We always enjoy delivering spectacular projects to our clients, and the new CORE Building on the Hayward campus of California State University East Bay (CSUEB) is certainly no exception. Work is nearly complete on this state-of-the-art, $85 million, 100,000 square feet, LEED Gold structure, which will serve as the new heart of the campus.
The CORE Building will replace and expand upon the functions of CSUEB’s original library while adding new collaborative spaces that connect the upper and lower sections of campus. Here’s what can be found on the building’s three levels:
Ground floor: Collaboration zones and innovation labs, including the Hub for Entrepreneurship
Second floor: A modern new library that helps students research and navigate the information age economy; study spaces inside and on the exterior roof deck
Third floor: The peer-led Student Center for Academic Achievement (SCAA); an enclosed lounge space; study carrels; a meditation area
We’re proud to have helped bring the CORE to life, given the very special relationship between VPCS and the CSU system. Back when we were just getting started 25 years ago, they gave us a chance to show what we were capable of by hiring us for our first major contract. Since then, we’ve delivered more than 60 major capital projects for CSU, managing work at six of the system’s 23 campuses. On the Hayward campus alone, we’ve worked on numerous projects since 2006.
“The experience VPCS brings by having done so much work for the CSU system is really valuable, since CSU has its own processes and procedures when it comes to capital projects,” says Quan Lee, our senior project manager on the CORE Building site. “CSU keeps coming back to VPCS because of that experience. VPCS just has such a good understanding of the CSU process and how projects of any size should be managed on behalf of this client, which helps things go smoothly.”
We fully expected to construct the CORE Building while university activities were in full swing, adapting to the needs of students and faculty – and, most importantly, staying out of their way. In fact, we’re known for our ability to keep a low profile on an occupied campus. But the timing of this project lightened that load somewhat, as we broke ground in early 2020, just two months before the pandemic closed the campus. So construction continued on a mostly empty site until classes resumed in the fall of 2021, at which point we adjusted back to our routine of working on a busy campus. A dedication celebration was held last month, and we expect to wrap up our work on the project soon.
When it comes to the impact this project will have, Quan sums it up nicely: “Partly because of its size and also because it sits right in the center of campus, the CORE Building is going to be the new focal point of CSUEB. It’s going to help make this a very dynamic university campus.”
Check out a fly-through animation of the CORE Building here and a timelapse video of the project’s construction by clicking on the “Time-Lapses” button here.
Since joining us in 2018, Charles Harbour has been applying his project management skills to multiple sites around the Berkeley Unified School District. While he’s a great construction management professional, he’s also a great addition to our team because of all the other things that make him who he is. Learn more about Charles, including his stint in music television, in this Q-and-A:
Have you always worked in the construction field?
No. Before joining VPCS, I worked in financial services – most recently doing mortgage processing. But there are actually many similarities between what I did then and what I do now; managing a mortgage is a lot like managing a construction project. Both require keeping track of a lot of little details.
What brought you here?
I got a text from my friend Chris Moreno, who’d been working for Van Pelt for a while and was assigned to the Berkeley district. They needed help and he thought I’d be a good fit, so I came in and talked to Mark and Eric [Van Pelt] to see if they agreed. They did, so I made the shift. It’s been great. And I have to admit: I don’t miss the banking world.
You’re a Bay Area native but spent some time living in New York, correct?
That’s right. I grew up in El Cerrito but went to New York City for college and I loved it so much out there that I ended up staying for about ten years. That was before I ever got involved in banking or finance.
What did you do for work in NYC?
After I graduated with a degree in communications, I started interning for MTV. I helped with post-production editing for their TV shows, working out of the MTV offices right on Broadway. It was an amazing job; I just loved it! But I was there when the economy crashed in 2007-2008, which pretty much dismantled our department. I tried to find something else in that field so I could stay in New York, but there were so many people out of work and the city was so expensive, I ended up coming back to California, which was the right thing for me at that time. But it was an adventure while it lasted.
Did you have any fun brushes with celebrities while you were at MTV?
I did get to meet Betty White once, which was pretty cool. She was in the studio to do some interviews about a project she was working on. We all got very excited and crowded around the office she was in just to see her. We even got to chat with her for a minute; she was really nice. But I didn’t ask for an autograph – I didn’t want to be that guy.
Speaking of being a good guy, tell us about the volunteer work you’ve done with Habitat for Humanity.
