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.
As we enter our 25th year of operation, I look back to the beginning when my brother, Mike, and I had this vision: Let’s put together a small team of people to provide a construction management product better than what we had worked with at our dad’s firm. The “small team” part didn’t last too long.
We had a lot of questions – too many, actually – but we pressed forward anyway. We remembered our core values: honesty, persistence, commitment, loyalty and the Golden Rule. I’ve always said, “If you want to find out who your true friends are, start a business. It won’t take long to figure out who’s got your back.”
Through the past quarter-century, we’ve met a lot of challenges, the recession of 2008 and the Covid pandemic to name a couple. Somehow, we’ve continued to apply our values and work with our true friends to make it through.
During the holidays, we tend to reflect a little more than usual. Maybe it’s the small break in the action.
I’ve been thinking a lot about all the people it took along the way to build this company; people who are still here working hard, people who have moved along to other firms, and people who have moved on to heaven and I hope are looking down saying, “I helped build that place.” Thanks to our dear friends, Cathy Fisher and Pete Norgaard.
This year, as things are beginning to return to normal, Mike and I would like to thank everyone who played a role in the development of VPCS and, subsequently, its ongoing success for 25 years and beyond.
And yes, I do still pinch myself, wondering, “Did this really happen?”
Happy holidays to everyone. May peace and kindness find you and your families this holiday season.
At this time of year, we always pause to acknowledge all that we’re grateful for and express thanks to the people who brighten our lives, both at work and at home. This year in particular, during such unprecedented times, it seems especially important to count the blessings that surround us. We asked our VPCS family to jot down a few of the things they’re thankful for and we invite you to enjoy the highlights below. From everyone at VPCS, have a happy, healthy Thanksgiving.
ALEX LIM: I’m grateful for a team and client who share a passion for building better spaces and environments for our communities, and who have continued to work hard through this pandemic from the field, office and home. The past couple of years with the VPCS family has been as rewarding as it has been challenging.
JESS JOSEPH: I feel tremendously grateful for the support and encouragement of my family and friends who have truly shown their love this year. I also feel blessed to work for a company whose owners and staff have supported me with kindness, patience and understanding during some tough personal experiences this year. I am grateful for my dog, Murray, who brings me so much joy and happiness. I am bursting with gratitude for the life I have and the people in it. My heart is so full.
MELANIE RASHBAUM-GRIFFITHS: I am supremely grateful for VPCS! Mike reminds me of my dad and Kelli reminds me of my sisters. Not only do I get to come to work at an amazing job every day but I also get to be part of an amazing work family. Also, this year I got to meet a birth sister I didn’t even know I had. We had an great time getting to know each other and discovered some amazing similarities. So I’m grateful to learn about my extended family and I now have even more people in my life to love.
MARY ANN DUGGAN: I’m grateful for the support I’ve received from my family, friends and VPCS as I recover from surgery.
PATTI LLAMAS: I have much to be grateful for as 2021 comes to an end. I am immensely grateful for a steady job during a time when so many are struggling. I am grateful for friendships that have grown stronger as we all strive for bright moments in these dark times. And most importantly, I am grateful for my health and for the continued health of my family.
ANGIE RAMICH: I am grateful for many things. I have been blessed with three delightful, crazy daughters who are my heart and make me proud, plus an amazing group of friends far and wide who have been my support through rough times and my crazy squad in the best of times. I am so grateful for the opportunity to work for the VPCS team, with Mary Fitzpatrick as my boss. I couldn’t have gotten luckier. I am truly blessed.
JOHNNY MAM: I am grateful for the opportunity to serve the communities in San Jose and for the ability to learn, contribute and grow as a construction professional within VPCS. I would also like to acknowledge the San Jose team for being the best colleagues and Eric Berger for being a tremendous PM.
CORINNE FIGUEIRA: I am extremely grateful for VPCS. I now know what it feels like to have a truly great job. The owners and executives are great people who look for the individual in each employee; they really want us all to succeed and grow. The Van Pelts make sure their employees know they are appreciated, which is one of the many reasons we don’t have high employee turnover. I have a lot to be grateful for.
STEPHANIE RIVAS: I am beyond thankful for VPCS. This company is full of good, hard-working people. I am grateful to be back at the company that taught me the beauty in construction; that taught me the importance of always pushing to be better for ourselves, our work and our clients. Also, I’m grateful for my new little family and friends that have provided nothing but love and support, always.
