An Interview with Whatcom Middle School Replacement Client Project Manager

Reported by Diana Badowski, Marketing Manager (As a follow up from our September 13 blog)

Ron Cowan, Assistant Superintendent for Bellingham Public Schools (BPS), sat down with me to talk about the Whatcom Middle School Replacement project. Ron is in his sixth year at BPS, and his responsibilities include buildings and grounds.

How was the Open House (September 1, 2011)?
Fun! Great! To see so many, so pleased with the end product, was incredible. The experience of seeing the community so excited (about this project) was really rewarding.

Now that school is in session, what feedback are you getting about the new Whatcom Middle School?
Smiles! Overjoyed! Thankful! Everyone is amazed at the look of the new building and how it feels as you walk through it. Early in the project, we met with the educators and community on how the facility should perform…I have heard from many about how pleased they are that the process worked! I run into people all over town, and unsolicited comments are glowing and positive. I have yet to hear anything negative about this project.

Was this your first experience rebuilding a historic structure? Working with an insurance claim?
For a total replacement, yes. I have worked on some historic structure remodels but nothing to this extent. The process with the insurance claim went beautifully. We had a wonderful partnership. This project would not have succeeded if any one element of the team had not performed at the level that they did, including the insurer.

Can you please give me your thoughts on Reid Middleton’s approach for replacing the shell and core vs. repairing the damaged structure? Would you take the same approach if you had to do it over?
Reid Middleton has been involved since day one – the afternoon of the fire, Dave (Swanson) and Paul (Crocker) were here, on site. They provided the vision for the project and then gave it a push! They came in and said, “Here are some things that we can do.” I was very pleased with the process. With Dave’s experience with damaged buildings and the ‘red tag’ protocol, he was able to explain what was going to happen. He then worked through what we needed to do to make it safe for inspection and work crews during assessment. He began the discussion on where we go next and came up with ideas.

Yes, I would take the same approach. I made it clear at the outset that when this project is done and you are across the street at Battersby Field, you will look at Whatcom Middle School, and it will look the same as it did before the fire. Reid Middleton provided the data to get insurance carrier concurrence on the approach. We never would have gotten there without Reid Middleton’s leadership.

Do you think there were social, economic, and schedule benefits of the replacement strategy of using the existing building as formwork for an exterior shotcrete wall and demolishing the existing building from the inside out? Were you pleased with this decision/process?
Yes, yes, and yes! This school is an icon in Bellingham. There would have been a huge PR issue if we had demolished the building, and the community saw a pile of rubble where their beloved school had been. There was a pile of rubble anyway, but nobody saw it. Yes, I was very pleased with this process.

Describe your experience working with the project team (design team, contractor, insurance representatives).
The School District, contractor, insurer, Reid Middleton, Dykeman (architect), and all the other sub-trades wanted others to succeed and vice versa. I never heard ‘it’s not my fault.’ By way of example, all of the steel for the trusses was designed early in the project and given to the contractor to procure to accommodate lead time for manufacturing and extrusion of the steel beams. When they arrived on site, they were the wrong length. We did not have time to remanufacture, so Reid Middleton revised the design to facilitate construction, and the contractor altered the construction process. This alone could have thrown the project off by months, but it didn’t. Everyone understood the project’s theme of “GET IT DONE.” Everyone makes mistakes, but on this project, we were all in it together. We had a team with passion for the project.

Were you concerned that the project wouldn’t meet the aggressive schedule? What would be the impacts if the school had not opened in time for the 2011 academic year?
Shortly after the phase 3 bid for construction was awarded to Dawson, I went to see Pete, the president of the firm. I told him that I needed to give the board an answer about the schedule and asked him if he could assure me that they would be able to have it complete for the 2011-2012 school year. He told me “Did I tell you that if we got the bid, we’d do it? Yes-Ron.  Then we’ll do it.” So, I sent the portables back in June. We were committed, and we had to meet the schedule. If it wasn’t ready for the start of the school year, we would have had to parcel out the kids again, and I wasn’t willing to do that.

How would you describe your overall experience on this project?
“It was the most rewarding professional experience of my career. I never had a bad day.”