For Wake County Public Schools, Balfour Beatty More than Makes the Grade
As builders, we often measure the magnitude of our work in series of statistics. Whether it’s square feet, man hours or schedule duration, these numbers speak to our industry’s widely accepted performance objectives. But sometimes, the sum of our input and output doesn’t quite get to the heart of the matter. Because every now and then, we’re fortunate enough to build structures capable of transcending the steel and concrete of which they are comprised to change lives for the better. And while Balfour Beatty has built thousands of projects that inspire and impress, in perhaps no city across the country is our team making a more immeasurable impact than in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Just ask the citizens of Wake County. They’ll tell you what can be achieved when a construction manager understands that in order to build great projects, a company must first embrace its responsibility to be a good neighbor. They’ll extol our project teams for recognizing that schools are an extension of the communities they serve. But don’t just take our word that the over $400 million in work we will complete for Wake County Public Schools from 2013 to 2019 is indicative that Balfour Beatty is Raleigh’s education builder of choice. Better yet, take a virtual tour of three new schools Balfour Beatty brought to life. Envision the children—a senior reciting a Shakespeare sonnet in Apex Friendship High School’s state-of-the-art theater, a seventh grader learning to curl her fingers around a saxophone in Pine Hollow Middle School’s band facilities and a classroom of seven-year-olds listening with delight as the Green Magnet Elementary School librarian regales with tales of Wilbur the pig and his spider savior, Charlotte. It’s all been made possible by a construction partner that dreams right along with the public, principals and parents of progressive learning environments where children can explore their passions.
From Population Explosion to Education Revolution
In 2016, Balfour Beatty managed an impressive 950,000 square feet of construction for Wake County Public Schools. This building boom is a direct result of the county’s expanding population, which according to the U.S. Census, grew by 43.5% between 2000 and 2010. It’s an explosion so hailed it even has its own hashtag: #64peopleperday. While the demographics have changed, the school system, too, has evolved from employing a hard bid, single prime contracting method to preferencing a Construction Manager at-Risk model—an inherently more collaborative, cost effective and schedule conscious approach. And a model Balfour Beatty just so happened to have perfected working on ten of the universities in North Carolina’s higher education system.
Most recently, Wake County Public Schools has moved towards the design and construction of more technologically advanced and flexible learning environments defined by features like exterior facing classroom towers to provide students with natural light and moveable furniture to support diverse modes of learning. While Balfour Beatty’s team in Raleigh had delivered first-rate projects for clients like BlueCross BlueShield and even the award-winning Wake County Justice Center, according to Johnny Rankin, executive vice president for Balfour Beatty, the opportunity to partner with the local school system over the past decade has been a “badge of honor.” There was a community to build, and Balfour Beatty was uniquely poised to deliver.
Like a Good Neighbor…
Not just any general contractor could have answered the call. Though they may not boast high-end finishes like imported stone or inlayed wood, make no mistake, the hurdles are as high as the stakes on public education projects. A construction manager must be nimble enough to juggle multiple stakeholders—which can even include neighboring residents—and oftentimes, a host of laws governing land acquisition such as eminent domain and easements. And if you’ve ever had to wait in a carpool line, we don’t need to tell you that the study of traffic patterns is as important as the reliability of power feeds. If it’s necessary to widen existing roads or build new infrastructure, the list of parties just escalated to include the local and/or state Department of Transportation along with power and cable companies, affecting logistics plans and materials deliveries. When it comes to meeting schedule deadlines, education contractors have less wiggle room than kindergarteners waiting in a lunch line. All told, it’s work in which the best building partners become de facto extensions of the school systems they serve, and perhaps no one in the industry assumes this role better than our vice president of operations, Tony Stoneking, who consults with Wake County Schools on projects Balfour Beatty isn’t even building. The work? Complex. The contractor? Cut from a different cloth.
Take Pine Hollow Middle School for instance. The new 149,000-square-foot school, which encompasses a three-story classroom wing among other traditional amenities, appears like a relatively straightforward project. But out of the gates, Balfour Beatty was dealt a two-month schedule delay due to permitting challenges—time that couldn’t be tacked onto the schedule’s end, as Pine Hollow is a year-round school. Add significant offsite utilities and roadwork to that equation—including the diversion of a stream and addition of a culvert to channel water across a new roadway—and it’s easy to envision why this team may have, at times, felt a little like the project was a particularly hard-hitting game of PE dodgeball.
