We always enjoy delivering spectacular projects to our clients, and the new CORE Building on the Hayward campus of California State University East Bay (CSUEB) is certainly no exception. Work is nearly complete on this state-of-the-art, $85 million, 100,000 square feet, LEED Gold structure, which will serve as the new heart of the campus.
The CORE Building will replace and expand upon the functions of CSUEB’s original library while adding new collaborative spaces that connect the upper and lower sections of campus. Here’s what can be found on the building’s three levels:
Ground floor: Collaboration zones and innovation labs, including the Hub for Entrepreneurship
Second floor: A modern new library that helps students research and navigate the information age economy; study spaces inside and on the exterior roof deck
Third floor: The peer-led Student Center for Academic Achievement (SCAA); an enclosed lounge space; study carrels; a meditation area
We’re proud to have helped bring the CORE to life, given the very special relationship between VPCS and the CSU system. Back when we were just getting started 25 years ago, they gave us a chance to show what we were capable of by hiring us for our first major contract. Since then, we’ve delivered more than 60 major capital projects for CSU, managing work at six of the system’s 23 campuses. On the Hayward campus alone, we’ve worked on numerous projects since 2006.
“The experience VPCS brings by having done so much work for the CSU system is really valuable, since CSU has its own processes and procedures when it comes to capital projects,” says Quan Lee, our senior project manager on the CORE Building site. “CSU keeps coming back to VPCS because of that experience. VPCS just has such a good understanding of the CSU process and how projects of any size should be managed on behalf of this client, which helps things go smoothly.”
We fully expected to construct the CORE Building while university activities were in full swing, adapting to the needs of students and faculty – and, most importantly, staying out of their way. In fact, we’re known for our ability to keep a low profile on an occupied campus. But the timing of this project lightened that load somewhat, as we broke ground in early 2020, just two months before the pandemic closed the campus. So construction continued on a mostly empty site until classes resumed in the fall of 2021, at which point we adjusted back to our routine of working on a busy campus. A dedication celebration was held last month, and we expect to wrap up our work on the project soon.
When it comes to the impact this project will have, Quan sums it up nicely: “Partly because of its size and also because it sits right in the center of campus, the CORE Building is going to be the new focal point of CSUEB. It’s going to help make this a very dynamic university campus.”
Check out a fly-through animation of the CORE Building here and a timelapse video of the project’s construction by clicking on the “Time-Lapses” button here.
VPCS has a long and rich relationship with the Coalition for Adequate School Housing (CASH), which advocates to ensure that California’s public school facilities are safe and healthy places where students can learn and thrive. For the past few years, we’ve strengthened our ties to CASH by sending members of our team to the CASH School Facilities Leadership Academy, a prestigious and rigorous certification program developed in partnership with the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT).
VPCS Project Manager Brian Cameron is the latest of our proud CASH Academy graduates. Brian recently took time out of his work with the Windsor Unified School District to speak about the Academy program and how it affected him as a school construction professional.
Q: What impact does CASH have on California’s schools?
BC: CASH is a coalition of school district representatives, contractors, consultants and other professionals involved in the facilities side of our state’s public schools. It’s an organization that brings people together to share information and strategies about school construction, facilities management, planning, funding, etc. CASH puts on a conference each year and VPCS is always very involved in that.
Q: What is the CASH School Facilities Leadership Academy?
BC: This is a certification program that CASH puts on each year in collaboration with California’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team. It’s an intensive year-long program you have to apply to. If you’re lucky enough to be accepted, you attend classes with the rest of your “cohort” once a month – over a Friday and Saturday – alternating between classroom locations in Sacramento and Ontario.
Q: When did you go through the program?
BC: I was accepted into the cohort that began last year (in March 2021) and we finished up this spring. We were still in Covid protocols when we began, so my 50-person cohort actually started the program via Zoom. That was fine, I guess, but it was really great when we finally got to start gathering in person. It’s just so much more powerful to be able to work side-by-side with people and talk shop – first, to get to know everybody, but also to hear how they’ve tackled some of the things that all of us in school construction deal with every day.
Q: What types of content does the Academy cover?
BC: It’s pretty much every topic that pertains to facilities management and construction. Site acquisition, funding (including how to secure bonds), working with state agencies and that kind of thing. We also went deep into the nuts and bolt of design and construction – things like the architects’ process, procurement, reviewing contracts and more.
Q: Why was it important to you to attend the CASH Academy?
