Building for Independents

They could not have expected, in the spring of 1962 when O&G put the first shovel in the ground on its first school venture – a parochial grammar school in Torrington – that it would be the beginning of over 290 school projects completed since then. That makes O&G the state’s largest home-grown player in school construction – private and public, elementary through university.

Seventy-nine of those 290-plus school projects have been for prep schools, the independents. It is a notable accomplishment considering the numbers. In 2020, according to online “Boarding School Review,” there are just 24 top college-preparatory and junior boarding schools in Connecticut, compared to 1,179 public schools.

Projects performed for independents apply the same construction methods and build similar spaces as their public school counterparts, but at their heart they differ. Some of the differences are easy to see. Public schools, for instance, are sometimes razed and remade, or rebuilt in new locations in their communities; private schools almost exclusively rework their campuses, happily anchored to a space that tradition has defined for them.

Other differences in private school construction are not as obvious. We spoke about them with the owners of two current projects and the O&G staff building them: The Gunnery in Washington and Miss Porter’s in Farmington, and O&G’s Project Manager Stuart Wiley and Superintendent George Givens.

The money is hunted and gathered – manage it like it’s your own.

In the public arena, the monies for school projects are disbursed from town and city governments first, with large infusions granted from the State of Connecticut to bridge any gap, up to 80% of the cost depending on the particular town or city’s demographics.

Not so in the world of independent schools. Typically a private school project must gestate until the right conditions bring it to life. After a vision begins taking shape, securing the funding becomes the driver. Drawing funds from tuition would be a long game. Sudden significant gifts from alumnae can kick-start a job but they are not the norm. So acquiring monies involves the creative art form of fundraising, which can make it a much longer
process.

“By the time we get involved they’ve already been thinking about this project for years,” emphasizes Wiley. He’s sitting at a table in the foyer of the newly opened Thomas S. Perakos Arts and Community Center at The Gunnery he and Givens helped build. Both Wiley and Givens are chiseling down a punch list of final project details and transitioning to the Miss Porter’s building project for its June start. “It’s not like construction for a town where you have people fighting for a project and others fighting against it. At a private school everyone is on board. It’s much more unified. It feels more personal.”

Unlike public projects, private construction isn’t automatically awarded to the lowest bidder. Matters of trust and reputation and relationship all factor into the choice of contractor. Wiley again: “They’re looking for personalities that fit who they are. ‘Who’s going to look out for our best interest, who’s going to save us dollars, who’s going to get it built on time?’ They don’t have state funding behind them. They only have so much.”

A builder’s reputation in the market is certainly important, but overriding that is the confidence we have in the ownership and the people of O&G.

Micheal Bergin, CFO/COO, Miss Porter’s School

When an independent school selects a builder to oversee their project they look for people who will partner with their vision. They’ve been planning and raising monies, often for years. They are tremendously enthused about the project, and they want a builder on board who understands their culture, builds for lasting quality, and assigns the right personalities.

“I told Stu,” Givens relates, smiling across the table at Wiley, “you’ll build a relationship at Porter’s and that will come from managing their money. Making it like it’s your own. You do that and communicate that, that’s how you build a relationship.”

At The Gunnery, Michel Williams was hired to be the school’s project manager (and director of campus security – private school staff often have multiple assignments). He would be the school’s everyday interface with the builders and architects needed for the projects in mind. An agreeable man with wire-rim glasses and a Patagonia vibe, as well as a veteran of college campus work, Williams fits the setting. He talks about how he realized the importance the school placed on its finances in a public and unexpected way. When Head of School, Peter Becker, stood in the foyer of the brand new arts and community center to formally open the new space to a throng of staff and students, he asked Williams to come forward. “I’m used to being the guy in the wings,” he says, “but Mr. Becker introduced me and said, ‘This is the guy who watched the school’s money.’ And that has really stuck with me.”

The process is more streamlined – use it to everyone’s advantage.

Public school projects involve after-hours meetings with a committee of city employees and volunteers from a variety of backgrounds. They meet with representatives of the architect and builder, usually monthly on a given week night, for the duration. Reports are given, questions asked and decisions made at these monthly meetings.

At The Gunnery and Miss Porter’s, the schools are represented by a single staff person – an owner’s representative at The Gunnery and the CFO/COO at Miss Porter’s. They are immersed in its culture. They understand their school’s particularities and its history. They are present on campus most every day and that streamlines the process.

“There’s more flexibility working for a private school,” says Givens. “I’m dealing more one-on-one. If something isn’t right it’s a smaller world for me to deal with, once you build a relationship.” Wiley adds to it: “You don’t have to go before a committee on their timing. You talk to the school’s point person. He can make a decision on the spot, or make a call and involve the administration and ask what they’d like to do if that’s needed.” In either case, using Wiley’s favorite metaphor, the ball moves up the field.
For Givens and Wiley, the focus on proactivity and flexibility and improving the job doesn’t waver. Sometimes that means tackling a lost-sheep detail themselves – like finding metal trim samples or caulking around some windows or hanging a weather vane, rather than waiting for resolution from a trade. “Schools don’t want to hear that you’re hung up on something small,” Wiley has seen. “They want to see that you care and are taking care of it.”