Sure. The most exciting Habitat project I’ve been involved in was helping build a single family home in Fairfield from the ground up. My understanding was that the family it was being built for was living in a really poverty-stricken area of Vallejo where they were exposed to a lot of safety concerns, including gun violence. I was on that job site beginning from the time when the foundation was poured to when the roof went on. It was so fulfilling.
And you’ve also pitched in with food drives, is that right?
Yes. I started helping with the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano back in 2017. I’ve also helped my mom, who does a lot of work through her church to distribute food to members of the community, mostly in Richmond. Those are great programs that collect donations of food and funds from corporate sponsors and local companies. Then volunteers like my mom – and me too, sometimes – make sure that food and other resources get to the people who need them.
Tell us about the picture of you finishing the running race.
That’s from an event I’ve done twice called Rugged Maniac, which is basically a muddy 5K obstacle course. There are something like 25 obstacles scattered all around the course, and there’s mud all over the place. I’ll tell you – it’s a really fun experience. That picture shows the time I did it with a group and I was the only one in the group that competed every single obstacle on the course. I was drawn to it for two reasons: first, I’ve always enjoyed running. And secondly, it just looked like so much fun. I believe the Rugged Maniac events were put on hold during Covid, but they seem to be back up and running now.
What did you do for fun while Covid shut so many things down?
I actually took up gardening during the pandemic and I’ve gotten really into it. I have a decent sized yard at home and I use that as a kind of canvas. I play around with a lot of different types of plantings – flowers, vegetables and plants. And I’ve started doing more with fruit. Right now, I have a lime tree, a Mandarin tree, a guava tree and some strawberry bushes. I never thought of myself as someone with a green thumb, but that’s now what everybody says about me. I just love coming home from work and going straight out to play in the garden!
Nobody knows better than Phyllis Silverstein the staggering amount of documentation that’s tied to a school bond program. Since she joined us in 2018, she’s been one of our key team members whose job it is to keep things running smoothly in the San Rafael City Schools (SRCS), where we serve as the program manager (PM) for the $269 million district-wide improvements made possible by Measures A and B, passed in 2016.
Managing a mountain of digital and physical paperwork isn’t easy. But Phyllis makes it look that way. We asked her a few questions about this very important part of her job.
Q: What are the types of documents that are typically associated with a school bond program?
PS: Oh gosh. There are so many. To start with, there are documents related to the specific projects being completed in the district as part of the bond program – so that could be the general contractor files and any documents associated with those, as well as legal documents specific to individual projects. There’s paperwork associated with bids, requests for qualifications and proposals (RFQPs), and materials that advertise the RFQPs, There’s correspondence; meeting notes; drawings and specs we get from the architect, along with the version officially approved by the DSA (the Division of the State Architect); there are close-out documents, including the “as-built” drawings as well as warranties and guarantees; there are mailers and the mailing lists and labels we use to send information to neighborhoods; there are monthly reports that go out to different audiences; and of course there are lots of schedules and plans associated with each project.
Then there are the program-level documents. We place those in our “general” files even if they relate to specific projects. That category includes things like the key logs (such as the Department of Industrial Relations – or “DIR” – project ID number, the project tracking numbers, etc.), school board items, all program-level communications, and documents related to when we’re trying to find vendors.
We need to know exactly where all of those documents are at any time, whether they’re project- or program-related, partly because they’re all part of the public record. Also, since we sometimes apply for grants or state funds, there’s correspondence associated with that. Then, of course, we catalog the final documents for each project completed within the bond.
On top of all that, there are agendas, minutes, and reports associated with each of the Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee (CBOC) meetings. And a variety of photos that have to be documented whether or not they go into our monthly or annual reports.
I could go on, but you get the idea. In a nutshell, there are many, many documents.
Q: How do you keep track of it all?
PS: Most of it is digital, so it all gets housed on a secure Google Drive, which everyone on the team can access and add to if needed. That includes our client (SRCS’s senior director of capital facilities), the projects’ construction managers, the maintenance department, and others. Patti Llamas and I are the VPCS employees who oversee the drive and she does all of the invoicing, accounting, budgets, etc. So she and I are jointly responsible for making sure all the paperwork in the files gets organized properly.
There’s definitely a trend toward electronic records, but we do also keep hard copies of many of the documents. We find that clients sometimes like to have access to those physical files, so we’re happy to provide those whenever they’re needed.
Q: What happens to all these documents when your work is done?
PS: Eventually, when the program is complete and VPCS has wrapped up our duties as PM, we turn everything over to the district.
Q: Is there any roadmap for how to organize all of this, or did you come up with your own system?
