Senior Project Manager Ray Green has been part of the VPCS family for many years in several different capacities, currently focused on our work for the Napa Valley Unified School District. In this Q-and-A, Ray tells us a bit about the arc of his career, his history with the firm and a few thoughts on how he stays on top of his busy schedule (that is, when he doesn’t have his feet up at the water’s edge).
You and VPCS have a very rich history together. Tell us about that.
It’s a good story. Our first encounter was back when I worked for a general contractor on a VPCS project, so that’s when I first got to know Mark and Mike. A few years later, Mark called and offered me a short-term position as a VPCS construction manager which was followed by a longer assignment on one of their healthcare projects. Then I got hired directly by the healthcare client, which put me on the other side of the owner’s table. Eventually, I came back to VPCS and I’ve never looked back. So my interactions with this firm have been as a contractor, as an employee, as a client, and now as an employee again. Quite honestly, this is where I belong; I don’t believe I’ve ever been happier.
What’s different about working for VPCS?
After working around the industry for different employers and in different roles, it’s so refreshing to work for someone I admire; I never second guess them. The Van Pelts are so competent and have such integrity. I haven’t felt this way since working for my own family.
Did you always know you wanted to work in this industry?
All the way through high school, I actually thought I wanted to be a police officer. I even went through a training program and was about to enter the police academy. But before I did that, I went on a few ride-alongs. Those showed me that many of the interactions police officers have with other people are negative, and that’s not what I wanted out of my career. I’d already been working in construction to make money during school, so that just stuck.
These days, you oversee the construction on all the school sites that are part of the Napa Valley Unified School District $249 million Measure H bond program. Right?
What are the keys to being a good project manager?
Flexibility is definitely first on the list. In this job, you have to be the kind of person who can wake up, look at your calendar, plan your day, and then know that none of that will end up happening because someone will drop a grenade on your plan. But you still have to find a way to make all of your original stuff happen while dealing with all the other stuff that comes up. Patience is another virtue. And relationships are huge in this business. You have to develop the kind of rapport where you can have a heated conversation with a contractor and still have enough trust built up to turn around and ask them to do something and know that they‘ll do it. Finally, I would say it’s important not to get too worked up about things. I’ve been around long enough to expect things to turn upside down all the time. I’ve found that if I don’t get overly excited and I just keep my head, things will be okay. If you’re good in this business, it doesn’t mean things don’t go wrong; it just means you’re good at correcting things when they do.
What do you do to stay organized?
I’ve always had the type of mind that can do 50 things at once. It’s natural to me. In fact, it’s weird for me to do just one thing at a time. That being said, I do rely heavily on my calendar and on technology.
How do you keep project stakeholders in the loop?
I’m a big documentation guy and my primary mode of communication is email. Every time I have a phone call with an owner, I’ll back it up with a follow-up email. Still, you need to use different approaches with different people. As much as I rely on email, I also think it’s important to add a human touch; for people to see my face (even if it has a mask on!) so they know that I’m present on the project.
How would you expect a client to describe you?
Probably something like, “He’s a little high-strung but he really fights hard for the taxpayers and the district.”
When it comes to your work, what do you most look forward to about the post-COVID era?
In-person meetings! And interacting face-to-face with people; shaking hands. I really miss being able to shake hands when I meet new contractors or vendors.
Outside of work, what do you most look forward to about the post-COVID era?
Hawaii! My wife and I like to go to Maui a few times a year and we’ve really missed it. We’ve had to reschedule a few trips since the pandemic hit, but we’re on track to go again late this spring. We can’t wait.
What else would you like people to know about you?
That I just love this industry and the work we do here at VPCS. As a private citizen, you read in the news all the time about how taxpayer money is squandered. I really enjoy the opportunity to make sure that doesn’t happen on our watch. I’m so proud of the campuses we’re helping create for NVUSD; it’s fun knowing that when we’re done, those kids will be running around with smiles on their faces. I absolutely love this business.
As we close out 2020, we reflect back on this unusual and challenging year. In spite of all the difficulties, we remain grateful for so much: our families, our friends, our community, and our work. At VPCS, we feel fortunate to have been able to operate without interruption on the majority of our projects through the ongoing months of the COVID-19 pandemic. We never take this privilege for granted and we are committed to paying it forward. We send our heartfelt wishes for a safe and healthy holiday season to our loved ones and to the world. Here’s to turning new corners in 2021.
Like Van Pelt Construction Services, the green building movement came to be in the 1990s. The growth of our firm has paralleled the growth of sustainable practices in the construction industry – particularly on school sites. In fact, our founders, Mark and Mike Van Pelt, lent their expertise to California’s utilities prior to the 1999 launch of the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS), a statewide effort to improve energy efficiency on K-12 campuses.
