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.

Pandemic Pivots

Pandemic Pivots

The coronavirus outbreak has changed the way we’ve all done things, both at work and at home. Here at VPCS, we’re fortunate to be part of an industry deemed essential per California’s directives. Because of that, we’ve been allowed to continue working virtually uninterrupted on all of our projects since the pandemic began.

Still, things are far from “business as usual.” All of us in the construction world have had to alter nearly every aspect of what we do in response to COVID-19. Safety, which has always been mission-critical in the field, is now also driving how we manage our projects from a distance.

A few examples of how we’re adapting:

MEETINGS. Like most companies, we’ve been gathering remotely via Zoom, Google Hangouts and a handful of other virtual meeting tools. We’ve quickly gotten up to speed on a variety of these platforms, as different clients prefer different systems and it’s important for us to be proficient on all of them. Those of us who appear regularly on school board and community meeting agendas have had to adjust quickly to presenting effectively and efficiently via virtual environments. Interestingly, we’ve observed an uptick in attendance when these types of meetings occur remotely. Our hope is that the convenience of logging in to take part in community-oriented meetings from home will encourage greater participation and engagement in the long-term.

PERSONNEL. Our employees have been working from home since April except when they’re needed on job sites. (See our April blog, “Notes from the Home Front,” for insights from our people about transitioning to this mode.) Because we are part of the state’s Essential Workforce, we are thrilled to report that we haven’t had to lay off a single employee. In fact, we’ve added a handful of new hires to our roster in the past few months. We screened and interviewed those candidates remotely and their onboarding paperwork has all been exchanged electronically.

BIDDING. Social distancing practices have led to a re-invention of how we manage the construction bidding process. Previously, contractors all joined us in a crowded conference room where we would open all bids together. These days, that’s not an option. Instead, we’ve implemented a new process in which contractors are invited to a specified location – usually a large parking lot – where they stay in their cars until they’re asked one by one to approach a table where they drop off their bids with us. Once we’ve collected all the packets, we conduct a virtual bid-opening via Zoom. We credit our own Eric Van Pelt for pioneering this system, and we encourage our industry colleagues to mimic it, as it’s very effective.

SITE TOURS. We always look forward to leading construction sites tours for members of the citizen oversight committees in the school districts we serve. However, the pandemic has made these in-person walk-throughs extremely challenging. Instead, we’re now inviting guests to attend virtual site tours that we create with the help of drones and then narrate along the way. These enhanced tours actually offer a more comprehensive look at the projects, as the drones provide a glimpse of things from every angle.

PAPERWORK. When it comes to securing the necessary signatures on project documents, the pandemic has simply speeded up the industry’s earlier gradual embrace of e-signing – a technology that already existed but has become much more widely used in recent months. We expect that digital signatures will become the norm for our industry going forward, given the convenience and security of this method. The same will be true, we predict, for digital filing and file sharing.

Everyone is ready for the world to gain control over COVID-19 so we can return to more familiar professional and personal routines. At VPCS, we look forward to returning to job sites and trailers where we can interact directly and in person with our clients and colleagues. Still, it’s interesting to watch how the pandemic has forced us to update certain long-standing processes. By having no choice but to adapt, we’ve improved. It’s just one way we’re building on a new normal.

Notes from the Home Front

Notes from the Home Front

Like professionals across the country and around the world, VPCS employees have been working mostly from home during the coronavirus outbreak. It’s been a bit of a transition, but our people have always been a dedicated and hard-working bunch. Not even a shelter-in-place mandate would be enough to change that.

Here, a few members of Team VPCS weigh in with insights and observations about working from home:

Johnny Mam:  Whether I’m working from home or at the office, I find that having a daily routine and a schedule in place is essential to stay productive and also keep up the morale. I’ve been checking in on the team every day, which is a great way to make sure things are on track. The most challenging aspect of working at home is that I forget to take breaks and sometimes neglect self-care. To tackle that issue, I’ve scheduled times in the morning and afternoon for a walk outside for fresh air and sunshine. This is something I plan to carry over into my post-pandemic routine.

Melanie Griffiths:  I’m trying to treat working from home just like any workday. I wake up, get dressed and then “commute” to my computer where I check emails, to-do items and tasks. My family is at home too, which can be a challenge. It’s not unusual for my seven-year-old to have class and conference calls at the same time that I do! We’re all trying to find workarounds as we accept this new reality. I’ve found the Adobe Sign program to be helpful when it comes to getting documents signed by multiple people, and I hope that’s something we can rely on more when we’re able to go back to the office. It’s very efficient!