BC: Even though I’ve been in this industry for a while now and I grew up in a construction family, there’s always more to learn. That’s part of what I love so much about construction management; I learn something new literally every day. So the Academy was a way to get an even more intense education on the kinds of things that help me do my job even better. It gave me information that can help me answer questions on behalf of the district I represent and it also taught me how to go out and find answers to trickier questions that sometimes come up.
Q: How did the program change the way you do your job?
BC: It’s just given me such a broad perspective on every aspect of what VPCS does for our district clients. Just the other day, we were going over the idea of a master plan for the Windsor district, which is required when you go out for a bond. And I was able to draw on an Academy homework assignment that involved a detailed masterplan review, so I could really advise the district on some of the nuances of that process. Also, the Academy program required us to do a fair amount of presentations, which was a way to get better at public speaking. It turned out to be great practice for going in front of school board meetings and public gatherings – something we do all the time in our work as CMs. It’s really amazing – things come up every day that relate to what I studied at the CASH Academy.
Q: Have you stayed in touch with other members of your cohort?
BC: Absolutely. We’re a pretty tight-knit group, and that’s been one of my favorite parts of this experience – building these professional relationships with people in and around districts all over California. We have an ongoing email thread, so if any kind of question comes up in the context of someone’s work, they’ll toss it to the group to see if somebody else in the cohort might be able to help. It’s a fantastic form of networking.
Q: You’re one of two VPCS employees who have been through the Academy, is that correct?
BC: Yes. Kelli [Van Pelt Jurgenson] went through the program before I did. It’s a pretty big deal for a CM/PM firm to have not just one but two graduates of the Academy in their ranks. Plus, another member of the VPCS team is currently going through the CASH program that just started, so that’ll make three of us CASH Academy graduates by this time next year … and I expect more people from VPCS will continue to apply. It’s really a lot of hard work, especially given that you still have to do your regular job while also getting ready for CASH Academy weekend sessions. But it’s pretty powerful to think what a difference we can make with this kind of professional education. I do believe it sets VPCS apart.
Since joining us in 2018, Charles Harbour has been applying his project management skills to multiple sites around the Berkeley Unified School District. While he’s a great construction management professional, he’s also a great addition to our team because of all the other things that make him who he is. Learn more about Charles, including his stint in music television, in this Q-and-A:
Have you always worked in the construction field?
No. Before joining VPCS, I worked in financial services – most recently doing mortgage processing. But there are actually many similarities between what I did then and what I do now; managing a mortgage is a lot like managing a construction project. Both require keeping track of a lot of little details.
What brought you here?
I got a text from my friend Chris Moreno, who’d been working for Van Pelt for a while and was assigned to the Berkeley district. They needed help and he thought I’d be a good fit, so I came in and talked to Mark and Eric [Van Pelt] to see if they agreed. They did, so I made the shift. It’s been great. And I have to admit: I don’t miss the banking world.
You’re a Bay Area native but spent some time living in New York, correct?
That’s right. I grew up in El Cerrito but went to New York City for college and I loved it so much out there that I ended up staying for about ten years. That was before I ever got involved in banking or finance.
What did you do for work in NYC?
After I graduated with a degree in communications, I started interning for MTV. I helped with post-production editing for their TV shows, working out of the MTV offices right on Broadway. It was an amazing job; I just loved it! But I was there when the economy crashed in 2007-2008, which pretty much dismantled our department. I tried to find something else in that field so I could stay in New York, but there were so many people out of work and the city was so expensive, I ended up coming back to California, which was the right thing for me at that time. But it was an adventure while it lasted.
Did you have any fun brushes with celebrities while you were at MTV?
I did get to meet Betty White once, which was pretty cool. She was in the studio to do some interviews about a project she was working on. We all got very excited and crowded around the office she was in just to see her. We even got to chat with her for a minute; she was really nice. But I didn’t ask for an autograph – I didn’t want to be that guy.
Speaking of being a good guy, tell us about the volunteer work you’ve done with Habitat for Humanity.
Sure. The most exciting Habitat project I’ve been involved in was helping build a single family home in Fairfield from the ground up. My understanding was that the family it was being built for was living in a really poverty-stricken area of Vallejo where they were exposed to a lot of safety concerns, including gun violence. I was on that job site beginning from the time when the foundation was poured to when the roof went on. It was so fulfilling.
And you’ve also pitched in with food drives, is that right?
