and even the school districts and this is where the code was changing, you had to get plans in by December 31st to be under the current code and not have to factor in the new code requirements, so there was a huge push at the end of the year.
Jessica: To file that…
Julie: Yes. I was just in a workshop this morning and DSA said they received over $4 billion in the last quarter of the year to try to get those projects in ahead of the code change so that districts aren’t saddled with that additional cost of having to update and change the plans for the new code cycle. So, there’s always that planning and rush to get in ahead of code change.
Jessica: So, what are some lessons learned in this phase of developing this document that you guys have learned that might be helpful?
Dana: From the document, you mean the facilities master plan?
Dana: The biggest piece of that is it is always changing. Under Prop 13, that’s going to become a requirement to update it annually and constantly have a five-year outlook.
Jessica: To treat it as a living document.
Dana: To treat it as a living document. One of the things that we discussed yesterday with those that were sitting in on our Planning 201 workshop was that if you’re outsourcing this, if you’re going through a comprehensive facilities master plan and you’re using an architectural or consulting firm to assist you, one of the deliverables needs to be a document that you can edit internally. Make it user friendly, whether that’s PowerPoint or that’s Word. Something that your staff can do because you’re constantly going to have to tweak and update this all the time. The other piece of that is that it is a guiding document. It’s not the end–all, be–all. Just because it tells you that you need to have a multi–purpose room that’s 5,000 square feet, that’s the ideal for your district.
Jessica: But it might not make sense in the moment.
Dana: Correct. Or you might not be able to afford it or maybe that’s for 1,000 students and you know that this school is never going to get over 700 because you’re stagnant. You might even start to decline, so why spend the money to do something so big when you can put the money somewhere else.
Julie: And I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned when working with districts on facilities master plans is there’s a happy medium between the visionary document and how specific and in the weeds you get. You have to work through the real goals and what the district wants and needs from the facilities master plan and then that helps dictate exactly how specific you get with the facilities master plan. Because there’s ramifications of both. It’s great to have this visionary document to be your roadmap and the pie in the sky plan for the district, but then can you ever afford to build it?
Dana: Can you ever afford to build it?
Jessica: What’s really going to happen?
Julie: Correct. But, if you get too into the weeds, it’s very limiting in what you can do and could potentially affect any state funding if you’re needing that state funding to offset your costs.
Jessica: That’s interesting. Ok. Is there anything that is commonly overlooked for some of these schools going through this for the first time in a long time, or for the first time ever?
Julie: You know I think something that has been overlooked in the past is a funding plan or implementation plan for a facilities master plan. I think that there is, with the new regulations with Prop 13, that shouldn’t be as much of an issue because it’s a requirement that you have that funding and financing sources in a capital budget plan. But in the past, I think districts have been great about doing the planning and they have these great plans, but then they don’t know how to implement it.
Jessica: The rollout may not be very detailed.
Jessica: We’re talking about all of this in building, how do you possibly decide if we’re going to go for new construction or if we’re going to do a major modernization project? How do you make that decision? It’s probably different school to school, budget to budget, how old the building is, but how do you start making that decision?
Dana: Well, there’s a variety of factors that go into that. Is your school district growing? Do you not have the capacity to meet the needs of your existing students? That’s where a new school may come into play. Maybe we’re only going to grow a couple hundred students in this area — that doesn’t justify a whole new school. We can add on to this campus and meet the needs. You have to look at both your short–term enrollment projections and your long–term enrollment projections and compare that to your existing capacity. That will help determine what your needs are both short–term and long–term. Is it adding a couple portables? Is it adding a new building? Is it building an entirely new school?
Julie: Is it repurposing your existing facilities?
Jessica: For new means…
Julie: Exactly. Correct. Or even if you have portables there and you have some money that you can apply to a campus, is it then replacing those portables with a permanent structure because that’s a better use of your dollars rather than actually modernizing that space and giving the campus a facility that will be there for the next 30 years?
Jessica: Or maybe you’re declining at your elementary level and instead of shuttering that elementary school you repurpose it to a middle school.
Dana: Exactly. And you’re using modernization funds to help repurpose it and tweak a standard classroom into a science classroom and adding the plumbing needs and so forth.
Jessica: So there’s a little creativity and thinking outside the box.
Dana: Correct. Absolutely. And that’s where if you don’t have that expertise within your school district, a consultant, an architect that has seen it all and has had all of those experiences comes into play.
Jessica: Is there a difference in the approval process for these approaches in terms of funding and eligibility, or are they looked at as the same?
Julie: The process for funding is essentially the same for both modernization or a new construction project. You would need to start with your California Department of Education approvals. Any project that is going to receive state funding has to have an approval by the Department of Education. That’s really your first start. And that can be done along with your DSA approvals because you need both a CDE and a DSA approval in order to submit to the Office of Public School Construction for funding for modernization, new construction, facility hardship, CTE. You have to have those approvals, so it’s essentially the same process for that.
Jessica: And so, speaking of all things approval and eligibility, OPSC expectations, eligibility, it’s just a bunch of letters again…
Julie: OPSC is the Office of Public School Construction. They house and they distribute the state bond dollars to the districts, so they are going to review your projects and evaluate them for funding. And that’s really one of the first places that you would start, right Dana? Looking at every campus that has modernization eligibility and how much modernization eligibility, that would help you potentially form a budget as to what you might be able to do at the campus — and new construction eligibility if you have those new construction dollars to add seats, because that’s the main component or restriction on new construction is you have to be adding capacities. If you are a growing district, looking to see if you have that new construction eligibility and where it needs to be used within the district to best serve students, right?