PS: There’s definitely no manual that tells you how to do this, although VPCS has a solid baseline system that we all rely on and adapt to suit each program. Plus, Patti was a huge help when I first arrived on this program; she showed me the ropes. Since then, I’ve developed a few additional tricks that help me stay organized. I’ve created some templates so I don’t have to reinvent every wheel when it comes to core documents related to projects. And I maintain a lot of logs.
Mostly, I try to prepare as much as I can in advance. For example, I can get emails written or paperwork ready ahead of time then fill in the pertinent details at the last minute so we can get things out the door immediately, which is often what’s required in this business. For me, doing that prep is the key to being organized.
I’m a naturally organized person, but even I had to step up my game to keep track of all the documents associated with this bond. It’s challenging, which is part of why I like it. And I know that maintaining orderly files is just one more way to deliver on the VPCS promise of quality and transparency.
If two heads are better than one, then 50 heads are … well, you do the math. At VPCS, we believe so strongly in applying our collective wisdom to all of our active projects that we’ve operationalized it. Relying on a simple shared chat tool, we have created an open-source knowledge base that’s available to each of our employees as a way of finding answers, verifying approaches and honing skills. Every day, our people turn to one another to tap the wealth of professional expertise that exists on our team. In turn, the proficiency of up to 50 people is applied to all of our clients’ projects.
We sat down with VPCS Principal Mark Van Pelt to learn more about this approach.
What internal communication tools does VPCS lean on most heavily?
Mark: Everybody in the company uses Google Chat. It’s like a huge group text but formatted more professionally. It’s just a great way to share information and tap other people’s expertise for any kind of question that comes up. And in this business, questions come up all the time. Our people are so smart; so talented. So much so, in fact, that they know how important it is to validate their assumptions every now and again. Our internal chat system gives them a way to double-check that the answers they come up with on their own are the best ones. It helps us all work as a unified team; nobody is out on an island by themselves.
What other tools does the firm use for information sharing?
Mark: Email, of course, and there’s the good old telephone. All of our people know they can call me with questions about anything, especially when it comes to estimating. I still carry an entire database of construction prices in my brain! And we currently have two people on staff – Kelli [Van Pelt Jurgenson] and Brian [Cameron] – who have been through the very rigorous CASH School Facilities Leadership Academy, so they’re the ones to ask about procurement through the state. (Plus, we have a few more people preparing to go through the CASH program in the near future, which will give us an even deeper bench of people who will be officially trained in the nuances of public school construction in California.) And of course, Eric [Van Pelt] has always been our resident OSHPD expert on top of all that he knows about K-12 and higher education construction. We just have so much talent on our team that somebody is going to know the answer, whatever the question is. And if not, they’ll know how to find it quickly. Beyond that, we have a few other ingredients in our operational secret sauce that help us stay on the cutting edge, but those are in the vault!
Give us an example of how the process works.
Mark: Well, one of our project managers recently posted a question to the company-wide chat related to the paperwork required for procuring a portable building on a school campus. And right away, there were three or four people giving him specific instructions on how to go about that task. It’s so great – an efficient and effective way to make sure things get done the right way.
How does this benefit VPCS team members?
Mark: Since we’re all on the chats, we can all see every exchange, even when we don’t participate in a specific question-and-answer. So there’s an opportunity for everybody to learn something from each case. Just the other day, I heard somebody say that they were puzzling over something but then remembered they’d seen an exchange about that same topic a while back on our Google Chat. So they went into the chat archives, found the discussion and got the information they needed. So it’s become something of a catalog for us.
How does this benefit your clients?
Mark: Our clients have direct access to one or two people from our team – the PMs assigned to their projects – all the time. But what all of our clients are actually getting is the brain power of our entire team because everyone here is constantly drawing from our larger pool of expertise via these chats. It’s all of our PMs, our CMs, our admins; everybody is on chat every day. In other words, an owner might be paying for three dedicated project managers, but they’ve got nearly 50 people helping to tackle their project’s challenges.
As co-founder of the company, how does it make you feel when you see all that wisdom being shared among the people who now form the VPCS team?
Mark: It’s awesome. We have such an incredibly talented group and when they network, we all improve. I’ve never once seen one of our people make an inaccurate recommendation via chat. I’ve also never once stepped into a chat to say, “Hey, I would do that differently.” First of all, that’s not the kind of manager I am. I believe strongly in leaving people alone when they’re doing the right thing and the client is satisfied. Secondly, even if they’re approaching a problem differently than I would and they’re comfortable with that approach, I’m not going to do anything to change that … unless I see someone about to walk off a cliff. So, to answer the question, it’s really gratifying to see members of our team share what they know. It makes us a better company.