But rise to the challenge Balfour Beatty did, delivering the open, light-filled school in 16 months, delighting Pine Hollow principal, Andrew Livengood, and school administrators every step of the way. “I can’t imagine anyone being more accommodating,” praised Principal Livengood. “I never heard the word ‘no’ when I’d ask to tour the site or see photos. I’ve been through other construction projects, and holy cow this team went above and beyond!” With a deep understanding of our fiduciary responsibility, Balfour Beatty developed an innovative solution for the school’s retaining wall, lowering it by 10 feet and saving taxpayers $150,000. But Balfour Beatty didn’t just oblige the owner. For the neighbors whose properties were affected by land rezoning or construction activities, Balfour Beatty facilitated the re-routing of power lines, re-sodding of lawns and re-building of fences. And before we left the site, we planted 2,800 pine trees that will beautify the campus for decades to come.
Our work on the 315,000-square-foot Apex Friendship campus was equally high-profile for its role in consolidating three high schools and equally complex for the two miles of major infrastructure improvements that ran concurrently with our construction work. Few who have beheld Apex Friendship’s awe-inspiring wall of windows—a hallmark of its impressive classroom tower—or the school’s theater—an acoustic and artistic masterpiece capable of rivaling many a professional performing arts venue—would know that Balfour Beatty inherited this project from another contractor after preconstruction had already completed. Or that the school served as a mock-up for future projects. Or even that to ensure the school was surrounded by a sea of plush emerald at turnover, Balfour Beatty began laying sod even as the 26-month project came out of the ground. The end result is so stunning that Principal Matt Wight views the building as his best recruiting tool. “This is an efficient, well-designed building. Our media center is the nicest in the county,” he commended. “Kids love coming here, and teachers want to work here. When our band director toured the new building, he asked, ‘where do I sign’?”
Though Principal Wight may believe he lays claim to the title ‘best school in Wake County,’ Dr. Lisa Brown may respectfully disagree. She oversees Green Elementary, a 95,000-square-foot magnet school where new spaces have become synonymous with new beginnings. Balfour Beatty abated and demolished the school’s aging building, originally constructed in the 1950s, which no longer kept pace with modern educational needs—not to mention its leaky windows and antiquated HVAC systems. “A school is not just its building,” said Dr. Brown while the project was being constructed. “But it’s tough to ask a teacher to be engaging if he or she is freezing, and it’s hard to instill a sense of pride and self-confidence in children when they don’t have a matching environment.”
To deliver this exceptional new building, Balfour Beatty managed construction activities on the highly trafficked Six Forks Road; utilities work necessitated tying into a water line by boring under that same road. Despite these challenges—and contending with an unusually rainy winter that saturated the site with more than 12 inches of water—the project team delivered the school three months early. Today, Green Elementary is a place that stokes imagination and invites journeys of self-discovery. Its colorful touches, which can be found from the floor tile to ceiling ductwork, provide warm wayfinding cues. A life-size wooden frog—Green’s mascot—was carved out of an oak tree cleared from the site and now sits pensively at the school’s entrance. They’re just some of the many ways Balfour Beatty helped create a new home for Green Elementary that embodies the character and camaraderie of such a remarkable educational community.
It goes without saying that managing multi-million dollar education projects which require the coordination of hundreds of people across multiple companies as well as public officials takes a good construction manager. But what it takes to make a project truly great is a company that understands the broader context and purpose of the projects it has been entrusted to build. Though the craftsmanship of every school we’ve built for Wake County is exceptional, it is Balfour Beatty’s focus on the intangibles that make our work stand out—even shine—amongst the competition. Intangibles like leaving a project team member onsite for the first week or school or handing out our business cards to residential neighbors before construction begins. Intangibles like attending a high school’s first home football game. We do it all anticipating the day of the ribbon cutting ceremony, when we’ll listen to students beam with pride about their new facility, knowing that while real success in our industry may be difficult to measure, it can absolutely be felt by the heart.
“Everything is beautiful
All shiny and new
With some touches brought in
From our old school too
So please come in
Feel free to roam
To Students and staff
We’re finally home!”
- Excerpt from original poem written by Green Elementary student and read at ribbon cutting