The Beauty Is In the Details for Patti Llamas

The Beauty Is In the Details for Patti Llamas

Patti Llamas’ official title at Van Pelt Construction Services is project manager, although she admits her job responsibilities change all the time, depending on the demands of the work, the status of the program, and the needs of the client. In the context of the $269 million San Rafael City School District bond programs, she serves as bond operations manager. But anyone who knows Patti knows her attention to detail isn’t just limited to bond accounting; she keeps a watchful eye on almost everything that comes in and goes out of the San Rafael capital facilities office. Because when Patti’s involved, few things get overlooked. While these organizational skills make her great at her job, they also came in handy when she’s off the clock. Here, Patti answers a few questions about how she tackles the demands of work and life.

You graduated college with a degree in literature, which studies the nuances and subtleties of language. But your job focuses on financial precision. What makes you drawn to – and good at – both of those things?

I guess it ties to the fact that I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Before I started working on this bond program, I would have told you that I hate numbers; they’re just not my thing. I’m more drawn to writing. But once I found myself in this role, I discovered a new motivation that I didn’t know was there. Numbers became a puzzle for me where now I have to make sure every number lines up and makes sense.  I’m actually surprised by how much I love it. At the same time, I also get to do a great deal of writing for the program too in the form of board reports. So I guess you could say this job is a win-win and lets me do both.

Would you describe yourself as a perfectionist outside of work too?

Very much so. I always say my home is my safe place, so I never leave my house in the morning without it being in order. That way, I know when I get home I can walk in and feel relaxed. My friends often make fun of me for it and it sometimes drives my husband crazy, but that’s just me! I like things neat and tidy.

Tell us about the big event that your family just celebrated.

One of my daughters got married this summer. It was a really beautiful day. She’s one of the three daughters in the blended family that my husband and I created when we got married seven years ago. In fact, when she got engaged last year, she said, “Mom, I want your wedding. I want to have it at the same venue, with the same food, all of it.” So other than the fact that hers was twice as big, we basically just followed the same plan as what I’d done in 2014. My daughter and I organized the entire event from A to Z. It was a lot of work and worry, especially during a pandemic, but it was worth it.

With wedding planning behind you, what do you most look forward to doing as a way to unwind?

Sometimes it’s nice just to come home from work and have a glass of wine and enjoy a nice meal with my husband. Plus, we live very close to open space and we both love to hike. So we often just leash up our two dogs and set out on the trails. I’m always happy when I’m out in the fresh air getting a bit of exercise and our two labs think it’s the greatest!

Tell us something about you that might surprise people.

Let’s see … I guess people might be surprised at all the different things that I’ve studied. When I was younger, I used to think I wanted to pursue a career in technical illustration. I’ve always loved drawing. In fact, when I was growing up in San Francisco, I took art classes at the De Young Museum. I was the youngest student in the class. But by the time I started college, I actually set my sights on the nursing program. That ended rather quickly, after I worked with my first cadaver! Then I switched to the business program but didn’t find that very exciting. And that’s when I moved into literature, which is where I earned by bachelor’s degree. I’ve certainly tried a lot of things. You could say my academic history is a bit like my work with the bond program: there’s a little bit of everything and most of it is related in one way or another.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: A Self-Assessment

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: A Self-Assessment

Like communities around the world, businesses are asking important and long overdue questions about equity and bias: How can team rosters be strengthened by diversity? Are hiring practices fair? Do systemic prejudices exist in our industries? What might be done differently by individual companies to level the field?

Here at VPCS, we are proud of our accomplishments in this area – we are a minority-owned business, two-fifths of our executive leadership is female, and the ethnic and gender diversity of our team reflects the diversity of California itself. Still, we recognize there is always more work to be done.

We operate in an industry that is historically white male-dominated, especially in leadership roles. According to 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 30.7% of construction professionals are Hispanic or Latino, 6.2% are Black, 9.9% are women, and only 2% are Asian.

Within our company, our practice has always been just to recruit and hire the most qualified candidates, regardless of what boxes they might check on a census form. We’re lucky to live in a region with an abundance of construction-related academic and training programs that deliver a deep pool of extremely talented young professionals who mirror the diverse demographics of our state’s population. So as our company has expanded in size and scope, our team has organically grown more diverse. We believe strongly that those two things are linked; that our very success is tied to the non-homogeneity of our employee roster.

What’s more, a diverse construction or program management team is in a better position to serve its clients. We bring a varied set of problem-solving perspectives to the table, which benefits the communities and districts we’re hired to support. Our diversity literally makes us better at our jobs.

But it’s important to remember that diversity is an ongoing concern that deserves our full and constant attention. As a company, VPCS is committed to adapting, changing, and evolving. That starts with listening.

