Green (Pre)K-12 Design and Construction: Thoughts from the Field

Green (Pre)K-12 Design and Construction: Thoughts from the Field

Green sensibilities are changing the design and construction industries, with new sustainable technologies and innovations getting introduced to project plans at a quickening pace. California schools are adapting to these shifts, driven in part by updated building codes that call for increased levels of energy efficiency, sustainability and safety in public school facilities. Research supports this tilt toward greener practices, as many studies (including this example) have shown a link between environmentally-friendly classroom settings and improved student achievement.

Three members of Team VPCS (Ray Green, Jennifer Gibb and Eduardo Rivera-Garcia) sat down to discuss these trends and how they affect our district clients. The following is an excerpt from that conversation.

On financial planning

Ray: It’s a rare district that has more money than it needs. Part of our job is to explore all the short- and long-term financial implications of various approaches during the planning process. That’s certainly true when we consider green options. For example, heating a new building with natural gas might cost significantly less on an operational basis than heating with electricity, but that choice can lead to state-driven cost impacts when projects don’t comply with the latest green standards. We always work very closely with design and engineering teams so we can provide districts with analyses that incorporate up-front costs as well as operational costs. We want clients to be happy with their new buildings now and still be happy with them decades from now.

Jennifer: We’re conscientious not only about the capital funds that we’re responsible for stewarding, but also the operational impact of the improvements that a district makes. We always try to bring thoughtful options to our district leadership so they can choose.

Eduardo: When it comes to anticipating the coming wave of green technologies and sustainable systems, a big part of our job is pre-empting sticker shock. As Ray was saying, we want to help our district clients plan. We work hard to communicate what the immediate and the 20-year costs might be.

On building relationships

Jennifer: Sometimes, introducing green systems requires bringing in specialized team members such as energy consultants. In those cases, we just fold them into the larger team and forge new relationships, because that’s what we do so well. VPCS always works closely with all parties, whether or not they’re contracted under our purview. There’s always going to be a close integration between energy upgrades and ongoing construction upgrades, so those specialists’ work will overlap with ours. We’re here to ensure that our districts meet their regulatory requirements, regardless of who works on the project.

Eduardo: On that note, we also recognize that it can be difficult for contractors to adjust their way of doing things so that their work complies with green regulations or satisfies green certification programs. But that’s another part of our job that we take really seriously: making sure all team members know how to comply but also why that compliance piece is so critical.

On supporting district leaders

Ray: So much of our role is to get out in front of new green regulations and begin planning for them. That puts us in a better position to make sure our districts are educated on what these requirements are going to be.

Jennifer: That’s right, Ray. Districts might have a general goal of working toward sustainability, but we can step up to provide the analysis that factors into everything: funding strategies, construction techniques, building standards, the whole thing. Then we can have those conversations with district leadership and support them when they’re making those decisions.

On training operational staff

Jennifer: Our team is really thoughtful about including school district staff throughout the design and construction process. Whether it’s making sure they know how to maintain solar panels for peak performance or keeping HVAC systems in good working order. We won’t be on-site forever, so we help get site staff up to speed well before our work wraps up.

Eduardo: I agree, Jen. And that training doesn’t stop with district staff. Some districts have sustainability coordinator teams made up of teachers, students, parents, after-school staff, volunteers, you name it. It’s important to bring everyone up to speed on how new systems and technologies work so they can be actively engaged in the sustainability effort as building occupants.

On incorporating “smart” systems

Ray: Smart controls are a really positive element of this overall shift. I’m talking about automatic systems that manage lighting, temperature, shading, air flow – they’re just fantastic because they help minimize a building’s energy draw based on actual usage patterns of the people who are coming and going. Plus, new AI features help the systems learn and adapt. It’s encouraging to see that the technology is always improving.

On returning to our core mission

Ray: It’s pretty powerful to think about the practical impact these green technologies have on students. I’m talking about improved air quality, more comfortable interior temperatures and gentler lighting – how they combine to create better learning environments, which has a direct impact on student achievement. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re here to deliver.

Jennifer: Absolutely, Ray. Plus, the kids we’re here to serve are already so naturally sustainability-minded. These green standards that might be harder for leaders or communities to adjust to are tied to concepts that are already so normal to today’s students. They know it’s their future reality. And they’re so tech-savvy already, so they quickly understand how to interpret and interact with energy dashboards and other tools. Through these green infrastructure improvements, we’re able to educate kids on the impact they’re having on the environment and how they’re part of the bigger picture. So sustainable design and construction becomes part of the educational pedagogy we’re here to support. It always comes back to the kids.