LARRY FOGELQUIST: I am grateful for many things in my life. The older I get, the more gratitude I feel. Much of what I am grateful for are the little things: the way my beguiling wife still laughs at my lame jokes; the fact that our refrigerator is still running (though noisily) after more than thirty years; that one of our pine trees fell toward the street and not on our house in the last windstorm. From a professional perspective, not a day goes by where I don’t feel grateful to get to work in such a wonderful company – one that shares my values and has a wonderful corporate culture and vision, where so many like-minded, fun people enrich me every day. Getting to work for this great Van Pelt family is truly one of my blessings.
CHRISTINE DIAMOND: This year, as always, I’m grateful for the good health of my friends and family. We have all been very lucky during these uncertain times. I am also grateful for the new people I’ve met and all the ideas and experiences they have opened up for me. I look forward to spending a peaceful holiday season with my loved ones – new, old and furry!
ERIC VAN PELT: To date, more than five million people have died of COVID-19. Five million moms and dads grieving, five million families with an empty seat at their table for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Thinking about that this year, I am especially thankful for my family and my extended VPCS family for our health and wellness. I am thankful that through all this uncertainty, VPCS has remained not only solvent but growing; through our team’s due diligence and some good old-fashioned luck, our team and family have remained healthy. So this year it will be an especially somber holiday season but I will remain hopeful and thankful for the health and welfare of my family and our VPCS work family.
KELLI VAN PELT JURGENSON: Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how grateful I am for the committed folks I work with. As an ownership team, we talk often about the importance of creating a culture of professionalism, but also of fun, camaraderie and inclusivity. So many of my daily interactions with our staff affirm that we are achieving these goals. This naturally helps cultivate the same kinds of relationships with owners, other consultants and contractors. Having respectful and good-natured relationships at work makes it all worthwhile!
MIKE VAN PELT: We have survived a very strange year with support from our great staff. With slow and steady growth and several new clients, we can thank our crew for all their fantastic work and for being part of another successful year. Everybody here helps strengthen “The Van Pelt Way.” I hope everyone has a great holiday season.
MARK VAN PELT: This year, I’m full of gratitude for my family, friends, employees and clients who have been part of my life for decades. In 25 years, VPCS has gone from two of us to more than 50 people! This doesn’t happen without the support of close friends in all aspects of life. Thanks to you all!
In the more than two decades since Operations Manager Christine Diamond joined VPCS, she has been instrumental in helping us adapt and grow into what we are today. But Christine brings so much more to our team than what her title implies. Yes, she’s skilled at the arts of operations, bookkeeping and HR. But that’s not where her artistry stops.
Discover a bit more about Christine in this Q-and-A:
It’s well known that you wear a lot of different hats at work. What are your non-work-related superpowers?
Well, I’m not sure if this qualifies as a superpower, but I do a lot of sewing and quilting. I’ve always been a sewer – ever since I was a little girl. I probably started as soon as I could hold a needle! My mom was always sewing clothes and doing crafts, so I picked it up by watching her. But she was never a quilter; I taught myself how to quilt when I was in college. So now I have a dedicated room in my home where I do it all – hand sewing, machine sewing, hand quilting, machine quilting. I’ve actually lost track of how many sewing machines that I have! I used to have my own long arm (that’s a specialized industrial sewing machine that you use to stitch together all the layers of a quilt), but it was very old and I’d gotten it fourth-hand and it eventually died. Now, I just do that work on my domestic sewing machine.
Do you give away a lot of quilts as gifts?
I do! I’ve also donated some for fundraisers. And my dog, Penny, is always wrapped in some quilt or another.
Can you tell us more about Penny?
Penny is a rescue. She’ll be five in January and I’ve had her for four years. She’s the VPCS corporate dog; she comes to work with me every day. She’s very sweet and gentle, even though she tends to be very cautious around new people and places. That’s actually Penny in the casual photo of me on the VPCS website.
Have you always had animals?
Yes. When I was a kid, we always had animals – dogs, cats and fish. When I was growing up, my mom would refer to all of our dogs as my “brothers.” She’d say things like, “Could you let your brother outside please?” and I knew she meant my four-legged brother, not my human brother. So I learned from her how to pamper animals; they’ve always felt like more than pets.
Is that what inspired the volunteer work you do?
Yes. For the past eight years or so, I’ve work with an animal rescue organization called Cat Tales Rescue based in Vacaville that helps protect, spay and neuter stray cats before placing them with local households looking to adopt. I’m one of many volunteers who babysit and foster cats before they get adopted. I used to do more fostering, but it’s too easy to get attached and want to adopt them all. So these days I’m more focused on the babysitting (weekend watching when the other fosterers are on vacation) and volunteering at our adoption events. With babysitting, I get to play with and spoil the kittens and then I send them home without really having any of the attachment issues. It’s a lot of work but I love it. And yes, I admit that I did end up adopting one of the kittens I recently babysat. But only one! His name is Parker (as in Peter Parker). He’s the one on my shoulder in the picture shown here, and the other two kittens are his brothers, Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent. They were the superhero gang from their litter. Kent has been adopted, but Wayne (the black kitten behind me in the picture) is still looking for his forever home.
