Planners of new school rethink union labor

Building professionals suggest how district can save money on project

Posted: Monday, March 31, 2003

Juneau's proposed Mendenhall Valley high school can be built on time and within budget, according to a recent professional review of its design. But reviewers said significant money might be saved if the city doesn't require all-union labor.

An outside group of architects, engineers and builders completed the three-day "peer review" of the school's schematic design Friday with praise for its design, but offered many recommendations on how to save money or improve the school.

The schematic design shows the layout of the rooms and the exterior of the 1,050-student, $60.8 million school at Dimond Park. It's a step toward the detailed drawings needed to construct the building.

"The money's doable, the time is doable," said review facilitator John Holst of Sitka, a former school superintendent and principal. "You've got a really good design."

But the group warned disputes that delay bidding the project could push back construction by a year and add nearly $2 million of expense as prices rise.

Some Juneau Assembly members and School Board members have disagreed in the past about how big the school should be, or whether its design needlessly increases construction costs.

Review team member Dave Ferree, facility director of the Fairbanks schools, said the schedule to award bids in April 2004 and finish the school by July 2006 is "very tight."

"What that means is you've got to move forward from this point. There can't be any sideways movement or backward movement," he said.

The peer review suggested a number of changes, such as how to route traffic around the school and how to save money by using different materials. But the most politically charged idea was to not require that every worker belong to a union.

The city has required that condition for some projects, such as the current $21 million renovation of Juneau-Douglas High School.

The Juneau Assembly began that sort of requirement, called a project labor agreement, about five years ago on large construction projects that use a diverse crew of tradespeople, said City Architect Catherine Fritz.

"The idea was to have the city work cooperatively with the trades so the city would be sure a qualified pool of labor would be available to the project at all times," she said.

The city, in turn, agreed to commit to union labor, although not always for all the trades on each job.

But developers said the city over time has increased the requirement to include all the unions, and it adds to construction costs by reducing competition from bidding contractors. Large projects can have 30 to 40 subcontractors, not all of which are represented in Juneau unions.

"In a broad sense, any time you're restricting competition, you typically increase your costs," said review team member Pete Dawson, owner of Bellingham, Wash.-based Dawson Construction.

Some non-union subcontractors wouldn't want to sign up with a Juneau union and so wouldn't submit bids to a general contractor putting together the overall bid for the project, Dawson said.

He said his company added $500,000 to its unsuccessful bid for the JDHS renovation because of the requirement. Review facilitator Holst said the union requirement could add $1.8 million to $2.5 million to the Valley high school's cost.

"You're talking about one of the largest single items you can identify in this whole process," he said.

Non-unionized subcontractors willing to sign up with unions for the Juneau job would face added costs, increasing their bids, Dawson said. The companies would pay into their own benefits program, hoping to retain their workers in the future, and would be required by the contract to pay into the Juneau union's benefits fund as well.

Assembly member Dale Anderson said the Assembly is "pretty active in figuring out how to save money" and could look at the union requirement. "It would be an interesting discussion for the good of the community."

But, he said, "If there are areas of (trade) expertise that are in Juneau, we need to carefully look at local hire and make sure these job opportunities are available."

Assembly member Merrill Sanford said the peer review puts cost savings "all out on the table for us to make a good decision on. And it will go back to a bit of politics."

The city's labor agreements may raise costs but they help local workers, who spend their money here, he said.

Among the peer review's purely architectural ideas was to have one, south-facing entrance for the school, rather than the two main entrances the plans showed. Along with that, the review team suggested separating staff parking, student parking and school buses from each other.

But School Board member Mary Becker said placing the entrance for bused students at the side of the school contradicts the idea of having one main entrance that can be monitored by administrators.

The team suggested ways of adding more locker rooms and gym bleachers and a weight room at no added cost by reducing other space. Each square foot of the building will cost an estimated $204 to build.

The team also suggested simplifying the roof design and adding a lighted, glass-enclosed cupola over the drum-shaped central area of the school. Reviewers said the drum design, which some have said is too expensive, adds about $500,000 to construction costs but is worth it as a distinctive architectural feature.

Using different finishes on the school's exterior and in the hallways could save about $1 million, the reviewers said. Technical reviews of the proposed mechanical and electrical systems included many suggestions that would save construction and operating costs.

The school has been designed by the Juneau firm Minch Ritter Voelckers Architects, consulting with the national architectural firm Fanning/Howey Associates.

"A peer review is a good chance to bring in a fresh set of eyes, with professionals representing virtually all the disciplines involved," architect Paul Voelckers said.

"... I've been really pleased at the level of comment that came up, and I think it will make it a better building."

Local voters in 1999 approved about $50 million in bonds, subject to some state reimbursement, for a Valley high school to serve 1,200 students and be expandable to hold 1,500 students. Some of that money has been spent on planning and design.

Juneau voters will decide June 3 whether to add $12.6 million in bonds for the Valley high school. If voters reject the bonds, the city will build a school to serve about 800 students, without an auxiliary gym or a commercial-size kitchen.

The city expects to receive at least 60 percent state reimbursement of the total bonds' principal and interest.

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