May 28, 2024

Program Spotlight: Redwood City School District Measure S

Program Spotlight: Redwood City School District Measure S

We are so pleased to be ramping up in Redwood City, where we’re serving as both program and construction managers for work associated with Measure S, a $298 million bond passed in 2022 by voters in the Redwood City School District (RCSD). This sizeable effort will deliver a number of district-wide facilities improvements and infrastructure modernizations that will benefit RCSD’s 6000+ students across 12 elementary school campuses.

A Comprehensive Responsibility. In addition to being awarded the program management (PM) assignment to oversee all work that will fall under the Measure S umbrella, VPCS was also named as construction manager (CM). “It’s such an honor to be given 100% of both the PM and CM duties for a single bond,” said VPCS’s Ben Kerr, who will serve as RCSD program manager. “This district felt very confident that we could provide not just the level of technical expertise they needed but also bring our well-known reputation for successful community engagement.”

A Blue Ribbon Team. While Ben Kerr will guide the RCSD team in his capacity as program manager, he will be well supported by VPCS leaders and colleagues. Director Mike Van Pelt will serve as managing founder, Vice President Eric Van Pelt will be principal in charge, Vice President Kelli Van Pelt Jurgenson will oversee budget development, Director of Business Development Jennifer Gibb will lead all community engagement and outreach efforts, and Angie Ramich will serve as project coordinator. “As a firm, we look at every assignment holistically, not just project by project,” said Jennifer. “Having so many members of the leadership team involved helps us get things right the first time, which is what we insist on and what every client deserves.”

An All-hands Approach. RCSD will receive the same comprehensive, everybody-in type of service that we offer each of our clients. “Regardless of the size or scope of a contract and who’s technically listed on a project team roster, all of us at VPCS know we can reach out to our co-workers to get insights, answers or suggestions related to anything we’re working on,” said Ben. “We have a well-organized system that gives all of us real-time access to everyone else’s expertise whenever it’s needed.”

Getting Things Rolling. We will soon begin working with RCSD on the master plan for Measure S, which will be an opportunity to take a big-picture strategic look at how best to put the bond dollars to work in ways that serve students, staff and community members equally and effectively. “Whenever we work on master plans, we know how critically important it is to ensure that all stakeholders – students, parents, teachers, staff, the school board, the citizens bond oversight committee [CBOC], the neighbors, all the different entities – feel heard,” said Ben. “Part of our job is to get everybody on the same page so we can do what’s best for the whole district.”

Engaging with the Community. VPCS is recognized for our distinct skills in the area of community engagement, and we’re looking forward to getting to know the citizens of Redwood City even better as we fold their preferences into their district’s plans. “No matter what, we’re always here to support communities; to augment what districts are already doing rather than setting aside existing community engagement processes and replacing them with our own approaches,” said Jennifer. “In Redwood City, we expect to get involved with the neighbors and staff in a variety of ways: we’ll be at parent club meetings, town halls, board meetings, CBOC meetings; we’ll go to coffee with principals; we’ll conduct surveys; we’ll send out newsletters. We’ll do whatever it takes to distribute information and gather feedback so that everyone feels informed and heard.”

We are so grateful to the people of Redwood City for trusting us with this very important assignment. We look forward to helping make the built environment in this great district even better and putting Measure S funds to work for the good of the entire community.

April 29, 2024

Meet Mohammed Abu-Mhanna: A Motorcycle Enthusiast with a Designer’s Eye

Meet Mohammed Abu-Mhanna: A Motorcycle Enthusiast with a Designer’s Eye

Mohammed Abu-Mhanna is so much more than a VPCS senior project manager. This multi-talented professional rounds things out with a valuable architectural perspective, international construction and design experience, and an affinity for a certain mode of two-wheeled transportation. Get to know a bit more about our friend Mohammed in this Q-and-A:

Q: When did you join Team VPCS?

A: I started with the company in May 2019 as a project manager. I was first assigned to the team at San Jose Unified School District, which is where I stayed until last year (when the bond ended). Since then, I’ve moved to the Hillsborough City School District, run by Eric Van Pelt, where I’m a senior project manager.

Q: And you’re a trained architect, is that right?

A: Yes. I started studying architecture in Jordan, where I’m from originally, then completed the bachelor’s program in architecture at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. I’m also certified as a LEED AP. I worked for several years in the Bay Area for a couple of big U.S.-based architecture firms. One of the biggest projects I worked on as a senior architect was the New Doha International Airport in Qatar, which was the largest construction project in the Middle East at that time.

Q: But you pivoted away from architecture after that?