This kind of immediacy is fertile soil for a management methodology called Lean construction. “The game of construction isn’t checkers, it’s chess,” says Givens. He has been a proponent of the Lean methodology for running a construction project and of all the advantages it brings. Winning managers like Givens and Wiley think multiple moves ahead, and they exploit Lean to that end.

Lean’s goal is to have a project diagrammed months out, visually, on 4×6 sheets of white Masonite board that represent the calendar of the project, hung against a wall in job trailers for every subcontractor to see. Color-coded Post-it notes – it might be blue for electrical work, for example, or yellow for excavation – spell out work packages. They are stuck to the board in sequence. They are there for various reasons but a primary one is to help the team spot new interactions for efficiency. One contractor might have a crane coming to the site, for example, which could prompt another contractor to “pull” (Lean terminology) their work ahead of schedule to piggyback that crane for a task that had been planned for a later date. A strength of the very visual Lean method encourages efficiencies like that. It’s a win-win for the O&G team on the ground and the owner whose project schedule is accelerated.

Lean is a strategic work flow tool but it’s axiomatic that the tool is only as useful as the user is adept, and that, in the world of construction, ties directly to experience. Superintendents and foremen with decades in the field have the upper hand. They use Lean to create opportunities. “Having experience,” the 45-year veteran Givens says simply, “you just think much further than the next move.”

Relationships underscore everything.

This is the greatest difference of all.

To begin with, relationships are the anchor of the private school experience for students and staff. It’s the norm to feel intense belonging and a life-long affiliation – a forever relationship with a prep school family and even the buildings and grounds themselves.

Michael Bergin wears two hats at Miss Porter’s, those of Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer. He talks about the project just underway with O&G to expand what the school calls Main, short for the Main building. Main is the picturesque, brick- and-white-columned building fronting Main Street most people associate with the school.

He talks about its history, how it was built in 1831 as the Union Hotel to service the construction of the Farmington Canal, while that lasted. In 1866 Sarah Porter purchased it, for $8,000 he points out, and moved in her growing boarding school. It is relationship to history, tradition and the Porter’s community that has motivated the expansion project.

“We considered building new elsewhere on campus,” says Bergin, “but we really preferred an adaptive re-use of Main. It’s a beloved space for everyone coming together for meals and special functions. The dining room is the heart and soul of a boarding school, the place where our girls and community gather multiple times a day. We’ve just outgrown it so we’re expanding it.” The main driver? Belonging. Ensuring that everyone can assemble in one common space with no one left out. Maintaining a look for the addition that returning ancients will still recognize is also important. (“Ancients” is the affectionate term alumna of Porter’s go by.) Bergin is clear: “We will honor the history of this place,” he says.

Relationship figures between prep schools as well. A close-knit group, they network and share information. The Gunnery, for instance, contacted Miss Porter’s to talk about building their new center. More accurately, friends Christopher Cowell, The Gunnery’s CFO and Business Manager, and Michael Bergin had a talk. Bergin endorsed O&G given the earlier success of O&G’s conversion of a grist mill into an admissions center: on- time delivery, easy communication, quality work, fair price and “getting” the Porter culture. Givens was the superintendent on that job.

Unlike a public project, assembling a team of contractors is largely the purview of the project manager, which is to say that as Wiley and Givens assembled a team for the owner they were free from picking solely on lowest price. They solicited bids from contractors who would “fit,” whose work they knew and whom they trusted, companies with local ties and a team mindset.

During construction, Michel Williams appreciated how Givens and Wiley, unassuming and helpful by nature, were quick to give him an assist at The Gunnery. “If George or Stuart saw something of significance coming they’d pull me aside and say, ‘I want you to be aware of this’ and educate me so the project would stay on track.” They were strategic in asking for torque from the school. “We need to address this issue in a letter,” Givens would say on rare occasion. “If there was something I needed to get the administration in on for leverage I’d invite the CFO to a meeting. That was rare, which speaks to their effectiveness in getting things done,” says Williams. When an aspect of the project was new to Williams – site plans were, for instance – Givens and Wiley showed him all he needed to know. “What I’m really looking for is good, straight, honest communication. They always had a response that was appropriate to the situation and they didn’t coddle me. George was great at that and never condescending.”

For Bergin, relationship drove his decision to work with O&G again. “A builder’s reputation in the market is certainly important, but overriding that is the confidence we have in the ownership and the people of O&G,” he says. “This is a really huge job for Miss Porter’s and I was responsible for picking a firm that would be a partner. There was strong competition for this project and O&G was not the lowest bidder. But O&G has the bandwidth to resolve any challenge that comes along. We have an established relationship. They’re on our side and I trust O&G.”