VPCS has a long and rich relationship with the Coalition for Adequate School Housing (CASH), which advocates to ensure that California’s public school facilities are safe and healthy places where students can learn and thrive. For the past few years, we’ve strengthened our ties to CASH by sending members of our team to the CASH School Facilities Leadership Academy, a prestigious and rigorous certification program developed in partnership with the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT).
VPCS Project Manager Brian Cameron is the latest of our proud CASH Academy graduates. Brian recently took time out of his work with the Windsor Unified School District to speak about the Academy program and how it affected him as a school construction professional.
Q: What impact does CASH have on California’s schools?
BC: CASH is a coalition of school district representatives, contractors, consultants and other professionals involved in the facilities side of our state’s public schools. It’s an organization that brings people together to share information and strategies about school construction, facilities management, planning, funding, etc. CASH puts on a conference each year and VPCS is always very involved in that.
Q: What is the CASH School Facilities Leadership Academy?
BC: This is a certification program that CASH puts on each year in collaboration with California’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team. It’s an intensive year-long program you have to apply to. If you’re lucky enough to be accepted, you attend classes with the rest of your “cohort” once a month – over a Friday and Saturday – alternating between classroom locations in Sacramento and Ontario.
Q: When did you go through the program?
BC: I was accepted into the cohort that began last year (in March 2021) and we finished up this spring. We were still in Covid protocols when we began, so my 50-person cohort actually started the program via Zoom. That was fine, I guess, but it was really great when we finally got to start gathering in person. It’s just so much more powerful to be able to work side-by-side with people and talk shop – first, to get to know everybody, but also to hear how they’ve tackled some of the things that all of us in school construction deal with every day.
Q: What types of content does the Academy cover?
BC: It’s pretty much every topic that pertains to facilities management and construction. Site acquisition, funding (including how to secure bonds), working with state agencies and that kind of thing. We also went deep into the nuts and bolt of design and construction – things like the architects’ process, procurement, reviewing contracts and more.
Q: Why was it important to you to attend the CASH Academy?
BC: Even though I’ve been in this industry for a while now and I grew up in a construction family, there’s always more to learn. That’s part of what I love so much about construction management; I learn something new literally every day. So the Academy was a way to get an even more intense education on the kinds of things that help me do my job even better. It gave me information that can help me answer questions on behalf of the district I represent and it also taught me how to go out and find answers to trickier questions that sometimes come up.
Q: How did the program change the way you do your job?
BC: It’s just given me such a broad perspective on every aspect of what VPCS does for our district clients. Just the other day, we were going over the idea of a master plan for the Windsor district, which is required when you go out for a bond. And I was able to draw on an Academy homework assignment that involved a detailed masterplan review, so I could really advise the district on some of the nuances of that process. Also, the Academy program required us to do a fair amount of presentations, which was a way to get better at public speaking. It turned out to be great practice for going in front of school board meetings and public gatherings – something we do all the time in our work as CMs. It’s really amazing – things come up every day that relate to what I studied at the CASH Academy.
Q: Have you stayed in touch with other members of your cohort?
BC: Absolutely. We’re a pretty tight-knit group, and that’s been one of my favorite parts of this experience – building these professional relationships with people in and around districts all over California. We have an ongoing email thread, so if any kind of question comes up in the context of someone’s work, they’ll toss it to the group to see if somebody else in the cohort might be able to help. It’s a fantastic form of networking.
Q: You’re one of two VPCS employees who have been through the Academy, is that correct?
BC: Yes. Kelli [Van Pelt Jurgenson] went through the program before I did. It’s a pretty big deal for a CM/PM firm to have not just one but two graduates of the Academy in their ranks. Plus, another member of the VPCS team is currently going through the CASH program that just started, so that’ll make three of us CASH Academy graduates by this time next year … and I expect more people from VPCS will continue to apply. It’s really a lot of hard work, especially given that you still have to do your regular job while also getting ready for CASH Academy weekend sessions. But it’s pretty powerful to think what a difference we can make with this kind of professional education. I do believe it sets VPCS apart.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.