We invite you to listen, as we did, to a few of our employees’ perspectives on this topic:

 

Jennifer Kerr, Project Manager:

Being a young woman in the construction industry definitely poses challenges. People sometimes assume you don’t know what you are doing just because of your age. There’s also the stereotype that young people are lazy, when in fact younger people often have to work harder to prove their worth. There are also those who think that women don’t belong in construction, which can lead to difficult situations; people assume you don’t know things or explain things to you that you already know, rephrasing what you have already communicated, and just not listening to you and needing to have someone else communicate your thoughts/direction so you are heard. I am excited to see more women working in construction and I think we will only see more joining the industry. We’re excited to prove the point that there are no jobs that women can’t have. I’m especially thankful for the women in VPCS leadership roles I can turn to for advice when met with these kinds of issues.

Having a diverse team helps to ensure that different points of view and ideas are being heard. Many people working in construction have been doing so for a long time; those who are newer to the field can bring new perspectives that might have otherwise been overlooked because things have always been done a certain way.

 

Minh Dao, Project Manager:

Here in the Bay Area and surrounding regions, I think construction is an industry that has been diverse and values hard work and effort. The perception of construction has also changed a lot; working in the trades isn’t given as much (if any) attention versus taking the college route – there’s almost a perception that those working in construction are not intelligent enough for higher education. Some Asian cultures in particular steer their kids away from construction and manual labor, as they can be viewed as unskilled work and not a fulfilling career. But with the growth of construction majors in college and their ties to other academic areas (such as technology), I do see more inclusion, especially as more of these disciplines start integrating into day-to-day construction.

Having a diverse and professional construction management team can do wonders in changing how a community or group views construction. The more professionals we have from a variety of backgrounds, the better it will be for the industry.

 

Damel Turner, Project Manager

Like many industries, construction has made an effort to include more women and minorities, but I do not feel that it is enough. While in college, I was always the only Black student in my engineering classes. While most of my peers accepted me as their equal, I always felt that I had to prove that I belong. Even now in my professional career, I feel that I still have to prove myself due to what I look like. I have been in the construction industry for more than seven years now and during my tenure I have only worked with three other Black people and never have I seen someone of color in a VP or even a PM role. I think it is really important for construction and every industry to bring in more people of color and women – not just for show, but so they can rise to be leaders and role models for the next generation.

Diversity always helps provide a better team. People from different backgrounds will have different views, ideas, strengths, and weaknesses. It is up to the team as a whole to understand these differences and how to utilize them to provide the best product. Business is a team sport and all of us have our strengths. The more diverse the group, the better we are at delivering a variety of talents.

 

By Kelli Van Pelt Jurgenson

Jenny Choi on Working, Playing, and Dreaming

Jenny Choi on Working, Playing, and Dreaming

To say that Jenny Choi is a rising star here at VPCS is a bit of an understatement. In just the three years since she joined us in 2018, she has gone from being an administrative assistant to serving as a project manager within the $297 million Pleasanton Unified School District bond program. Eric Van Pelt describes Jenny as someone who dives in head-first to address issues that come up so projects can keep moving forward. “Her attention to detail is amazing,” says Eric. “She double- and triple-checks everything.”

We sat down with Jenny to learn more about her devotion to her job and her other pursuits.

How has your role at VPCS evolved since you first joined us?

I’d been working as a project admin at a mechanical contractor company, but I was interested in learning more about construction management. I saw an opening at Van Pelt for an admin, so that’s how I started here – helping the team on the work we were doing at San Jose Unified. I learned a lot about this business that first year and really studied how the project managers did their jobs. Pretty soon, I said, “I could do that,” so I asked if I could transition to a different role. The timing was right, because the Pleasanton program needed more PMs at that point. So that’s where I am now, working on district-wide improvements and also the new science building at Amador High School. It’s complicated work but I really like it.

What skills helped you move up so quickly within the organization?  

When I started, I was the only female in the San Jose Unified group [run by Eric Berger] and also I was the admin. I was so shy at first, but I still was really curious about learning more. I was lucky to work for Eric, who really cares about workflow efficiencies, so I asked him if I could suggest a few process improvements. He knew I wanted to get more involved, so he was great about encouraging me to observe the PMs’ processes so I could get explore how things might run more smoothly for our team and the district. That helped bring me out of my shell a bit and also showed the managers that I’m really interested in the teamwork side of this business. I’ve always had great managers at VPCS.

You recently had a big event in your life. Can you tell us more about that?

