As the necessity for a quality collegiate education grows in a competitive global marketplace, the arms race among universities to provide first-class facilities and amenities that will attract students and faculty to campus continues to escalate. A college or university is its own thriving ecosystem with many different types of buildings, each with diverse complexities and nuances that require specific knowledge of the applications and fundamentals needed for renovation or expansion projects.
Hoar Construction’s recent HVAC renovation for a residence hall at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, provides an example of how collaborative spirit and extensive preplanning can create new efficiencies that allow projects to be completed faster and at a more competitive price point. This project also illustrates how implementing processes that zero in on previous missteps from earlier-generation projects can significantly shorten the overall timeline.
The project at Texas A&M involved a complete renovation of the HVAC system at Aston Hall, a 45-year-old dormitory with four floors and 240 rooms. Texas A&M had been through multiple HVAC renovation projects on its campus, all of which had been cumbersome and ultimately delivered well past the original target. The renovation of the HVAC system involved the installation of a dual duct system that is served by both chilled water and heating hot water air-handling units. Texas A&M requested this system to eliminate water from the spaces where students live after experiencing issues in the past with water leaks that damaged student belongings. The university also prioritized ease of maintenance, and much of the maintenance involved with the installed system can take place in the mechanical rooms.
The school requested that the renovation project for Aston Hall be finished in 11 weeks, which was an extremely tight timeframe to deliver such a complex project given that similar assignments at other residence halls on campus had taken many months to complete. Despite the high expectations placed by the client, extensive preplanning, effective communication, and the ability to innovate all helped to keep this project on track and on time.
Hoar Construction was selected as the construction partner in September of 2018 after JonesDBR was brought on as the MEP design firm. JonesDBR had worked on the previous HVAC renovation projects at Texas A&M and brought an intimate knowledge of the specificities and complexities of working within these types of buildings. From the start, time was precious. Materials needed to be ordered by January in order to arrive on time for the kickoff of physical construction in May. The time between September and November was spent working with the design team and the school in preplanning.
Since a previous HVAC renovation project had taken place in the residence hall right next door, a viable design had already been created that could be repurposed for Aston Hall. This allowed the job to get started sooner than it would have if a completely new design were to be created, with just a few tweaks to the original design to accommodate slight changes in the layout of this building from the last. Additionally, this allowed the mechanical contractor to be selected earlier and the pricing to be configured quicker compared to the previous jobs. A lot of fine tuning and detailed adjustments were implemented without adding any time to the schedule.
Preplanning also allowed for the design to be carefully planned out and fine-tuned before executing the work inside the dorm. One of the biggest challenges with this renovation was getting all of the pieces to fit and doubling the ductwork from the original system, which was a single-duct reheat system with VAV boxes. In addition, the design for the new system included a lower discharge air temperature, which allowed the team to decrease the size of the ductwork in the tight space.
By the end of October, the mechanical contractor had been onboarded, which allowed the team to go to the site to examine the HVAC system that was currently being used. Project leaders took notes and measurements, which guided new feedback they supplied to the rest of the trade partners on revisions for the ideas and approaches in the original plan that needed to be addressed. The ability of the mechanical contractor to quickly integrate into the team and study the building on-site before actual work started allowed for the whole process to flow much smoother while ensuring a clear vision that would help avoid the costly change orders and slowdowns that had plagued prior renovations at other dorms.
With so many players involved, preplanning required effective communication and organized input from several different parties, including the university itself. By the second week of scheduling, several lists had been put together and interviews took place with the various teams involved on previous HVAC projects at the school.
A 2018 survey by Concrete Construction found that miscommunication accounts for 48% of all rework on U.S. construction sites. Learning how to utilize consistent communication and preconstruction planning can cut down waste and make the entire project run more efficiently.
Fortunately, the partners from the past jobs were open to sharing what mistakes were made and where areas of improvement could be found for the next renovation. This transparency made the preplanning and scheduling phases easier and more detailed for the work to be done on Aston Hall, especially with inspections. Past lessons were reviewed to ensure every detail was covered, with teams coming to the work site on major holidays and weekends so inspections would happen on time. The dedication and willingness to go the extra mile were key ingredients for success.
Another vital factor in keeping things on track was the use of off-site warehousing to oversee prebuilding for the renovation so that everything was ready to go by the time the installation process happened. In addition, a full-sized mockup was created in the warehouse so that all the trade partners could go in and do their work, and the client could come in and give inspections as each team finished their individual parts. This mockup allowed the school to find areas that needed adjustment in the system months before the actual construction on the site took place.
The Concrete Construction survey also found that on any job site, construction teams lose as much as two full working days each week due to the time spent solving avoidable issues and rereading data to restructure project plans. The mockup also played an essential role in making sure every party involved in the project was aware of client expectations and knew what areas needed improvement going into the final phases, ensuring work crews could hit the ground running. Prefabrication was done here, allowing for tests to be conducted in the preplanning stages, such as leakage checks. Utilizing an off-site warehouse shaved time off the schedule and helped identify any outstanding quality issues before the renovation process began.
SOFTWARE & INNOVATION
The renovation process itself was an iteration of the previous work on other residence halls at the school. That history enabled team members to create preemptive measures that would help them maneuver around any problem issues that were identified from prior projects and also ensured a seamless transition from scheduling to construction. While Aston Hall was similar to the other buildings on campus, new challenges still arose that required additional modifications to existing plans. A new software system known as SmartSheet allowed construction managers to efficiently document and organize issues that emerged and also helped to keep everyone on the same page. This software, paired with day-to-day communication, ensured that no duplicate problems arose during the renovation.
Acquiring a specific can light fixture posed a major schedule challenge on the job. The manufacturer continued to delay the ship date until the team had to make a decision. Ultimately, the team decided to use a less favorable, but schedule-friendly, light fixture to replace the existing can lights. This allowed Hoar to stay on schedule and still provide the LED replacement the university was seeking.
Another challenge that arose was a change in scope to add kitchenettes on two floors of the residence hall. These were priced during preconstruction, but the team decided not to pursue them due to the strain it would put on the team to complete the project on time. University leaders decided to change course and put them into the project after construction had started. Trade partners, who had not been previously contracted, had to be engaged to create submittals and procure the necessary building materials to build the kitchenettes. It was essential the team was on the same page during submittal review in order to ensure the material could be ordered and received on time. Submittal approvals were received in less than three days and were able to order the material and maintain the current schedule.
The collaborative spirit of all partners involved was what ultimately allowed this project to deliver ahead of schedule. Team members were working 70-80 hours per week during the summer with leadership balancing accountability with appreciation and added incentives in order to keep morale up and the timeline on track. The superintendent on the job worked hard to make sure each step was completed based on the schedule previously given to the client. Daily huddles in the mornings and afternoons were the norm, as was close oversight to make sure each person was getting their share done on time. This kind of leadership and close communication was not just necessary for success but kept the teams motivated and on the same page to finish the drill.
Ultimately, the success at Aston Hall was powered by effective communication and leadership. The collaborative spirit alone kept each person moving forward and driven to deliver what was promised. On a renovation project of this scope, each day comes with the possibility of new setbacks, but it is up to the team members and their ability to talk through these challenges on a daily basis to avoid causing disruptions to the schedule. The renovations at Aston Hall finished five days ahead of schedule and created a new blueprint for how extensive preplanning, effective communication, and innovation can provide a positive outcome for a project. Now more than ever, major capital projects at state universities and other public institutions require all parties involved to be a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars. By following this three-pronged formula, general contractors can position their firms as a valuable resource for their clients while also creating a track record of efficiency that will generate new opportunities for growth and success in the decade ahead.