Pursuing a multimillion-dollar project can be daunting for a start-up public charter school. It can feel like every week you’re faced with a deal-breaking and enterprise-ending issue. And yet, schools continue to be built all over the country so there must be things that can help you navigate the obstacle course.
The three main categories of risk are: Schedule, Budget, and Quality. Here is your initial guide to the top risks in each category—and what you can do to help you sleep at night.
1. Schedule: The worry isn’t if, but how long there will be a delay.
Top Risk - Trouble Getting a Building Permit
Every city and town has their own process for issuing the building permits that authorize you to start construction. Some processes can be very complicated, involving stormwater management reviews, environmental studies, zoning approvals, and neighborhood support, along with detailed compliance with various building codes throughout your drawings.
Often major financing is conditional on securing the building permit. And being able to open on time is directly tied to starting construction on time. So there is a ton of pressure near the end of design to get every detail right and every step of the building permit process happening smoothly, but something will inevitably get stuck.
What can help:
- Finding out if the permit office has an ambassador or advocate program, that helps non-profits and/or schools understand and navigate the permit process.
- Scheduling appointments with key administrators like the head of zoning, when you have your basic concept, to explain your project and get their advice on what to expect and plan for as you move forward into design.
- Engaging zoning counsel.
- Requiring your design team to have previous experience preparing documents for your jurisdiction.
- Hiring a permit specialist. Sometimes they’re called ‘permit expeditors’ but their greatest value will come from a specialist who can offer strategic advice on navigating the process like splitting into different permits. (To find a permit specialist ask for referrals from the permit office, from other schools, and from local builders. Strong Owner’s Representatives will also include this in their portfolio of services.)
2. Budget: The worry isn’t if, but how much the price will go up.
Top Risk - Construction Going Over Budget
Construction can be impacted by so many factors that can go wrong outside of your control and your builder’s control. Steel prices can escalate. Tariff policies can change. Weather can be unseasonably bad. Underground streams can appear. Products can be discontinued.
How much you finally pay in the end for construction will inevitably be more than the original price. This is true even when you have a Guaranteed Maximum Price (known as a GMP) contract.
What can help:
- Setting your overall project budget to include a strategic amount in a contingency fund.
- Having a good amount of time in the schedule for the architects to generate high quality drawings.
- Engaging construction contract counsel.
- Being clear in your construction contract about what the builder pays for, what their contingency funds should cover, and what the process will be for change orders.
- Having lists of what could be added to the project late in construction and what could be deleted, to help manage the budget. (This is standard risk management practice of strong Owner’s Representatives.)
- Hiring cost estimates at key design milestones. Estimates by pure estimators can offer great detail, while estimates by builders can offer local market insights. (To find a cost estimator ask for referrals from other schools, and from local architects. Some builders offer preconstruction services like cost estimating, that you can similarly find with referrals from other schools and architects.)
3. Quality: The worry isn’t if, but to what extent the quality will be compromised.
Top Risk - Technology “Fails”
We are no longer in the days of blackboards and overhead transparencies. Schools are heavily reliant on internet connectivity for everything from interactive white boards, printers, and individual tablets to access control, climate control, and sophisticated building monitoring systems. Technology is moving at a pace that some of what you purchase will no longer be the newest thing when you open the building. Through design and procurement, you will be weighing priorities for redundancies versus distribution, and ease of maintenance versus specialized functionalities..
What can help:
- Having your operations manager on board when design starts. It can be a staff hire or a service provider, but have a specialist in the day-to-day use of technology in schools, participating in the design discussions.
- Researching available grants and buying programs that your project may qualify for, to enhance your budget, and learn about product choices. This isn’t just the FCC’s E-Rate program. Ask other schools, authorizers, and operators for every lead they have on alternative funding sources for technology.
- Selecting a vendor to be involved in the design, purchasing, and installation of information technology, so they are vested in hitting deadlines for placing orders for the critical products and for the materials with long lead times. (To find a vendor who specializes in schools and who understands design, procurement, installation, and servicing, ask for referrals from other schools, local architects, and local builders. Some architects will have specialist designers, and some builders will have pre-approved installers. Consider taking all of the input you can get.)
Every construction project has its challenges and they will hit the schedule, the budget, and the quality. But a school might feel like it has additional pressure. It is squeezing all financial resources. It needs to not only open on time but maintain the parents’ confidence that it will. And it is relying heavily on technology to work well. So expecting and preparing for delays, additional costs, and quality compromises, can make these inevitable obstacles easier to navigate as you keep moving to the finish line.
Building a school facility can be an incredibly rewarding experience, and a pivotal milestone in a charter school’s history, and ability to serve. But you’re going to need your