Yes. I started helping with the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano back in 2017. I’ve also helped my mom, who does a lot of work through her church to distribute food to members of the community, mostly in Richmond. Those are great programs that collect donations of food and funds from corporate sponsors and local companies. Then volunteers like my mom – and me too, sometimes – make sure that food and other resources get to the people who need them.
Tell us about the picture of you finishing the running race.
That’s from an event I’ve done twice called Rugged Maniac, which is basically a muddy 5K obstacle course. There are something like 25 obstacles scattered all around the course, and there’s mud all over the place. I’ll tell you – it’s a really fun experience. That picture shows the time I did it with a group and I was the only one in the group that competed every single obstacle on the course. I was drawn to it for two reasons: first, I’ve always enjoyed running. And secondly, it just looked like so much fun. I believe the Rugged Maniac events were put on hold during Covid, but they seem to be back up and running now.
What did you do for fun while Covid shut so many things down?
I actually took up gardening during the pandemic and I’ve gotten really into it. I have a decent sized yard at home and I use that as a kind of canvas. I play around with a lot of different types of plantings – flowers, vegetables and plants. And I’ve started doing more with fruit. Right now, I have a lime tree, a Mandarin tree, a guava tree and some strawberry bushes. I never thought of myself as someone with a green thumb, but that’s now what everybody says about me. I just love coming home from work and going straight out to play in the garden!
Nobody knows better than Phyllis Silverstein the staggering amount of documentation that’s tied to a school bond program. Since she joined us in 2018, she’s been one of our key team members whose job it is to keep things running smoothly in the San Rafael City Schools (SRCS), where we serve as the program manager (PM) for the $269 million district-wide improvements made possible by Measures A and B, passed in 2016.
Managing a mountain of digital and physical paperwork isn’t easy. But Phyllis makes it look that way. We asked her a few questions about this very important part of her job.
Q: What are the types of documents that are typically associated with a school bond program?
PS: Oh gosh. There are so many. To start with, there are documents related to the specific projects being completed in the district as part of the bond program – so that could be the general contractor files and any documents associated with those, as well as legal documents specific to individual projects. There’s paperwork associated with bids, requests for qualifications and proposals (RFQPs), and materials that advertise the RFQPs, There’s correspondence; meeting notes; drawings and specs we get from the architect, along with the version officially approved by the DSA (the Division of the State Architect); there are close-out documents, including the “as-built” drawings as well as warranties and guarantees; there are mailers and the mailing lists and labels we use to send information to neighborhoods; there are monthly reports that go out to different audiences; and of course there are lots of schedules and plans associated with each project.
Then there are the program-level documents. We place those in our “general” files even if they relate to specific projects. That category includes things like the key logs (such as the Department of Industrial Relations – or “DIR” – project ID number, the project tracking numbers, etc.), school board items, all program-level communications, and documents related to when we’re trying to find vendors.
We need to know exactly where all of those documents are at any time, whether they’re project- or program-related, partly because they’re all part of the public record. Also, since we sometimes apply for grants or state funds, there’s correspondence associated with that. Then, of course, we catalog the final documents for each project completed within the bond.
On top of all that, there are agendas, minutes, and reports associated with each of the Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee (CBOC) meetings. And a variety of photos that have to be documented whether or not they go into our monthly or annual reports.
I could go on, but you get the idea. In a nutshell, there are many, many documents.
Q: How do you keep track of it all?
PS: Most of it is digital, so it all gets housed on a secure Google Drive, which everyone on the team can access and add to if needed. That includes our client (SRCS’s senior director of capital facilities), the projects’ construction managers, the maintenance department, and others. Patti Llamas and I are the VPCS employees who oversee the drive and she does all of the invoicing, accounting, budgets, etc. So she and I are jointly responsible for making sure all the paperwork in the files gets organized properly.
There’s definitely a trend toward electronic records, but we do also keep hard copies of many of the documents. We find that clients sometimes like to have access to those physical files, so we’re happy to provide those whenever they’re needed.
Q: What happens to all these documents when your work is done?
PS: Eventually, when the program is complete and VPCS has wrapped up our duties as PM, we turn everything over to the district.
Q: Is there any roadmap for how to organize all of this, or did you come up with your own system?
PS: There’s definitely no manual that tells you how to do this, although VPCS has a solid baseline system that we all rely on and adapt to suit each program. Plus, Patti was a huge help when I first arrived on this program; she showed me the ropes. Since then, I’ve developed a few additional tricks that help me stay organized. I’ve created some templates so I don’t have to reinvent every wheel when it comes to core documents related to projects. And I maintain a lot of logs.