Since then, both VPCS and sustainability have strengthened and expanded. Incorporating environmentally-friendly design features into construction projects has become the new normal in our industry. All of us have become well-versed in the systems and technologies that help make buildings more ecologically sound.
The way I see it, these are the keys to what makes VPCS adept at this aspect of our work:
Education. We rarely encounter any resistance to sustainable practices. However, it’s not unusual to have clients question the up-front costs often associated with such features. When that happens, it’s our job to demonstrate the long-term value (economic, environmental, and societal) of sustainable design and construction. For example, a more efficient HVAC system may cost more to purchase and/or install, but its operating costs will be far lower over the life of the building. As owners’ reps, our responsibility is to prove how sustainability pencils out in our clients’ favor.
Experience. Our depth of knowledge is always an advantage for our clients. When discussing with planning teams how best to incorporate eco-friendly elements into projects, we can recommend features based on what we’ve seen first-hand on previous assignments. From adding modest solar arrays to achieving full LEED Platinum certifications, we’ve tackled a range of green challenges. So we know what is most effective and economical when it comes to different building types, client goals, and budgetary realities.
Ethos. A commitment to sustainability is woven into the VPCS company culture. We make sure all personnel are up to date with the latest approaches, we have a growing number of staff members who have obtained green building certifications, and we have a reputation among our peers for our dedication to sustainable practices.
Interestingly, the coronavirus also has a place in this discussion. As the pandemic has elevated concerns about indoor air quality, most construction project teams are now exploring options for upgraded HVAC systems to enhance circulation and improve filtering. There is even talk about permanently adjusting state building codes to require 100% fresh air systems in school structures, which will lead to upgrades in mechanical systems in schools throughout California. While this is an immediate response to our current infection control concerns, buildings (and their occupants) will reap the benefits well past the COVID era.
Our industry is shifting to accommodate changes in the climate as well as changes in awareness regarding building design and performance. As construction professionals, we have a responsibility not merely to keep up but to lead the way. Improving energy efficiency, drawing from renewable sources, incorporating water reuse strategies, minimizing waste, and opting for less toxic materials are just a few of the ways we can contribute to a more sustainable built environment. It may take a bit more work and a few more dollars today, but the value it will bring to our projects will endure. At VPCS, we believe in being equally good stewards of our clients, our communities, and our planet.
By Eric Van Pelt
In 2016, VPCS was proud to receive the program management (PM) assignment for the San Rafael City Schools’ (SRCS) $269 million district-wide improvements funded by bond Measures A and B. Since then, our team has worked side by side with district staff, architects, contractors and consultants to keep things progressing smoothly. Leading the effort on the district side is Dr. Dan Zaich, SRCS’s senior director of capital improvements, sustainable design and construction.
We spoke with Dan about some of the benefits of working with a PM firm for large-scale efforts such as this.
Q: How was having access to a PM firm helpful to SRCS as you got up and running with your bond work?
Zaich: Getting started with the bond-funded work was particularly challenging for San Rafael City Schools because we had gotten a large donation to start renovating the high school football stadium just before the bond measures passed. So before we could even gear up for the bond program, we had a multimillion dollar project already in progress. At the same time, Prop 51 was passed and districts were seeking matching state funds for their bonds, which created a very competitive market dynamic. Like most small- to mid-sized districts, we don’t staff a capital facilities division, so we had to create one from scratch when the measures passed. When VPCS came on board, they jumped in and helped us figure out what we needed to do to get up and running very quickly. I attribute a lot of that to Mark Van Pelt’s leadership. He did an enormous amount to get us underway and make sure we had the right personnel.
Q: What big-picture advantages does it give a school district to work with a program management firm?
Zaich: On big programs like this, a lot of it boils down to the personnel you have. In a really competitive market, which is what we’re in, it’s hard to get the right people. You need to know who will be best on the construction management side versus who’s going to be best on the program management side. VPCS – specifically, Mark Van Pelt and Bill Savage – worked with me directly to get the right staff in place not only so we could all gel well as a team but also so we could be a lean, cost-effective machine. From the beginning, it’s been so important for us to gain the trust of the citizens bond oversight committee, the individual school communities and, to a larger extent, the community of San Rafael because we need to show them we’re being prudent with the funds we’ve been given.
Q: What makes a program manager effective?
