Cooperating Constructively

Cooperating Constructively

Northern Virginia builders abandon competition to build $3 million daycare center on Richmond Highway.

“Turn key” is a bit of construction jargon that Scott Rabin uses to describe what his company, Utica Contracting, delivers. A project delivered “turn key” is done by one company, from groundbreaking to ribbon cutting. Utica takes responsibility for every aspect of building: making sure the concrete is poured, the plumbing is laid, the drywall is up, the light fixtures conform to code.

But on the site of his current project, Rabin uses “turn key” only to describe what his company is not delivering. As project manager for the construction of Hopkins House Child and Family Learning Center on a plot of land south of Smitty’s Lumber Yard, Rabin is coordinating more than 40 contractors who have donated or discounted materials and manpower to build a $3 million daycare center for residents of the Richmond Highway corridor. All of the participants belong to the northern Virginia chapter of ABC, Associated Builders and Contractors.

For Glenn Hopkins, president of Hopkins House, an Alexandria non-profit serving children, the Richmond Highway project has never been a case of turn key. He has been working 10 years to put a daycare center in the area, and compared the effort to giving birth. “It hasn’t been an easy thing.”

Although Hopkins House finally purchased land in 2001, it lacked the millions of dollars needed to build the to notch facility it envisioned.

Three years later, there was a breakthrough. After completing construction on a training facility for search and rescue workers, ABC was looking for a new philanthropic project for its members. The search and rescue building was essentially a shell, and had not required the services of many of the members, like electricians, carpet installers and painters. “They were feeling left out,” explained Angie Lynd, ABC’s vice-president. They wanted a challenge.

Hopkins House’s daycare center, which Glenn Hopkins had told his architects to design with the aura of the Walt Disney World Castle, fit the bill.

The completed building will literally open its arms to the community, with two wings extending from a central atrium. Besides classrooms and offices, the building will house a technology center with 25 computer terminals, and an indoor discovery center with a “biosphere.” It will hold about 100 students, and will also offer a community room for adults. Tuition at the daycare center will be based on a sliding scale, according to families’ ability to pay.

CONSTRUCTION on the project has been ongoing since July. Last week, carpenters from Homestead Building were installing roof trusses. Two utility contractors, Hopke and Griffith, were connecting pipes donated by yet more companies. By the end of the month, Rabin is hoping the building’s $90,000 roof will be mounted on the steel skeleton.

Instead of submitting turn key bids, competitors from across the region are working together to complete projects in their fields. Curt Damico, the president of RCD Inc. an electrical contractor, described how his company has worked with four competitors to power up the daycare center. John Flood of RCD has coordinated the contractors and the company has donated labor and materials. Ennis Electric is supplying a foreman. Beckstrom Electric has provided materials and labor. They prepared the construction site by installing temporary power. MC Dean Electric is supplying manpower. Loudon Electric is supplying support and materials. Paradigm Services is providing fire alarms.

“What I’m amazed about in this environment is that all competitiveness has seemed to have just diminished,” Damico said. “Every single person has worked together like they’re working for the same company, and I think that’s really cool.”

This approach is mirrored in every other part of the construction. Competitors are working together to build the parking lot and the exterior and interior walls. This process has allowed ABC members to contribute $1.5 million in goods and services, about half the total cost of the building.

BUT ABANDONING the turn key approach made coordinating the project more complicated. Referring to the parking lot, Rabin said, “there’s half a dozen things on the surface that were coordinated individually versus once.”

To make sure that one contractor is ready to pick up where the next left off, representatives from ABC, Hopkins House, Utica and the architects Cubella DCA started meeting every Wednesday morning 16 weeks ago. All the members of the coordinating team have seen the building’s rise from a hole in the ground to a grid of steel beams. Despite the complexity, the construction has rolled along with few logistical glitches. “It’s been seamless,” Rabin said.

The cooperative, rather than top-down, effort has been an opportunity for ABC’s Lynd. Although she works for an association that represents companies involved in every possible spectrum of building projects, she had never been intimately involved in a building’s gestation. “I got an education about how important it was to have all those interesting things running under the concrete slabs.”

Whether underneath slabs, inside walls or mounted ceilings, the state strictly regulates the material that can be used in a facility like a daycare center. So when asking ABC members for construction materials, the requests could become quite specific. “We can’t just have any door,” Hopkins explained. Almost always, the material ended up being supplied at a discount or as a donation.

For Patricia Mao, the project architect, the cooperative building model has entailed some flexibility with the original blueprints. “You definitely have to keep an open mind,” she said. Hopkins House chose a stucco-like material for the walls, but when L.F. Jennings offered an enormous donation of bricks, the plans changed.

Hopkins admitted he isn’t making Mao’s job any easier when he insists that the building’s “playfulness” be maintained regardless of the materials used in construction. With the center scheduled to open this summer, Hopkins is refusing to compromise on the “champagne vision” that, after ten years, has ceased being a mirage.