When we brought Mony Thach on board, we knew he was a skilled and detail-oriented project manager. But in the years since he joined VPCS, we’ve had the pleasure of getting to know our multi-talented, community-minded colleague. Learn more about Mony in this Q-and-A.
When did you first join VPCS?
I came to the company in 2016 as a project manager after managing work at three other Bay Area school districts and one community college. Now I’m a VPCS program manager overseeing the work being done at multiple school campuses including Atwater Elementary School District and Marysville Joint Unified School District.
You have a quote on your LinkedIn page that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” What is it about that quote that speaks so powerfully to you?
It speaks to me on a few different levels. Work-wise, it’s about collaboration. Construction isn’t ever done by any one individual; it takes a team and you have to have that mindset going into it. It’s up to all of us in this business to take the time and make the effort to bring each other along. To be successful and accomplish what we’re hired to do, we all have to work together.
How does the VPCS company culture support this ideal?
At VPCS, we value everyone’s collective effort. We encourage our managers and stakeholders to embrace and cultivate this approach on every project we are a part of, no matter how big or small.
Your LinkedIn page also lists your five-and-a-half-year stint as president at Khmer Arts. Tell us more about that.
Khmer Arts is an organization based in Long Beach that focuses on traditional Cambodian dance and music, which are art forms that almost got eliminated in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge, which is estimated to have killed nearly 70% of the artists of that generation. Khmer Arts’ co-founder was in the first graduating class of the Royal Academy in Phnom Penh after the fall of Pol Pot’s regime. She founded the organization after moving to Southern California in the 1990s. I’ve always felt strongly about contributing to the community that I am a part of and as a Cambodian American, I was drawn to the work being done by Khmer Arts to preserve and create opportunities of classic art forms and maintain them for the next generation.
Were you born in Cambodia?
Yes. I moved to the States with my immediate family in the fall of 1979 to a small rural part of northwest Ohio, which is where I grew up and stayed until college. At home, my parents spoke Khmer, the native language for Cambodians, so my siblings and I had to figure out how to pick up English at school. There weren’t any ESL classes or other Khmer speakers around so I always struggled in school because of my lack of language skills. It’s very ironic to me that someone who grew up struggling with English is now managing multi-million dollar contracts. That is far beyond any dream I had growing up on a small 31-acre farm!
When do you have opportunities to use your Khmer language skills?
I’m still fluent in spoken Khmer and I always communicate with my family in Khmer, but I don’t write in it. I also host a group page on Facebook for Cambodian American professionals and, before Covid, I hosted a lot of networking events so members of the group could meet each other and explore career opportunities. That’s where I have another opportunity to converse in Khmer besides speaking to my own family.
Tell us more about your father and the influence he has had on you.
My work ethic comes from my dad. We were refugees, so he was diligent about teaching his kids to show up and do the work without complaining. He taught us to just stick with it, no matter how hot and long the days are. He grew up raising ducks in Cambodia and then raised us on a farm in Ohio, so we were expected to get up early and help. My dad was enamored with the Amish community in neighboring Indiana because of how they were a time capsule for culture preservation. He found out there was a crew looking for a driver/laborer and I ended up getting that job. I would wake up at 05:00 a.m. every day to pick up the Amish carpenters and learn and work alongside them. I worked with an Amish group to frame homes and pour concrete basements for four summers during high school. Those long days prepared me for long days in architecture school at Ohio State, which later led to long days on construction sites as I was starting my career after college. So my dad taught me from a young age the importance of showing up as prepared as I could be. He taught my siblings and me how to do our best to learn and persevere despite our challenges.
Tell us about the picture of you against the snowy backdrop.
That was taken in Iceland in 2017. I took advantage of some really great airfares and treated myself to a ten-day solo adventure. It’s such a beautiful country – mostly rural. I rented a car and drove from Reykjavik all the way up to one of the glaciers along the eastern coastline to the northernmost point you could travel for that season. I hiked a glacier, explored ice caves, saw tons of waterfalls, sat in hot springs. On the last day of my trip, I saw the aurora borealis. It was incredible and seeing it was one of my goals for the trip.
Any other travel plans in your future?
Well, I’ve been to all 48 states in the contiguous United States, plus Washington, D.C. and Hawaii. So the only place in the U.S. I haven’t seen yet is Alaska. I’d love to make the drive all the way through British Columbia. Maybe that’ll be my next big trip.
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.