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Workers Scramble to Get School Ready

The parties involved in the ongoing construction at the Our Lady of Good Counsel School cooperate to complete last-minute fire code compliance regulations before school starts.

While area schools were wrapping up classroom decoration touches last week, a construction hitch threatened to delay the first day of school at the Our Lady of Good Counsel School in Vienna.

County building inspectors discovered late Friday, Aug. 22, that portions of the older school building weren't up to present-day fire code standards. As a result, the school and the Arlington Diocese, its construction contractor and subcontractors, the architects, the fire marshal and county building inspectors had five days to bring the building into compliance before Labor Day weekend and the opening of school on Tuesday, Sept. 2.

"It's unprecedented in our career that this cooperation had occurred," said principal architect Jared Willcox of LeMay Erickson Architects, remarking at the short time the parties involved had to fix the problem.

To meet the deadline, workers put in 12-hour-plus days and drove out of the area to pick up special building material. The last of four county inspectors approved the school building at the close of business on Friday, Aug. 29 at 5:30 p.m.

"It is not uncommon to find at the last minute minor problems," said Roy Pavone of V.F. Pavone Construction, the contractor responsible for the church and school's construction project. "But I've never had anything that was a code compliance issue that keeps you from opening a building."

For eight weeks this summer, construction crews had been busy working on an $8.5 million-dollar renovation and expansion of the church and school, which will be completed in spring 2004. The project, which broke ground in October 2002, calls for the construction of a new parish hall, chapel and school gymnasium. Our Lady of Good Counsel also intends to renovate the parish narthex, the school media center, the kindergarten and school administrative offices, and other areas of the school building.

Yet on Friday, Aug.22, while inspecting the latest construction, county building inspectors discovered a flaw in the older 1959 school building. The building didn't comply with the fire code for an educational institution. The school needed a one-hour fire separation between the lower level and upper level classrooms. In order to create that separation, construction crews had to dismantle some new construction and put the new fire safety measures in place. But before they could start, the contractor needed special building material, such as fire-rated sheet rock. To finish the job in time, workers made several trips out of the region to pick up the material.

"The challenge was acquiring the quantities and number of items in basically a week or less," said project manager and architect Rob Kifer of LeMay Erickson Architects.

Meanwhile, architects had to design and implement a proper envelope and an electrical and duct system that would bring the building up to code. Once the designs were in place, the construction contractor replaced all of the ceiling tile, modified the duct system, and called their drywall subcontractor last minute. They started work at 6 a.m. and didn't finish until 7 or 8 at night.

"We had no time, so we were doing all this verbally," said Pavone. "It was by far the toughest thing we ever had to do to open a building."

Once the majority of construction was completed, the county fire marshal's office and county inspectors Dan Williams, Guy Tomlinson and Todd Connors made sure the building followed fire safety, building and plumbing codes.

"We've never had anything we couldn't open, and we take pride in getting things open," Pavone said. "But I was truly amazed looking at what we had to do in three or four days."

Four county inspectors came by on Friday, August 29, before the last one gave approval for the building to open for the first day of school. The approval came at 5:30 p.m.

"What struck me and made the greatest importance was working with Fairfax County and the positive attitude they showed," Kifer said.

Willcox agreed, "They bent over backwards because they saw the efforts being put forth by the owner, by the contractor, by the architect."

A Fairfax County representative replied that because the other parties had done their work, it made their job easier. Yet the county is used to the last-minute rush of cases needing approval before schools open in September.

"It's not unusual for the work to go up to the wire," said Ray Pylant, director of commercial inspections for Fairfax County.

Construction crews are still at Our Lady of Good Counsel completing other phases of the renovation project. Yet many are relieved the school's roughly 500 students were able to start school on time last Tuesday. Once the school got the OK from the county for re occupancy, maintenance staff and teachers spent Labor Day weekend moving desks and setting up some kindergarten classrooms.

"I was very pleased with the level of cooperation involved," said Rev. John O'Neill of Our Lady of Good Counsel. "The parents are very pleased. And of course the students, they returned with very positive emotions."