Zaich: Taking the time to build the business relationships to make sure everyone is successful while working together, rather than highlighting just one person or one place or one project. A bond program is a machine that we build together, so we all have to be successful together. That’s what has made VPCS so valuable for us. They helped us set our most critical goals early amid a lot of pressure and challenge because our program was already out the door and running before we could even get ourselves moved into the office. It’s also important to know the subtleties of working within the unique organizational structure of a school district, which is different than what a lot of construction management firms are used to. The Van Pelt team has been able to blend right in with our staff in the district office because they know those norms. Patti Llamas and Phyllis Silverstein have both been great about that. In fact, I think of Patti like one of those characters in a movie who’s reaching her hand out of a fast-moving train to pull a friend on board while the train’s flying down the tracks. That’s what she does here all the time when she brings people up to speed on what’s going on with the program. But that’s typical of VPCS; they embody that attitude of, “We’ll all stick together and go the extra mile to get it done.” I don’t know a lot of CMs or PMs who would do that. It says a lot about their dedication.
In last month’s blog, we took a big-picture look at what it’s been like to adjust to coronavirus-related changes in our industry. Here, we’re digging into the particulars of how the pandemic has affected a single project: the all-new Napa Junction Elementary School in American Canyon, part of the Napa Valley Unified School District (NVUSD). We got the details from two people who know as much about this effort as anyone: VPCS Senior Project Manager Ray Green and Lathrop Construction Project Manager Austin Gray.
Q: Tell us about this project.
Ray: It’s a brand new $49 million elementary school campus that will replace the existing Napa Junction Elementary, which sits less than a mile away. This project is part of the Measure H bond program, which is funding modernization and new construction efforts throughout the NVUSD. Napa Junction is set to open in the fall of 2021, and we’re still on target to make that date, even with everything that’s going on.
Q: How, if at all, have California’s stay-at-home orders that first went into effect in March affected the schedule for this project?
Ray: So far, we’ve been able to continue without interruption. The NVUSD board took action early on. They passed a formal resolution to deem the project essential and make sure we were in compliance with state mandates.
Q: Have you had any delays related to supplies or materials?
Austin: When the slow-down started, we had a lot of big-ticket materials and equipment already on order – things like HVAC and electrical elements – so we saw some minor delays on those items, but nothing more than a week or two. The things we’ve had delivery issues with have been things like material finishes, which have been taking about a month longer than usual to get to us. We even had a manufacturer whose factory had to shut down due to a coronavirus outbreak in their facility. But our suppliers have been great about communicating with us so we know what to expect, so we’ve been able to work around any delays.
Q: How have your on-site procedures changed?
Ray: It’s funny: the way we do things has changed drastically, but I think some of those changes have had a positive impact. For example, VPCS’s on-site PM for this project worked remotely until we got to Phase 2, which meant that he and I would often spend hours and hours with an active virtual meeting tool open and we’d work in parallel from our separate locations. It actually gave us more access to one another and to other team members. Sometimes, if a question came up, we’d just add Austin to the meeting and he could join in from wherever he was, even from his phone if he was in the field. We’ve also shifted all of our weekly owner/architect/contractor meetings to virtual gatherings, which was a little strange at first but we’ve all gotten used to it and now I think they’re very effective.
Austin: From the general contractor’s standpoint, the main difference is how we interact with our sub-contractors. We used to have weekly meetings where we’d all cram into the trailer for coordination and planning related to who’s working where, who can get into what area, etc. But we can’t do that now. Instead, we have one-on-ones with the subs and the foreman, and those happen in the field and not the trailer. We’ve also added more hand-washing stations all over the site, which is an easy way to help everybody stay safe.
Q: Has it been hard to maintain and enforce social distancing?
Ray: The good thing about this project is that it’s nice and big – there are ten buildings on the site – so it’s pretty easy for people to spread out.
Austin: Right, and we’ve been careful to schedule subs so they don’t have to stack up on top of each other on the same part of the site in order to get the job done on time.
Q: What COVID-inspired changes do you expect you’ll keep after this is all behind us?
Ray: We will definitely carry forward the digital meetings. They’ve allowed a new level of collaboration that wasn’t possible before. For example, we can have the architect join a shared-screen meeting where we can pull up the drawings and we can work together to solve a design challenge with everyone’s participation and buy-in. It’s really effective. And people who hadn’t embraced these technologies before are getting far more comfortable with them now, which is a big help. I think this is going to help bring public works projects’ technology use up to a level that other industries have already been relying on for a while.
Austin: That’s true for us at Lathrop also. We had people in our office who used to be pretty against web-based meetings, but now they’re on board because they can really see the value.
Q: It sounds like things are generally going pretty smoothly, yes?
Ray: Absolutely. All in all, we’ve gotten through these past few months very well. I feel good about how VPCS has continued to serve our client by maintaining as much of an on-site presence as possible, even when our PM had to work remotely and his presence was virtual. But to be clear: the contractor controls any construction site, and we’re there to monitor things on behalf of the district. Here at Napa Junction, like at all of the Measure H sites, Lathrop’s doing a great job. So, yes, things are going smoothly in spite of everything.