Originally posted Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Written by Owners Perspective

Kodiak Island, Alaska, where he works as Director of Engineering and Facilities for the Kodiak Island Borough. For the 2010 Fall Owners Leadership Conference in Tampa, he travelled 4,500 miles, bringing with him several other employees of the borough. Owners Perspective sat down with him to find out what makes the trip worthwhile.

A. Is it really worth it to come to these things? The answer is “Absolutely—it’s very worthwhile.” Our unique situation is that we’re very isolated, and we don’t often get to rub shoulders with people in the business.

Q. Why do you choose to attend the COAA conference, as opposed to other conferences you could attend?

A. There are other organizations that provide very good construction management and project management education that I would be interested in. But the focus on the Owner’sperspective rather than the design perspective or the building contractor’s perspective is what attracts me to COAA.

Q. Are there other conferences that offer the Owner’s perspective, or is COAA unique in that?

A. I’ve attended the CEFPI conference— a group similar to COAA. But it’s more a group of designers who get together, and collaborate, and share ideas about educational facilities and building schools. It’s for designers, and architectural firms, and suppliers who all congregate and discuss. They don’t get into the management problems and challenges that the Owners face as deeply as I’ve found answers to those challenges at COAA.

Q. You brought a number of colleagues with you this time, right?

A. Yes. The borough assembly, which is the elected body, has an appointed volunteer committee, which is called the architectural review board. It’s a group of construction professionals who volunteer their time to review architectural proposals. They’re the committee that selects architects after reviewing their proposals and then works with the architect. At each benchmark in the design process, the architect comes in for an architectural review meeting, and this board scrutinizes their work and makes recommendations for local constructability. This board works very closely throughout the design process, and they spend a tremendous amount of time. I can’t give them a stipend; it’s not really in our policy. But I was trying to figure out a way to recognize them and give them some kind of benefit for all their work. They provide the most value of any volunteer board the borough has— and we have many of them. I figured that taking one board member a year to a COAA conference would not only be kind of a fun trip for them, but they would also gain the kind of knowledge that they could bring back and help in their roles as board members. Last year, I budgeted and was actually able to take two board members to Indianapolis. They were truly overwhelmed by how beneficial it was for them. This year, I budgeted for one again. The Chair went to Indianapolis last year, and he wanted to go again, but he knew that two years in a row wasn’t fair, so they selected the newest board member. The Chair works for the school district, though, so he was able to get the school district to fund his trip. I also took my construction manager, and our architect brought an engineer and another consultant. So we had six or seven people there.

Q. What did your colleagues see as especially valuable in the conference?

A. Our big challenge right now is that we’re undertaking the largest construction project in the borough’s history. It’s a really challenging project—we have to build it on the same site; it’s a tight site; the school is going to remain in session; and there’s going to be some renovation, some demolition, and some new construction. It’s a $76 million project and will probably take three years to construct. It’s probably going to be the largest tax increase that this borough has ever levied against its property owners, so there’s a lot of pressure to be very effective with funds. We’re very familiar with designbid- build. Well, this project is going to have to be phased. Design-bid-build delivery requires thoughtful solutions for every challenge ahead of time, and you have to have that in the bid documents, or you’re in jeopardy of delay claims and excessive costs that contractors can legitimately bring. There are other delivery methods, such as designbuild, or construction manager at risk, or design assist, and all these other delivery methods that we have read about and basically understand but have never done. So, having said all that, the opportunity to rub shoulders with and ask questions of people from larger jurisdictions who have much more experience and sophistication in these different delivery methods is extremely valuable to us.

Q. What is unique about COAA’s membership that makes them so enjoyable to spend a week with?

A. You know, I come from the private sector. I’ve been a contractor, and I’ve been in private business pretty much all my career, so this public sector stuff is new to me. And there are lots of challenges, and it’s very difficult for me because things happen so slowly. You have to get all of these approvals and go through the bureaucratic red tape before you can really make a decision or authorize something. But the thing that really amazes me—I sort of had this epiphany in Tampa—is that one of the really positive things about working in the public sector is that colleagues in other jurisdictions are so helpful, and open, and willing to help, and share their secrets, and share their hard-learned tricks, and what to watch out for, and best practices, and mistakes they’ve made. In the private sector, people want to hold that closer to their chests, because they’re trying to make a profit. If they’ve learned a trick, they could leverage that for profit. That’s the thing that I absolutely love about COAA. You collect all these people from all over the nation who are very willing to share their knowledge. Here we are from this little tiny jurisdiction that is very isolated—you know, there’s no road to Anchorage; there’s no road to any big city. To be able to go to a conference where people are doing this business on a large scale, having done projects like this for many, many years, is just a wonderful thing for us to be able to bring back to this town.

Q. What were the highlight sessions of the Tampa conference for you?

A. The stars really lined up for us. We haven’t used BIM to any significant degree before. Some of our designers have used it and displayed it to us, and at previous COAA conferences I’ve seen it and heard the advantages of it and been totally sold on it. But we learned a lot more about the realities of BIM and how far to go with it. It’s an evolving technology. It’s an evolving process. Some of it’s not quite mature. There are possibilities there that are just awesome, but what’s great about the conference is that we can ask people, “What depth of BIM do you think design firms and contractors are going to be able to produce that is going to benefit our projects?” That’s the sort of day-to-day experience that’s really helpful to us.