How does Penny do with the cats who come into your home?
She does great. She’s always gotten along well with my older cat (who’s now 10) and when the kittens come to stay, Penny likes to play with them. It’s fun to watch this big dog roll around and be so gentle with the kittens. It’s also great for the kittens because they get exposed to a large dog from a very early age, which is something we can tell potential adopting families.
You studied art education in college. How do you use that in your daily life?
Well, my degree introduced me to a little bit of all the different art disciplines – ceramics, painting, drawing, printmaking, textiles and other areas. Needless to say, I don’t use that training in my work at VPCS, since there’s not a lot of art in bookkeeping or HR! But when I get home after work, you can usually find me doing something creative, which I guess is a way for me to transfer that art education and appreciation into the things I make.
How else do you like to unwind?
If I’m not sewing or quilting, I love to hike and travel. Otherwise, my favorite thing in the world is to play with my animals. If I have a dog at my feet or a cat crawling all over me, I’m happy.
These days, teams responsible for new construction or modernization projects on school campuses know that safety and security are just as critical as structural integrity.
In my role as a VPCS project manager, I work closely with project teams to prioritize student and staff safety. This increasingly crucial concern is always in the back of our minds.
To be clear: instituting school safety protocols (and factoring them into site plans) is not just about knowing how to respond to dramatic violence such as active shooter scenarios. It’s also about anticipating the more common situations that may not be life-threatening but are potential ongoing threats to the physical and/or emotional security of students and staff.
This has become particularly obvious in recent months as students have returned to campus after more than a year and a half of distance learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. With so many students unfamiliar with their campuses or peers, tensions might be running a bit higher than usual, leading to potential spikes in student conflicts at the start of the school year.
Whatever the circumstances, those of us who work in school construction are constantly thinking about ways to build in contingencies that will allow for campus communities to stay safe given a variety of scenarios – anything from an individual’s need for mental health support to a dispute between two students to a natural disaster to an unwelcome intruder. Our job is to find the balance between delivering open, inclusive school environments and ensuring that the people who occupy those environments are protected.
Some of the keys to successful school safety strategies include:
LAYOUT. Many school districts across the country have begun to rethink how their campuses are mapped out. For example, rather than having all administrative spaces grouped together in a single location, they can be distributed throughout a campus and integrated into a school’s other functional areas, such as libraries, common areas and student learning centers. This allows staff to be within eyesight or in direct contact with students at all times, creating an opportunity for “passive supervision.” A traditional boxy multipurpose room, for example, can be replaced by an open-concept space for food service, administrative offices, a learning center and a student union. This can create a comfortable, inviting hub for the campus that draws students in while placing staff in close proximity so they can respond quickly to respond to or defuse unsafe situations. Other things to avoid in campus layouts include hidden nooks as well as easy roof access via tall fencing or flag poles. Additionally, an increasing number of new school designs place the buildings on the perimeter of the campus with playgrounds or outdoor areas in the center so that the structures can “hug” the student body.
TONE. While video surveillance systems are common (and important) components of school safety, they can also convey a sense of a “surveillance state” to the students they are designed to protect. The idea is to soften the “in your face” presentation of these systems so students don’t feel so ogled by electronic eyes. One way to do that is to remove the excess signage that broadcasts the fact that surveillance is taking place on campuses. For one thing, they’re unnecessary, given how prominent the cameras usually are. For another, the signs imply that students need to be watched. The cameras’ mere presence does enough to clarify that the campuses are secure and that they are there to protect rather than punish.
LIGHT. Modern school designs allow for more natural sunlight to illuminate interior spaces, creating more welcoming, healthy and productive settings. However, daylit spaces require more windows and skylights, which can be perceived as a security risk. It’s important to find a balance between creating appealing interiors and helping occupants feel safe. Sometimes the solution is as simple as applying decorative or one-way film to windows to make it easier to see out than in.
Ultimately, the responsibility to design safety into school plans falls on project architects. As construction managers, it’s our job to support that effort. We’re here to help school districts provide inclusive, inviting, nurturing campuses where students and staff don’t have to be distracted by safety concerns and can focus instead on the business of learning.