Yes! Just a few weeks ago, I passed my citizenship test and became a naturalized American citizen. I moved to the U.S. from Hong Kong when I was 12 because my parents wanted my sister and me to be able to do whatever we wanted in life. So I went to middle school and high school in the Bay Area, then onto college at Cal (where I got a bachelor’s in engineering physics) and Chabot College (where I got a degree in music performance). All this time, I’ve had a green card and never really thought about becoming a citizen. But in late 2019, I realized my passport was going to expire so it occurred to me that it would be a great time to apply for citizenship. The pandemic slowed things down a bit, but after doing all the “biometrics” – the fingerprinting, background check, and all that – all I had left to do was take the test. Then all of a sudden one day last month, I got a notice that they’d scheduled me for the test. So I took the day off, went into San Francisco, took the test, passed it, and did the swearing-in ceremony. All in one day! It was pretty emotional to turn in my green card; I’d had it for so long and always needed it. Now I don’t need anything to prove my status; I’m just American!

You probably use your science degree frequently in your work life. How do you use your music degree?

I perform in the Chabot College Wind Symphony. In third grade, when I still lived in Hong Kong, we needed to choose our extracurricular classes. My sister, who’s older, had chosen percussion and told me, “You get to hit stuff; it’s fun.” So that’s how I started. But it’s a lot more work than just hitting stuff. In fact, I almost quit early on because of all the work. But my instructor said I had talent, so I kept going. Then we moved to the U.S. and I found that I could play percussion instruments here too. I kept it up and still play today. I’m proud that I’ve stuck with it for so long. When you’re playing and performing music, you have to be so focused. It really calms me down; it’s a great way to recharge.

Other than music, what else do you enjoy doing in your off hours?

My sister and I love going to Disneyland. (In fact, you’ll see the Disney logo on the sweatshirt I’m wearing in the picture that’s posted with this blog.) It’s not that far from home and it’s a sanctuary for us. When we go there, we can explore new things, eat different things, see pretty things, and just enjoy the adventure of it. Before the pandemic, we’d go for birthdays and holidays and now that things are starting to open back up we hope to get back to that. I think of Disneyland as a place that can take you away from your daily life and helps you dream a little bit.

Controlling School Site Rumors

Controlling School Site Rumors

Managing construction projects means tracking an enormous number of details. It also means communicating information to key audiences when those details affect them. On K-12 school sites, we share this responsibility with districts, site staff and other local entities. Still, in spite of our collective best efforts, information sometimes gets misinterpreted. One of our most important jobs is minimizing the spread of misinformation and, if rumors do start to circulate, making sure people get the facts as quickly as possible.

VPCS Project Manager Prachi Amin has seen this kind of thing from different angles throughout her career. Before she began her current assignment of overseeing projects at numerous schools in the Davis Joint Unified School District (DJUSD), Prachi worked as a facilities director for other districts. Here, Prachi talks about some of the tricks of the trade when it comes to controlling the rumor mill.

How does VPCS typically share project-related communications with audiences?

I’ll use DJUSD as an example. Here, we’ve sent out detailed letters to the community and the neighborhood residents informing them all about the projects – start dates, durations, etc. We also share contact information for the contractor, the construction superintendent, the district’s facilities office and the project manager (me) so people can reach us with questions. In conjunction with the outreach that VPCS has done, the district has notified the site parents through their communications department and has also published information at meetings of the school board, the citizens’ board oversight committee and school PTAs.

Why is it so important to keep school communities in the loop about project details?

Because what we do often affects them directly. For one thing, construction work starts early in the morning. So we usually have vehicles coming and going not just through the school site itself, but also through the streets parents use when dropping off and picking up students. Of course, we always tell the contractors not to schedule deliveries during those high-traffic times, but it’s still really important to make sure families know what to expect.

What types of things do you need to inform neighbors about?

Almost all of the same things we communicate to school families, since anyone who lives near a school site will be affected by the same traffic and scheduling concerns. But with neighbors, we also always inform them about noise. Even though we follow city noise ordinances very carefully, construction projects are just loud; there’s no way around that. So that’s an area where we put a lot of effort into managing expectations just so the folks who live nearby really understand how the projects might affect them.

What can happen when information gets misinterpreted?

Schedule delays and cost overruns, of course. But mostly, just confusion and ill will that we then need to clear up. I’ll give you an example: one time, I was walking a site with the head custodian, district plumber and contractor and we were talking about a water shut-down that was planned for a long weekend about six weeks later. Within an hour, I got an urgent call from the school district superintendent who told me the teachers’ union had filed a grievance and parents were also upset. It turns out, someone had overheard us and assumed the water shut-down was imminent, spread the rumor and then that incorrect information got around very quickly. We were able to rein it all in, but it took some time and a lot of work to assure everyone that we weren’t planning to turn off the water while students and staff were on site.

How do anecdotal examples like that affect the way you do your job?

At VPCS, we’re always looking for ways to improve our processes, so anything that happens differently than how we expect it to is an opportunity for a lesson learned. That goes for how we communicate to school communities, clients, fire departments and everybody.

What’s the best way to dispel rumors and misinformation?

