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Back to School

In speaking with six wall and ceiling contractors around the
country who do school work, the good news is that this market appears to be generally on the upswing,which helps make up for other sectors that are not. The bad news is that there
appears to be a number of factors that make this market not as
appealing as it might be.



In California, with its well publicized financial woes, you might
think that the problem would be there would not be enough money for schools. But, says Daniel Cook, vice president of Dasco Construction & Drywall, Inc. in San Jose, Calif, “There
are so many new school projects coming out this summer, I don’t know who’s going to do the work.”



Cook, who reports 80 percent of Dasco’s work is schools, and
is currently involved in five, from elementary to high school,
says a major problem “is too many state inspectors who misapply the codes. They are far stricter than they need be. They can take three hours to look at 30 feet of wall. They hold everybody up. One job is three months behind schedule because of
this.”




Always an Issue: Getting Paid



Cook says he’s paying probably double the workman’s compensation than he was a few years ago, though that goes into the bid. He adds that though the company has had jobs for a
few private schools that went bankrupt, most of the schools,
including colleges and universities, are publicly bonded, “so at
least we know we’ll get paid.”



“We’ve done an awful lot of schools, which have been very strong
in the Midwest for about the past seven years,” says Thomas
Panek, president/CEO/owner, Minuti-Ogle Co., Inc, Oakdale,
Minn. “At one time more than 50 percent of work was schools.



But in about the last three years, a number of school bonds have
not been approved, so we’re seeing a shift for us into hospitals
and retail. We’re still doing several schools, though not as many
as before.”



Some of the challenges in the K-12 plus junior colleges and colleges the firm has done, Panek explains, is that “as opposed to the standard brick-and-mortar buildings in the past, there’s much more veneer plastering. Architects are using innovative wall systems, using curves and skylights.In the auditorium areas, the ceilings have a more commercial look, like you’d find in theaters. The designs are also innovative in terms of multiple use.
For instance, at the Wayzata High School we did, meeting rooms
are also used for City Council meetings and other functions.”



A major problem in doing school work in the Midwest, Panek
says, “is that drywall and plastering has a lot of competition. With
a slower general construction market and the large number of contractors, prices have been driven down. We’re not able to get our money’s work or maintain the national average for profitability.”



Lack of Coordination and Wages



Adding to the problems, Panek believes, is the schools use of
construction managers through whom the bid is sent, as opposed
to the general contractor. “I believe the schools do this because
they think they will do away with hidden costs. But I’m not too
sure this is the case. The construction manager gives the subcontractors a lot of flexibility, but I prefer to work for a general contractor; he stays much more in control of the project and
moves it along at a good pace from start to finish.”



Having similar feelings about construction management is Bart
Rickelmann, vice president, Acoustic Ceiling & Partition Co.
of Ohio, Inc., Dublin, Ohio. “The way the schools are run under
construction management is that the
manager will put out the bids. All the
subcontractors will make a bid, and, if
it’s the correct one, the vendors contract
with the owner, and the construction
manager does the paperwork, ” Rickelmann says.



“But the problem is,” he continues, ”is
that there is a lack of coordination
between the trades. As a drywall ceiling
contractor following the other trades, we
get bounced around a lot. The general
contractor in this situation doesn’t have
the clout to get the plumbers, electricians,
or other trades moving. The other day Glory and Growth
they tried to bring cabinets in and set
them down while we were doing the ceilings. It got to the point where we almost
had to lock the doors. That kind of stuff
is stupid. Here in the Columbus area
there are hundreds of millions of dollars
in schools work. But you have to wonder why you or anyone else wants to go
after that. There are so many disruption
points. Contractors on site are suing each
other. The construction manager has no
liability, zero liability. He just shuffles the
paper work. And subcontractors get further and further behind schedule.”



Rickelmann, who reports that about one
third of the firm’s work goes to schools,
says that another problem with schools
is that they have opened bids to the “prevailing wage,” that is to say, to contractors who pay nonunion wages, and this
affects him because his company is
union. “Every other state project except schools requires union wages,” Rickelmann says.



GLORY AND GROWTH



Chris Dutton, project manager at Spectrum Interiors, Inc.in Erlanger, Ky.,
says there is not so much in new projects as renovation in his area. “About 10 to
15 percent of our work is schools,” he says. “We do both the lower grades and
university work. The university work is more complex, with higher degrees of
finishes. And with private universities, you can often negotiate a little more.”



For the secondary schools, Dutton says, safety is a big issue, in more ways than
one. Parents and taxpayers generally tend to scrutinize the areas more carefully.
“Many want to come in while we’re working, and we have to explain nicely
why it’s not safe, ”Dutton says. “On the other hand, when the work is far enough
along, we allow students and others to come in on tours.”



One nice thing about doing schools, Dutton adds, “is there’s a lot of gratitude
in school work, much more than in a retail project. Members of the school
board, principals and administrators, parents and students get a lot more excited
about the project, so you get more satisfaction in doing it.”



Dennis Gittemeir, vice president of GBI, Inc.in St. Charles, Mo., says that schools
are only about 10 percent of his work, but he has a particularly interesting one.
“Lindenwood College had about 2,500 students in the early 1980s, but now has
about 14,000, so it’s really been growing.”



More growth means the need for new buildings. GBI started with a four-story
student center in 1999, a $950,000 contract for the $18 million building, plus
two dorm buildings each with a $650,000 contract for $14 million buildings, with
two contract for two more dorm buildings under way “It’s developing into a nice
little niche,” Gittemeir says. “As the school gets more and more students, it needs
more and more facilities.”




What’s interesting about the projects, Gittemeir says, “is the school has kept to
its traditional look of red brick gothic with white lime stone, roofs with a 45
degree angle pitch to them, big round columns with big capitals at the top,
while the insides are completely modern.”



For the student center project, the entire first story of which is a cafeteria, study
halls and other activity rooms, with the upper three stories being dorms, GBI
won second prize from the local wall and ceiling contractors’ association, for its
drywall, metal stud and insulation work.
“The interior of the student center was really modern, ”Gittemeir says, “with
curved walls and curved ceilings.”



Lindenwood has recently moved up to a higher level in sports ranking, so
Gittemeir hopes to find more work in this arena as well.



TIMING IS EVERYTHING



As with all school projects, the client wants the work done before classes start
in the fall. But Gittemeir has no complaints about school work, and hopes to
do more of it, especially for Lindenwood. “It’s a good school to work with, for it’s
a private college, and it actually has the money set up for a project before the
work begins. So we invoice by the 30th
of one month and get paid by the 30th
of the next. Most clients pay from 45-60
days at best, so Lindenwood is one of our
best customers.”



Also having only good things to say
about school work is Garrett Wickham,
president, Acoustic Ceiling & Partition
Company, Ann Arbor, Mich. “We do
quite a bit of school work, and noticed
it’s really grown over the past couple of
years, so now it makes up about 35 percent of our business,” Wickham says.



Interestingly enough, Wickham also
works through a construction management system. He says, “They control the
architect, the bidding project goes smoother and that seems to flow right
into the construction. ”When told about other contractors who have had problems with this system, he replies, “It works well for us. One of the positive
things about working with our construction management system is we get
paid well.”



He says there are some scheduling problems, but “I guess where we benefit is
that we have a pretty good size work force, upward of more than 200 in the
summer, so these jobs need to be done very quickly, but because of our man power base, we can do that.”



Wickham adds that, “Overall, in our area
in Michigan, the economy is still slow
on the commercial side, so our added work with schools is really helping us
out.”



And now that most schools have sent the
students home for summer vacation, it’s
time for the contractors who do school
construction to get to work.

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