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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.