Transparency and consistency. That’s it. The more we communicate, the less likely people will be to misunderstand or misinterpret what we’re doing. We get really specific with the details so people will know exactly what to expect and when. It’s also really important to work closely with district leadership and local safety authorities like the fire and police departments. When we’re all aligned and sharing the same information with the public, rumors are less likely to spark. Construction is a very dynamic undertaking, so part of our job is adapting to constant change. We’ll do whatever it takes to keep the lines of communication open so the people affected by our work have accurate, up-to-date information.

25 Years of VPCS

25 Years of VPCS

VPCS is thrilled and humbled to be celebrating our 25th anniversary this year. We’ve kicked off the festivities with an updated company logo and a spruced-up website, now expanded to include rich details on our portfolio, our team and more. Please take a tour to see all the new content.

We also wanted to hear from our founders, Mark and Mike Van Pelt, and ask them to reflect on the firm’s first quarter-century. Here are some highlights from that conversation:

How does it feel to hit this milestone?

Mike:     I do sometimes wonder how we went from being just the two of us scrambling for work to becoming a fairly well known and well respected entity. We broke into an industry that was sort of new and unknown when we started and now we’ve got more than 50 employees and we’re one of the firms that people are really talking about.

Mark:    I agree. It’s weird when your name becomes a thing; when you sit in a meeting and people are talking about Van Pelt as an entity and you realize, “Hey, that’s us!” It’s amazing to think how fast all of it has gone by.

What have been the keys to the firm’s success?

Mark:    It’s all been about staying true to what we did from the very beginning – doing things the right way, delivering quality products and bending over backwards for clients. Then training each new employee to honor those same commitments. We’ve started calling it “The VPCS Way,” which is about getting to the heart of what sets us apart. It’s our secret sauce. Mike and I aren’t running projects anymore; we’re overseeing our people. So it’s up to them to maintain the company’s reputation and they’re doing a great job with that.

Did you ever imagine the firm would get this far?

Mike:    I hoped it would, but I’m not sure I assumed it would. One advantage we have is that Mark and I have always gotten along really well and made decisions together. We’ve also always done things the way our dad used to – using common sense and not rushing to judgment. Back in 1996 when we were meeting with an attorney about forming the company, she warned us that family businesses don’t always work out. I took a piece of paper and drew two intersecting lines and said, “I’m the horizontal line and Mark’s the vertical line. We always work together and that’s why we can make this work.” That seemed to make sense to her. As for us, we never had a doubt.

Mark:    I always knew we’d make it, but I never imagined we’d get this big. Together, Mike and I had no fear. Neither one of us could have done what we’ve done without each other. We just wanted to make a living. But to reach the point of having 50 employees and pondering growing even further? Never.

Was it tough starting out as small fish in a big pond?

Mark:    There’s a funny story I like to tell from back when we were a young company. We’d done well enough to buy a few trucks; we got four little Ford Rangers and had our logos painted on the sides. But we were always going up against national firms that would come into interviews with big teams of people; they looked like they came with their own horn sections! So we decided to number those trucks, but not with 1, 2, 3 and 4. Nope. We numbered them something like 101, 748, 359 and 238. A sly little trick, but it must have worked. Now we go up against those big firms all the time and we’re often the ones to beat.

What do you envision for the next 25 years of VPCS?

Mike:    I foresee the kids [Kelli Van Pelt Jurgenson and Eric Van Pelt] taking it over and continuing the legacy. They learned the way from Mark and me, and we now see them teaching others how to do things that way. There’s no reason why that can’t continue on while Mark and I go bass fishing and play a bit more golf and take the grandkids to Disneyland. The goal is to keep it going so the legacy of the company will continue on.

Mark:    Absolutely. One of the things that Kelli and Eric bring to the company is enthusiasm and an interest in making the company and our product even better with innovation and new technologies. It’s fun for us to watch the younger Van Pelts taking on the tasks that we did when we started. I want to see this thing go on for 100 years, even though I won’t be around to watch it. It’s fun to think that maybe our grandkids end up getting involved.

What are you most proud of when you look back?

Mike:    Our people. They’re such hard workers and they do things the Van Pelt way and that’s why we’re as successful as we are. At every one of our company holiday parties, I always tell our employees that they make it so much easier for Mark and me to sleep at night. They’re just great at their jobs and they’re great to have on our team.

Mark:    I agree 100%. Plus, being able to put something together from scratch that’s provided good livings for so many people. I also really enjoy what I do, and that’s pretty fun.

Kicking Back with Ray Green

Kicking Back with Ray Green

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?

That’s 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.

Taking Stock

Taking Stock

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.

A New Level of Sustainability

A New Level of Sustainability

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

Program Management: One Client’s Perspective

Program Management: One Client’s Perspective

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.

Mid-COVID Project Spotlight: Napa Junction Elementary

Mid-COVID Project Spotlight: Napa Junction Elementary

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.