A: Yes, at least away from working for architecture firms. I moved from California to Dubai in 2009 to work with a general contractor. It was the middle of the Great Recession, and everything everywhere seemed like it had just stopped – especially in construction – except in Dubai. There, things were booming. It might have been the only city in the world where things were still being built. I was assigned by that general contractor to manage a big project that happened to be going up in Jordan, right in my home town. So I stayed and worked on that in Jordan for a few years before coming back to the U.S. in 2017.

Q: How frequently do you draw on your architecture training in your work now?

A: Every single day! I just love architecture, so it’s fun to use that knowledge when I work with the designers and contractors on VPCS jobs. It’s really helpful to know how to read the drawings before construction begins; I can catch things early that we might need to adjust to help avoid change orders. I also like to think of myself as an expert in value engineering, which is really useful as a construction manager.

Q: What originally compelled you to come to the U.S. from Jordan?

A: Well, I first came here to finish my education. Having a degree from the U.S. is always preferable. And second, my sister had lived here for many years before I came, so there was also a family pull. It was such a privilege to be able to join her here; she helped me a lot when I first arrived.

Q: Is she your only sibling?

A: No, far from it. I’m the youngest of seven and the only son. My dad always wanted a boy to carry on the family name, so after six girls my parents got me. Then they stopped.

Q: Your dad got the son he’d been waiting for!

A: Yes. And it meant he could give me the name he’d been waiting to give. In Arabic, the tradition is to give sons middle names that match their fathers’ and grandfathers’ names. It goes like this: the son’s name to the father’s to the grandfather’s and then to the family’s. In my family, that meant I ended up with a pretty powerful name. I’m Mohammed, which is the prophet of Islam. My dad’s name is Moses, the prophet of Judaism. And my grandfather was Isa, which is the Islamic translation of Jesus. So I’ve got all three prophets of the world’s great religions in my name. Sometimes when I say my full name, people ask, “Are you joking?” And I just say, “No. That’s my real name!” But when people familiar with this tradition hear I’ve got six older sisters, they get it.

Q: Do you still have family in Jordan?

A: Yes – my other five sisters still live in Jordan. They’re all married with lots of kids. (Since I’m the youngest, I was an uncle starting when I was only seven years old.) It’s great, because there are a lot of relatives to see when we go back to visit, which I try to do at least every couple of years. My three sons have all gotten to know their cousins in Jordan.

Q: When do you get the opportunity to speak Arabic?

A: My wife and I speak Arabic with our children, so all three of our boys have been raised bilingually. Even though my younger two were born in Jordan, we came to the U.S. when they were only five and six. So they were in English-speaking schools from a very young age and they now speak it beautifully without any accent – unlike me! And of course I speak Arabic with my sister. It’s very important to my wife and me to keep the Arabic language familiar to our children’s ears.

Q: Tell us about this picture of you on the motorcycle.

A: I first started riding a motorcycle when I was finishing my degree at the California College of the Arts. I was working full-time for an architecture firm in the City and also taking a full class load. I’d worked it out with my employer to let me leave the office early to make it to my classes on time. And in San Francisco, the only way you’re ever going to get anywhere with that kind of tight schedule is by motorcycle. So I got myself one and the very first time I rode it, it just got into me. That picture was actually taken when I moved back to Jordan. You don’t need them there, but I missed having one so much that I treated myself. What can I say? I love riding motorcycles.

March 25, 2024

It’s Time for CASH

It’s Time for CASH

In our industry, this is the season of CASH – the Coalition for Adequate School Housing – and its annual conference, an important event for anyone connected to the school facilities sector in California. We’re eagerly gearing up for another powerful few days of inspiration, education and collaboration in Sacramento from February 28 to March 1.

As in years past, VPCS will serve as an enthusiastic sponsor of the 2024 CASH conference. We’re also a premium supporter of the Top Golf event, which is always a lot of fun. Plus, we invite all attendees to stop by our booth (#230/232) on the exhibit floor.

In addition, here are a few other ways VPCS will be involved in this year’s event:

Participating in Educational Sessions. Members of our team will serve as panelists at three different sessions.

