January 20, 2019

Well Worth The Wait

Unveiling the high school the Town of Guilford has been waiting for…

Its interior spaces are subdued and striking, their palette of calm colors and “Guilford Apple Green” bathed with soft, natural light from glazing that seems to be everywhere. There is a peaceful sort of energy flowing at the brand new Guilford High School. It’s a building that principal Rick Misenti unabashedly pronounces to be spectacular.

Building the new high school is the first major school construction project in the seaside town of Guilford, Connecticut, population 22,000, in decades. A lengthy service life was wrung out of the old high school with strategic additions and clever patches. But in the town’s mind, the time had come when no more patches would do. The time of waiting for a brand new school was over.

A three-year, $92M project to erect a 225,000SF building and develop acres of roads, parking areas and playing fields, it is far and away the largest building project ever undertaken by the town. The first of its two phases began in July of 2013 with the removal of a baseball field and the building of temporary access roads, contractor staging areas and the new school. The second phase, underway since June, has seen abatement at the old school and its sequenced demolition; that will be followed by the construction of a bus loop and student parking area this fall followed by two new playing fields in the spring. All work will wrap up in May of 2016, unless the town moves forward with a proposed change to upgrade a playing field to synthetic turf which would extend the work by several weeks.

At the helm of O&G Industries’ construction management team overseeing the project are Project Manager Dan Hetzler and Project Engineer Tim Chan. Hetzler returned to Connecticut after ten high-pressure years building commercial space in Silicon Valley. This is his eleventh year with O&G and the fifth school he’s worked on. Chan is a civil engineer who had interned with O&G, did civil site design for two years after college and rejoined the company when a position opened in 2012.

Sitting back in the job trailer a stone’s throw from the new school on a late afternoon in August, as clusters of incoming freshmen were being toured trough the new halls and just ten days ahead of the first day of classes, Hetzler and Chan look back at the building of the school.

Chan speaks about his interactions with school personnel. “They’ve been primarily with the deans, Principal Misenti, the IT staff and the secretaries. Everyone has been easy to work with. Their questions are mostly about dealing with all the new features here. I don’t think many of them have been given a brand new building before and they’re not quite sure what to do with it.” Chan and Hetzler both play the unofficial dual role not just of project builders but project concierges of sorts, amiably fielding the questions and requests of staff and visitors.

“I’m especially pleased with the detail that was put into everything,” Hetzler comments. “When you stand in the student center and look down the midline of that space, the wood ceiling aligns with the reveals of the acoustical panels which line up with the reveals of the sheet rock which line up with the windows. Tat’s a testament to the team on site and to the general superintendent watching that controls are maintained.”

O&G partnered with Fusco Corporation of New Haven who assumed the general superintendent role. Fusco’s Jeff Scull, says Hetzler, was instrumental from groundbreaking through occupancy. He was late joined by Alison Tarsi to supervise punchlists and the turnover of the building.

“The town’s been very happy with the milestones being met,” adds Hetzler. Guilford’s Superintendent of Schools is Dr. Paul Freeman. He’s participated in multiple school development projects in his 20-plus years in education and has worked with O&G before. He has been involved with the new Guilford High School since his first day in Guilford five years ago. “From our perspective we didn’t know the difference between Fusco and O&G. The cooperation and partnership has been seamless. I realize this has been a demanding job. It seemed like the building team had to serve multiple masters including the community at large who took a significant interest in it and expected to be active participants. O&G has done a masterful job balancing all the voices and concerns. They’ve has been extremely responsive to the town.”

In the project’s opening months the Building Committee found itself  with a significant windfall. After  the project buyout, the process Hetzler and company exercised to review all bids and select the lowest responsible bidders, there was a cost savings for the town of  $5M. The question then became where to best invest – reallocate, really – the newfound money. Nearly 20 candidate items were proposed, each with its advocates but not enough money to complete them all.

If there has been one sticky spot for Hetzler, it is this: the Committee requested the most time it could have to debate and choose the add-ons and still keep to schedule, and Hetzler and team have obliged. With one eye on production and the other on the calendar, Hetzler and Chan have chafed at the bit to keep moving ahead.

Of all the school’s features designed by Tai Soo Kim Partners of Hartford and architect Jesse Saylor, perhaps the most striking is the theater, a 600-seat venue for students and community. The construction of its engineered acoustic details required close coordination with the designer who would regularly visit the site. With rows of catwalks, precisely angled acoustical baffling along the walls and “clouds” suspended high above the floor to hold and hide lighting and sprinklers systems and provide additional acoustic baffling, Hetzler chose to exploit BIM 3D modeling. Normally reserved for MEP trades, BIM added clarity by visualizing the theater and other spaces in three dimensions to aid the architectural trades building it.

One of the first challenges confronting construction was the physical closeness of the functioning, 1960s-era school to the new site, just 20 feet away at its tightest juncture. It allowed site access on three sides, not four, with limited laydown area for materials. “That’s where the power of a good general superintendent comes into play,” says Hetzler, “because he can keep activities moving without losing somewhere else. Fusco’s involvement has helped everybody.”

To meet the compressed schedule, the site has been open and active every weekend for two years. Without exception the team was on site, managing. For the small O&G/Fusco management team, personal time gave way to the responsibility of ensuring that work in place was completed and no precious time was lost.

Misenti has been a principal for 26 years and, he jokes,  is “remarkably still alive.” He is thrilled. He refers to his new school as a “spectacular creation,” giving high praises both to the architects who designed the space, with its interplay of patterns and abundance of light and views, and to the team that translated that vision into functioning space. “Both Dan and Tim have wonderful personalities that have nurtured the project. They have taken us step by step through the construction. They think ahead for us, they answer all our questions and they always get back to us in a timely manner. They’re just a wonderful part of the team.”

The Chair of the Building Committee is Guilford resident Scott Pinckney, himself a senior construction manager at STV in Hartford with 20 years of experience running construction projects. He’s been involved with the project for five years, nine years when you include the time given to various siting and feasibility studies. “O&G has a reputation for integrity and for being a stand-up company and they maintained that reputation here,” he says, thoughtfully. “I’m ‘old school’ and I appreciate doing business on a handshake, and that’s the feeling I had working with O&G. That’s a rare find today.”

Until the last details are checked off next May, Hetzler says his project will remain in crunch mode. “There’s no float in the schedule. We’re marching through the milestones, working with a high level of finishes, building for discerning people who know the industry, and with high expectations   from the town.” And that’s nothing new to the crew finishing up at Guilford High School.

DSC_0157 DSC_0209left to right, top to bottom

Cafeteria under a two-story atrium; the school’s main gymnasium; 600-seat theater featuring engineered acoustics, a stagefront riser and professional quality sound and lighting; Chan (left) and Hetzler outside Guilford High School’s East Entrance