Feature Article - November 2006
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Magnificently Multipurpose

Managing all-around facilities

By Kelli Anderson

Just say no

There's also knowing what you don't want. When a vocational high school in Massachusetts took 14 months to plan and research an ambitious multipurpose project, they not only did a feasibility study, but also identified what they wanted to avoid.

"It's good to have a holiday shopping list and take a good hard look at what you want to accomplish and to know what you can live without," said Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick, superintendent of Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School in Upton, Mass. "But it's also good to list what you don't want. We didn't want a practice facility whose floor was beaten up so badly that it showcased the fact that we didn't protect our taxpayer investment."

Research-go the distance

Once do's and don'ts have been identified, finding the right materials and products for the space will require some dedicated researchers willing to go the distance to test for the best. In the case of Blackstone, testers literally threw themselves—and their sample products—into their work. After convincing manufacturers to put their products' durability to the test, Blackstone building committee members hurled pieces of furniture off the roof. That's thorough.

And they were willing to go the extra mile.

"It's best to see a sample of a product, not just a swatch," Fitzgerald said. "See it and see its real wear and tear." Putting miles on the odometer is especially necessary when products are large, like flooring or dividers.

Not only do such excursions allow you to see the real McCoy, but it is the perfect opportunity to ask questions of those who've been there and done that. How has the product held up to real wear and tear? How does it handle kids or tracked-in elements like dirt or snow? How has custodial staff rated it for ease of cleaning or maintenance?

When the time finally comes to look at designs, it also pays to bring knowledgeable players to the table.

"The composition of the building committee is really important," said Arthur Jackman, Blackstone school district technological director and member of the building committee. "It's not usually experienced people."

Comprising committees of people who can bring technical expertise to the complicated process of understanding blueprints and design proposals not only makes for great brainstorming sessions, but is financially savvy too. Costly change orders resulting from misunderstandings by well-intentioned but less-equipped committee members can wreak financial havoc on a project or derail it altogether.

Of course, a crucial ace-in-the-hole is having a project manager at the design stage employed by the facility or owner to interpret all material and paperwork. Knowledge is power.