Jenny Choi:  Since working from home, I haven’t felt like my work life and personal life have been much different. In fact, since I don’t have to wake up early and commute to work, it’s actually saving me a lot of time. We’ve set up a company-wide Google Chat so we can talk with co-workers and everyone gets the message right away if there’s an urgent project issue or update. For me, the downside of all of this is not having my co-workers right next to me. In times like this, we have to be flexible and creative to continue doing our best work for the team and for our clients.

Christine Diamond: My productivity strategy is to get up, get dressed and stay as close to my normal routine as possible…except that I’m at home. I get my work done by sending lots of emails and texts and participating in the occasional Google Hangouts video meeting.  I have actually been using Google Hangouts and Zoom to keep in touch with my friends, family and sewing circles as well. For me, the biggest challenge has been staying focused but I tackle that by setting up a separate space for my at-home-office – a place that I can walk into and out of. Now, when I’m in that space I’m at work and am focused on the job. Then after work, I shut the door and focus on family. Since I have a much smaller workspace at home than at the VCPS office, I have to be much more organized. Nothing can be set aside to be put away or finished later. That’s a new habit that I hope sticks with me. The habit I don’t think I’ll be able to keep is how I live in my slippers now! It’s going to be hard putting heels back on when we head back to the office.

Kelli Van Pelt Jurgenson:  With kids at home, I would say the greatest challenge has been balancing their distance learning responsibilities with my own work responsibilities. In order for all of us to be productive, it’s crucial for me to set a daily schedule for them, complete with their school lesson plans and to-dos. But I must admit that I’m willing to let the schedule go when things get hectic; we’re all finding that we need to forgive ourselves and each other if things don’t always go perfectly smoothly. Also, we all need to take care of ourselves. I’ve been working out more consistently since working from home. It really seems to lessen the stress and focus my mind. To stay on top of projects and communicate with co-workers, Zoom and Google Hangouts have been great. I’ve even used both of those tools for evening and weekend social get-togethers. In fact, I think the fact that we’ve all been “forced” to use these tools has opened the minds of those who may have been resistant to new technology.

Alex Lim:  I’ve been conducting a morning routine that’s similar to going into the office and designating specific time blocks for work, which help me with productivity when working from home. (I also find enormous productivity benefits by not having to commute two-plus hours each day.) I’ve also created an at-home work environment that is suitable for phone and video calls. I do find it easier to get distracted and lose track of goals while working remotely, but my VPCS team maintains shared Google Keep lists and notes and we review those together on a daily basis, which keeps everybody on top of what we need to know and do. I’ve been pleased with how efficient the video call meetings have been, and I’d like to engage in more of those after this is all over.

Colleen Alexander:  I’ve found that designating a space at home that’s just for me has been really important. It’s where I go to “go to work” every day. For the most part, it’s all been going pretty smoothly. Although we had a bit of excitement the other day when the cat brought a dead rat into the house and left it under my desk. My husband tackled that challenge for both of us! I’ve been disciplined about taking a break every day to walk the dog. It’s been nice to get outside and get some fresh air. I hope I keep that habit up after all of this is over. I always come back refreshed after a quick walk.

Larry Fogelquist:  When I work from home, I always try to dress as if I’m going to work, sit down at my desk at about the same time each morning, and keep the door to my office closed. Showers, it seems, are optional. The biggest challenge while working remotely has been getting my project questions answered, but my fellow team members and my manager are always very available via Google Chat to get me the information I need and to collaborate. (It’s also been a challenge to stay out of the kitchen, but that’s another topic altogether!) I actually really like the positive impact of having fewer interruptions. I’d like to figure out a way to replicate that when things get back to normal.

Jess Joseph-Smith:  It’s been hard to manage my kids’ home school lessons while also being productive and accountable to my VPCS team. Luckily, we have great communication in this company, and everyone has been really understanding. I think the best part is people’s resourcefulness and the understanding that we’re all encountering things that we would not normally have to multitask. But we’re getting more creative about how to be stay organized and innovative, and I hope that continues because it will help us stay at the top of our industry. I am also grateful for the way my team allows me to help keep my kids on track and let me work around them. My kids and I eat lunch together and then take walks every day. That’s been a really nice way to break up the day; it’s something I’d like to incorporate it into my post-pandemic schedule.