Dana: Absolutely. Getting into, what is your eligibility? If your campus has never been modernized and it’s over 25 years old, chances are you have a lot of eligibility that you can use and get state funding for. The modernization program currently, prior to Prop 13 passage, is the state’s going to give you 60% of your eligibility, you need to come up with that 40%. That’s huge. And once Prop 13 passes, there’s opportunities to get up to 65% from the state and reduce your contribution to that modernization project. Consequently, with new construction, it’s a 50/50 match with up to 55% also coming from the state.
Jessica: So, there is a little bit of a difference there.
Dana: Little bit of difference there. You’re going to have to fork out a little bit more money when it comes to your local matching dollars. If you’re new construction, you might have developer partners that can help bring money to the table or Mello-Roos dollars.
Julie: I do want to interject here and I don’t want to mislead people into thinking that when we say it’s 50–55%. That’s not real dollars. You aren’t going to get 50-55% of a new construction project or a modernization project from the state. It doesn’t calculate out that way. The district is going to have to give more. The state program does not look at your project and say, “Ok, this is a $35 million new construction project so I’m going to give you $17.5 million.” It’s based off pupil grants and so they don’t correlate.
Jessica: Instead of 65% what are you budgeting for?
Dana: So, reality is depending on your area. In Orange County, construction is very expensive. We’re probably more like 70/30 in new construction.
Jessica: That’s what you’re expecting.
Dana: 70% from the district, 30% from the state. In modernization it could be as high as 80% district, 20% state.
Julie: Because with modernizations it’s so hard, you never know. You don’t know what you’re going to uncover. When you open up a wall you don’t know what’s going to be there. And you’re not going to get additional funding for unforeseen conditions. You’re not going to tear that drywall out, find mold, and then get mold abatement funding specifically for it. You have to work within that existing envelope.
Jessica: Interesting. That’s a significant change, but the reality is sometimes a little harsher.
Dana: The additional grant agreement that is now in place further restricts what are acceptable expenditures, where in the past the state allowed the computers and the refrigerators and things like that that are no longer available. If you’re building a brand–new high school, you’re probably buying grounds equipment and lawn mowers to maintain your facilities. Those are not eligible expenses. Those come 100% out of the district. And the new piece with our audit restrictions in place, you have to make sure those expenses do not show up on your reports to the state because even though you might have overspent and you spent 70% of your money on that project, they’re still going to come after you to pay them back for that piece.
Jessica: These are great tips for people that haven’t gone through this process or haven’t gone through it in a really long time.
Dana: A lot of nuances.
Jessica: Little hiccups.
Dana: Yes, absolutely.
Jessica: Overall, are there any recommendations to district leadership that are going to be going down this path soon?
Dana: If you don’t have the staff, then finding the funding to hire experts, whether it’s a consultant or an architectural firm that has that expertise. A lot of architectural firms out there have staff in house that also are very well–versed in state funding and CDE approvals, so finding that right consultant that fits the needs of your district based on what your strengths and weaknesses are…
Jessica: That can understand the foreign language and all the documents…
Dana: Yes. Prop 13 actually helps the smaller school districts and has additional funding to support staff for small schools that don’t have that expertise. There’s additional funding components to that, so make sure that you’re watching what Prop 13 says. It might benefit your district in looking for those opportunities. The other piece would be in house, using your strengths within your house. If you’re hiring, making sure you’re bringing people in that already know what to do or have the resources and the tools in their tool belt to be able to go seek that information and bring it back.
Julie: And I would say from a consultant side, advising a district that’s venturing down this route, it’s a long process. It can be a very long process, especially the educational specification side. It can be a year-long process to plan. And so it’s really developing a schedule, listening to your client, really actively listening and asking the questions so that you’re better able to guide districts in the direction that they want to go so, as Dana was saying, you have all of these voices, these stakeholder groups where you have educational services, you have business, you have community leaders, you have parents, you have students, and they’re all giving input. You need to be able to sift through that and make sure that you’re guiding your clients in the right direction and actually honing in all of that information, and actively listening to what their needs are.
Dana: Yeah, and from the district perspective, making sure that you’re hiring a consultant that understands your district or takes the time to understand your district. So many times…
Jessica: Every community is different, the politics, it’s important, the changes that have happened…
Dana: Absolutely. And not every consultant is going to come in and understand your needs. So from the district perspective, if you’re putting out a request for qualifications, a request for proposal, making sure that you put language in there or followed up with an interview that really allows these consultants, these architects to understand what your needs are. We as a district have a lot of meetings because we’re a very collaborative environment. So, where an architect might say, “Oh, I need maybe two meetings here, two meetings here,” we might ask for 5 – 10 meetings in that same phase. They need to understand that and be willing to have the staff and availability to do so.
Jessica: Well, this was very interesting, and I hope very informative. I’ve learned a lot for sure. So, thank you ladies!
Julie/Dana: Thank you! Thank you for having us.
Jessica: Alright. We’ll get back to the conference out there.
Jason: If you enjoyed this episode of Construction Insiders, we encourage you to check out our website at www.ccorpusa.com, that’s ccorpusa.com. Where you can find our full knowledge library under the Insights tab. It’s all great stuff, we’re really passionate about it, and we hope you’ll check it out. Thanks for listening.