  • Vice President Kelli Van Pelt Jurgenson will round out a panel of industry veterans to introduce the basics of K-12 facilities leadership in “New to Facilities Leadership? Here’s a Guide.” “We’ll provide an overview for people who may have come to facilities leadership from the educational side rather than from the construction or facilities side,” said Jurgenson. “We want to help people be successful with all aspects of their jobs.” This session was so popular last year that it was brought back for this year’s attendees. Wednesday, 2/28 at 10:45.
  • Jennifer Gibb will help run a clinic on the advantages of the design-build methodology, particularly as applied to early educational facilities for pre-K and transitional kindergarten students. “As facility leaders, we need to be familiar with all delivery methods and the design-build model is a great option for these types of structures,” said Gibb. “In the clinic, we’ll use VPCS’s experience in the Lemon Grove School District to illustrate how this approach can be successfully implemented with Title 5 and Title 22 Regulations.” Pre-K and Pre-School Educational Classroom Design and Title 5 and Title 22 Compliance” will be held Wednesday, 2/28 at 3:45.
  • Jennifer will be back on the agenda on Thursday, 2/29 at 3:00 as a panelist at “Wrapping up ESSER and What’s Next.” This clinic will address the nuances of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Funds as the program winds down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’ll discuss the various questions that people have about how to support their districts once these one-time monies go away,” said Gibb. “There are other funding sources out there and we’ll explore them.”

Celebrating Another SFLA Graduate. Team Van Pelt will be on hand to cheer on our own Mary Fitzpatrick as she graduates from the CASH School Facilities Leadership Academy (SFLA) at a ceremony on Wednesday afternoon. Mary will be the fifth member of our company to complete this rigorous year-long training program – joining Kelli Van Pelt Jurgenson, Jennifer Gibb, Brian Cameron and Minh Dao – with Jenny Choi joining the cohort that begins the program this year. (Kelli Van Pelt Jurgenson and Jennifer Gibb also both serve as mentors for current and recent SFLA cohort members.) We’re so proud of these dedicated employees whose hard work and commitment to thought leadership help us better serve our district clients.

Supporting CASH Curriculum. VPCS employees help to shape the programs that make the CASH annual conference such a highly regarded source of professional education. For several years, Kelli Van Pelt Jurgenson and Jennifer Gibb have both been integral to the development of CASH’s fiscal programming, which speaks to our firm’s depth of expertise that goes well beyond basic construction management capabilities.

We look forward to seeing our friends and colleagues in Sacramento!

February 26, 2024

Here We Come, 2024

Here We Come, 2024

January always delivers an opportunity for fresh starts. At VPCS, we’re kicking off 2024 from our beautiful new headquarters, where we’re gearing up for another year of service to a growing list of California’s K-12 communities. Here are just a few things we’re excited about as we look ahead:

A bigger, better home base. We recently relocated our central offices to a space that suits our growing firm. Still rooted in Fairfield, we’ve moved just up the road to the Busch Campus Business Park at 450 Chadbourne – easily accessible from I-80, I-680 and Highway 12.

Room to gather. The new office expands the opportunities for members of our team to spend time here – to meet, work, collaborate, visit and more. “Now that we have this space, it changes how we can do things as a company,” says Vice President Kelli Van Pelt Jurgenson. “It gives us flexibility and keeps us all more connected.”

Access to co-working facilities. Our Busch Campus tenancy affords us privileges at a supplemental space called The Daily Desk, located right next door. This shared work facility essentially serves as an annex to our own offices, giving us access to additional individual workstations, enclosed offices and large conference rooms. “We can use it for staff training or larger gatherings for up to 100 people,” says President Mark Van Pelt. “Anyone in our company can use this space and when they do, they’ll have the latest presentation and collaboration technology right at their fingertips. It’s really amazing.”

A hub for service. Upgrading our headquarters gives us a stronger foundation from which to address all of our clients’ needs. “We’ve always been good at collaborating across teams but having a space that really encourages people to come together helps us serve every one of our districts better,” notes Kelli. “Some of our districts require only three-person teams and others need ten or more of us, but when questions come up for any client we harness the expertise of every single one of our employees until we find the answer. It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

Thoughtful growth. Even as we steadily add new K-12 districts to our client roster and expand our reach into new communities around California, we carefully manage our growth. “We’ve grown both in terms of new districts and in employees over the past few years, but we’re still a family-run, service-oriented business,” says Director of Business Development Jennifer Gibb. “We’re capable of serving the state’s biggest districts but are still honored when asked to support its smallest. We deliver the same quality and integrity, whatever the size of the client.”

Staying true to our core values. Even after 28 years, we know how lucky we are to be in this business that we enjoy so much. Our industry has changed since we opened our doors in 1996, and we’ve enjoyed steady growth because we’ve adapted along with it. Still, we’ve never forgotten that we started out as two brothers with a desire to do things a little differently. Today, we’re a successful ~50-person company that’s recognized around the state as a leader in our field. But our fundamental ethos has never changed. That’s why we look at the start of each new year as a gift and vow, once again, to give all that we’ve got to our clients and their communities all year long.


January 29, 2024