Molly Burke:  I don’t have an extra room for an office, so I set up a fold-out table in my bedroom that serves as my office. Having an established workspace focuses me and sends the message to family that I’m at work. Also, maintaining a morning routine of getting to my desk at the same time with coffee in hand keeps my day consistent. All in all, it’s actually gone pretty smoothly. I’ve had a few occasions where I needed something in the office or wanted to look at a hard copy of a document, so I’ve had to make a few quick runs over there. Otherwise, I’ve been able to do what I need to do from home. I find working from home to be productive both professionally and personally. There are fewer interruptions throughout the day and the workday starts earlier because travel time has been eliminated. This means more time for sleep, exercise and family. Honestly, I think working from home has some great advantages. In this business, we’ll still always need to meet with clients and walk job sites, but I’m definitely a fan of some of the upsides of telecommuting.

Minh Dao:  I’ve relied heavily on Google Hangouts and texting while working from home, and of course email continues to be key. The main challenge I’ve faced is the way things can get lost in translation during virtual meetings. At in-person meetings, I’m able to explain things or ask questions if something comes up that I need to clarify a bit. Online meetings can be tougher in that regard; there’s a risk that things might be misinterpreted. But we’re putting in the extra effort to make sure everybody gets what they need through these channels. While working from home, I’m making sure to get up and stretch every hour. Before coronavirus, I spent my time going back and forth to sites but in the past few weeks I’ve been spending a good chunk of the day in front of a computer. Remembering to stretch helps me avoid the aches and pains!

Ray Green: As a senior project manager, I’m not able to work from home at all times because it’s still critical to have management presence on active job sites. When I am in the field, what’s really different is how we interact with contractors. We follow all social distancing protocols, whether that’s having a conversation in the parking lot or walking the project. For remote interactions, we’ve had good luck with different platforms – using whatever tool is easiest for all parties to adapt to. I have marathon web meetings with one of our CMs; with a simple text, he and I both log on and we can collaborate on the same documents and review the same drawings and change orders simultaneously. We’ve been able to prove to clients and colleagues not only that we can get things done this way but that we can do so seamlessly without missing a step. On those days when I work from home, I have to admit that my biggest hurdle is my dogs. I struggle resisting those cute little faces; eventually, I give in and take them out for a run around the house and we all feel better.

Finding Our Way to the Other Side of COVID-19

Finding Our Way to the Other Side of COVID-19

The COVID-19 outbreak has affected individuals, communities and economies around the world. Never in our lifetimes have we experienced such an abrupt shift in how we go about our daily lives and conduct our business.

At VPCS, we take our commitments to our projects and our employees very seriously. The quality and continuity of our work is as critical as the health and safety of our people. Like everyone, we are being tested on many fronts during this pandemic.

Here is where things stand as of right now:

Governor Newsom’s statewide shelter-in-place order, issued March 19, includes a mandate that public works and infrastructure projects in California are to continue until further notice. Since many of the agencies, organizations and consultants we partner with are also affected by the pandemic, our project teams are checking in regularly to ensure these operations are open and that their progress continues. We have confirmed that all of the districts where we are working are expecting contractors to remain on projects with only a few exceptions.

Our offices are open, although many of our staff members are working remotely until further notice. As we continue to monitor the changing situation and implement agency recommendations, we will maintain our services and follow through on our commitments to our clients. We have enhanced our remote capacity to ensure all work and communications continue to flow. In addition, where appropriate, we are replacing in-person meetings with phone and/or video conferencing to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and protect our staff, our consultants, our clients and all of our project partners.

As for how this affects us as a company, we are staying in close contact with our VPCS team members, distributing updates and encouraging two-way communication. We are so fortunate to have such a talented and close-knit group of employees and we are doing everything we can to protect them, their families and their livelihoods. As difficult and unnerving as this is for all of us, we feel confident that this is temporary and not the new norm.

Forty years ago, Fred Van Pelt offered some solid advice to his sons, Mike and Mark. “Boys, build schools and hospitals,” he said. “As long as people have babies, you’ll have projects.”

This statement has never been so true. Even in the midst of these unprecedented conditions, we remain in business. And we move forward, bolstered by friendship and family.

Stay safe and healthy.

By Mike and Mark Van Pelt

Warm Wishes from VPCS!

Warm Wishes from VPCS!

Even amid the busiest moments of the holidays, we remind ourselves to pause and focus on what matters most: the people who surround us at home and at work. We are immensely grateful for all branches of the VPCS family for allowing us to do what we love, day after day. What a gift. For that and so much more, we wish you all a merry and bright season and a joyful new year.