Mostly, I try to prepare as much as I can in advance. For example, I can get emails written or paperwork ready ahead of time then fill in the pertinent details at the last minute so we can get things out the door immediately, which is often what’s required in this business. For me, doing that prep is the key to being organized.
I’m a naturally organized person, but even I had to step up my game to keep track of all the documents associated with this bond. It’s challenging, which is part of why I like it. And I know that maintaining orderly files is just one more way to deliver on the VPCS promise of quality and transparency.
If two heads are better than one, then 50 heads are … well, you do the math. At VPCS, we believe so strongly in applying our collective wisdom to all of our active projects that we’ve operationalized it. Relying on a simple shared chat tool, we have created an open-source knowledge base that’s available to each of our employees as a way of finding answers, verifying approaches and honing skills. Every day, our people turn to one another to tap the wealth of professional expertise that exists on our team. In turn, the proficiency of up to 50 people is applied to all of our clients’ projects.
We sat down with VPCS Principal Mark Van Pelt to learn more about this approach.
What internal communication tools does VPCS lean on most heavily?
Mark: Everybody in the company uses Google Chat. It’s like a huge group text but formatted more professionally. It’s just a great way to share information and tap other people’s expertise for any kind of question that comes up. And in this business, questions come up all the time. Our people are so smart; so talented. So much so, in fact, that they know how important it is to validate their assumptions every now and again. Our internal chat system gives them a way to double-check that the answers they come up with on their own are the best ones. It helps us all work as a unified team; nobody is out on an island by themselves.
What other tools does the firm use for information sharing?
Mark: Email, of course, and there’s the good old telephone. All of our people know they can call me with questions about anything, especially when it comes to estimating. I still carry an entire database of construction prices in my brain! And we currently have two people on staff – Kelli [Van Pelt Jurgenson] and Brian [Cameron] – who have been through the very rigorous CASH School Facilities Leadership Academy, so they’re the ones to ask about procurement through the state. (Plus, we have a few more people preparing to go through the CASH program in the near future, which will give us an even deeper bench of people who will be officially trained in the nuances of public school construction in California.) And of course, Eric [Van Pelt] has always been our resident OSHPD expert on top of all that he knows about K-12 and higher education construction. We just have so much talent on our team that somebody is going to know the answer, whatever the question is. And if not, they’ll know how to find it quickly. Beyond that, we have a few other ingredients in our operational secret sauce that help us stay on the cutting edge, but those are in the vault!
Give us an example of how the process works.
Mark: Well, one of our project managers recently posted a question to the company-wide chat related to the paperwork required for procuring a portable building on a school campus. And right away, there were three or four people giving him specific instructions on how to go about that task. It’s so great – an efficient and effective way to make sure things get done the right way.
How does this benefit VPCS team members?
Mark: Since we’re all on the chats, we can all see every exchange, even when we don’t participate in a specific question-and-answer. So there’s an opportunity for everybody to learn something from each case. Just the other day, I heard somebody say that they were puzzling over something but then remembered they’d seen an exchange about that same topic a while back on our Google Chat. So they went into the chat archives, found the discussion and got the information they needed. So it’s become something of a catalog for us.
How does this benefit your clients?
Mark: Our clients have direct access to one or two people from our team – the PMs assigned to their projects – all the time. But what all of our clients are actually getting is the brain power of our entire team because everyone here is constantly drawing from our larger pool of expertise via these chats. It’s all of our PMs, our CMs, our admins; everybody is on chat every day. In other words, an owner might be paying for three dedicated project managers, but they’ve got nearly 50 people helping to tackle their project’s challenges.
As co-founder of the company, how does it make you feel when you see all that wisdom being shared among the people who now form the VPCS team?
Mark: It’s awesome. We have such an incredibly talented group and when they network, we all improve. I’ve never once seen one of our people make an inaccurate recommendation via chat. I’ve also never once stepped into a chat to say, “Hey, I would do that differently.” First of all, that’s not the kind of manager I am. I believe strongly in leaving people alone when they’re doing the right thing and the client is satisfied. Secondly, even if they’re approaching a problem differently than I would and they’re comfortable with that approach, I’m not going to do anything to change that … unless I see someone about to walk off a cliff. So, to answer the question, it’s really gratifying to see members of our team share what they know. It makes us a better company.