A Quick Route to Saving Lives

Replacing the life safety systems on campus is hardly a newsworthy feat. Scheduling to complete the task for 24 of a campus’s older residence halls in a mere six years is just short of insane.

And yet UMass officials are pulling it off with few hitches.

UMass — The University of Massachusetts Amherst — began addressing the upgrades back in 1979, taking the next decade to complete work at 10 of the 46 residence halls on campus. A state law required officials to retrofit eight high-rise residence halls with sprinklers during the 1990s. But after the tragedy of the Seton Hall dormitory fire in 2000 that killed three students and injured 58, UMass officials decided to ramp up its upgrade program significantly to install sprinklers in the entire collection. The current schedule, launched in 2005, calls for construction crews to complete five in 2008, and 16 more by 2011.

In Massachusetts, projects requiring a building permit must include upgrades to emergency light and exit sign systems, and must address any other significant hazards, particularly those involving exits. Also, projects like sprinkler retrofits that exceed $500,000 must conform to the state’s accessibility code that requires an accessible entrance and accessible public toilets. According to Michael Lucey, the facilities engineer in UMass’s Housing, Maintenance, and Operations Department, about one-third of the sprinkler projects the university has completed so far need some of this additional work.

The kicker: Construction crews can’t move in until the Tuesday after Memorial Day, weeks later than other schools have dismissed students and held graduation ceremonies. Contractors call the two-month work window “the summer slam” in the first place — waiting this long for empty residence halls really puts a crimp in the possibilities.

Working Backwards
Because they can’t afford to lose a single workday, UMass staffers like Eric Hamm, the capital project manager in the Facilities and Campus Planning Department, begin strategizing their next move nearly a year in advance. As the program progressed, the project team developed a number of creative approaches to expedite the process of designing, bidding, and constructing the upgrades to keep the schedule on track, including beginning projects with a combined study/schematic design phase that then moves directly to the CD/bid phase, rather than taking a traditional SD/DD/CD approach.

The idea is to draw up design specifications for future buildings in the summer (in 2007, Hamm claims he was a bit late, not putting those out until August), the better to allow the architect to stroll through the buildings while they are empty. “He’s not hindered by having to be escorted into the student rooms, and it minimizes questions on ‘who are these guys with clipboards running around our homes, taking pictures?’” said Hamm.

They also install detailed mock-ups of planned upgrades in several residence hall rooms so that all authorities with jurisdiction can do a walk-through prior to finalizing the designs.

Next, the University invites contractors to examine the premises during Winter Break in December, in order to study the situation before making their bids in January. Once the contracts are awarded, these firms are expected to return during Spring Break to conduct their field measurements and other hands-on assessments. The early bidding also gives the companies time to prefabricate much of the piping they’ll need, as Lucey pointed out.

“Then, after Memorial Day, construction crews descend on the campus like we are invading Afghanistan,” said Rand Refrigeri, P.E., chief fire protection engineer with RDK Engineers out of Boston. “It’s a very hectic summer because any date we miss for housing is a disaster for the University.”

That’s one of the reasons Hamm also bids out the buildings as three individual projects rather than a single job. Only a handful of larger contractors could handle the timeframe with a large volume of work, which would reduce the price competition considerably. “And if someone didn’t get the first bid, they could re-evaluate what they felt it was going to cost and attempt to get the second bid,” he noted. “We wound up with three different contractors for the three jobs we put out.”

In fact, to ensure things stay on this competitive track, the Facilities and Campus Planning Department puts out a letter to inform as many contractors as possible in New England what is coming up, and a rough idea of the budget the University has in mind. “We have benefited, unfortunately, from the economic downturn,” Hamm added. “While it wasn’t quite evident when the 2008 bids were starting to come in, since then it has become pretty obvious that contractors are really looking for work in this area right now.”

No Snags
Thanks to such meticulous planning, the frenetic pace has caused only minor problems to date. Take, for instance, the plan to use exposed plastic sprinkler piping to speed installation in three buildings during the summer of 2007. Sure enough, the plastic was easier to put up. “But what we didn’t realize was that the pipe is orange, and the sunlight would come and bounce around, making the residence rooms’ off-white walls glow a dastardly orange,” Hamm said. The problem held true even when the orange hue was on the backside. “That one, we pulled our hair out for a while.”

Eventually, the university found a painting contractor that could successfully paint over the offending color. This year’s building specifications call for steel piping in two of the buildings, and concealed plastic pipes in only one of the residence halls. Refrigeri reports a few head-scratching moments as crews figure out how to position sprinkler heads according to code and still fit with the design of older buildings, too.

“Being aware of the schedule so far out and trying to hit milestones has created a great benefit,” said Hamm. “Everyone involved on the University side has gotten into a routine, so we know what to look out for and what to expect from the designers and contractors.

“Every minute is worth it. We are called the Commonwealth of Massachusetts rather than a state, and the way I explain it is that the children of our state are our common wealth,” he summed up. “Obviously it is our job to educate and send them off to their lives safely.”

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