When it comes to charter school building, speed is king. From the time an owner is granted a charter, the owner has less than a year to acquire property, obtain permits and approvals, and erect a school building in time for the start of classes in autumn. “It’s an aggressive construction schedule,” says Art Ostrander of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Bouma Construction.
Oftentimes, Ostrander says, Bouma is asked to build a 45,000-square foot school in 18 weeks or less. It’s usually not a problem; the company’s record-fast time for school construction is 12 weeks on a school in Indianapolis. “The weather cooperated, and so did all the subs!” Ostrander says.
Speedy construction is important for Bouma and its shell contractor, Tailored Building Systems, who have performed a healthy business in charter schools over the past decade. Charter schools are growing at a brisk pace nationwide, and rural builders that can figure out how to capitalize on the trend will be rewarded with a steady source of jobs.
Charter schools have been around for about 15 years, beginning with two in Minnesota in 1991. According to the National Education Association, there were almost 3,000 charter schools in operation in 2004, in 37 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, enrolling approximately 750,000 students. More than one-third of those schools had been in operation for three years or less, while more than 400 other charter schools had gone out of business between 1991 and 2004.
These schools are publicly funded elementary or secondary schools that have been freed from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools, in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results. The schools are sponsored by a variety of state-approved organizations, including a state board of education, university, community college, or local school district.
According to National Heritage Academies, the schools’ voluntary enrollment structure is intended to make charter schools more accountable for student achievement; accordingly, the schools’ autonomy extends to personnel decisions, curriculum development, and operational methods. They receive state funding on a per-student basis, just like traditional public schools.
While charter schools are funded like other public schools, their facilities can not be funded or built like public schools, and are privately owned by charter school companies. “They’re looking to build as much as they can for the least amount of money while staying within codes,” says Tailored’s Jim Simon.
In 1995, Michigan entrepreneur J.C. Huizenga came to Bouma with a challenge: he wanted the company to build a charter school building for half the price of a traditional public school building. Bouma had worked with Huizenga before as an interiors contractor, and took on the challenge of creating a code-compliant, efficient school building in a tight timeframe. The result was satisfactory, to say the least. “He was so pleased, we’ve built every school for him since — over 50 schools,” Ostrander says.
A big part of the success has been Tailored, a Grand Rapids company that has built about 60 charter schools for various companies. When working with Bouma on the original school, Vanguard Academy in Wyoming, Mich., Tailored presented post-frame construction as an alternative to other building types under consideration. “Because of dollars, flexibility, and speed — in that order — they chose our post-frame design system,” says Simon.
The Bouma-Tailored relationship has worked well. Bouma puts together the architectural and engineering consultants, and self-performs most interior construction, while Simon works on the structural engineering for the building’s shell. It’s a role with which Tailored, in business since 1967, is familiar: the company has more than 7,000 projects completed.
“I think we’re spoiled with Tailored up here in the Midwest,” says Ostrander. “It’s hard to find building shell contractors of that same caliber. We’ve come to expect what Jim provides for us, and we haven’t found another Jim Simon yet.” Bouma has worked with FBi Buildings on a charter school in Indianapolis, and Simon has suggested other top post-frame builders for locations in other parts of the country.
At first blush, post-frame does not seem like an obvious choice for school building, but its speed, flexibility, and cost efficiency make it an attractive choice for one-story buildings when compared to steel and masonry. “Now that we’ve built buildings like that for many charter school owners, we’ve met very little resistance,” says Ostrander. “If we do get questions, it’s never more than putting more masonry wainscoting on the outside, or using vinyl siding. Any issues have been exterior finishes, and we can put any on post-frame.”
Says Simon: “We had to educate them, but since year one it’s been, ‘This is great, let’s keep doing it.’”
For Midwest charter schools, posts are embedded in the ground. However, in North Carolina, Bouma is not allowed to put wood in the ground, and alternative methods are necessary. It is not much of an inconvenience, Ostrander says.
“A traditional school is a masonry and steel building,” he says. “We’ve gone entirely wood-framed with asphalt shingles on a pitched roof. The operational use of the facility is the same, and you save money in building construction methods, which is an advantage to the charter school operators.”
The schools can get fairly large. For instance, Tailored is currently working on a 106,000-square foot school building in Southfield, Mich., with 66-foot wide trusses for the main classroom wings and 86-foot clearspan trusses for the gymnasium. At the other end of the spectrum is a 24,000-square foot academy, which will feature a flat-roofed gymnasium with an 80-foot steel bar joist and deck integrated into post-frame construction.
Tailored performs structural design and engineering in-house for the shells. With the facilities as large as they are, tactics similar to commercial buildings are used — sprinklers, window requirements, exits, etc. The architect of record on the project becomes involved with the structural drawings, and he is responsible for safety issues. Architects are not known for their post-frame expertise, but Simon says that has not been a problem. “We don’t ask them to become experts at post-frame,” he says, “All we ask is that our spacings work with their layout, and they’ll provide us with a floor plan.”
Floor plans are often repeated from one school to the next. An example is the H style Bennett Venture Academy in Toledo, Ohio, a prototype Tailored has developed for one charter school company. The legs of the H are classrooms, while the center area serves as the gymnasium/cafeteria/kitchen/administration area. With Bennett Venture, the fourth, hind leg of the H was left off during initial construction, as the building would be finished when enrollment levels reached a certain level. The appearance in the interim might have seemed odd to passersby — the roofline and siding had an unfinished look — but as soon as school let out this summer, Tailored was back to finish the footprint. The scenario, in which a client needs more time to come up with funding to finish a project, is one Simon says is not uncommon.
“If we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we’re going to be more efficient,” says Simon. “It goes way beyond us, to everybody, from the guy carpeting to hanging the tack boards on the wall who knows where every plug is going to be. It’s a lot simpler.”
And faster. “With other construction methods like masonry, it’s virtually impossible to put up walls as fast as post-frame walls,” says Ostrander. “When schools are split into several wings, as soon as one wing is framed, the electrical and plumbing can be roughed-in right behind.”
These efficiencies translate into the speedy project delivery charter schools need. “Typically we don’t get to start until March at the earliest, and every one of these schools will have kids in it at the end of August,” says Simon. “The schedule is pretty driven, but the owners know we can get it done.”
As charter schools grow in popularity nationwide, so do the opportunities for school builders. In addition to Michigan, Bouma has done charter school work in Florida, Arizona, Indiana, Nevada, California, Georgia, both Carolinas, New York, and Washington, D.C. Tailored has worked in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Florida, and this summer heads to North Carolina. Michigan has put a cap on the number of charter schools in the state, so the company will have to travel for future school jobs.
The company has already traveled many miles, so to speak, in terms of its typical work location. While Tailored still does agricultural work, it has transitioned over the years to less-rural jobs, like charter schools, which carry their own hazards. “The worst thing we can encounter is theft,” says Simon. “You try to avoid that by using some storage containers that are pretty secure. But you can lose $15,000 in tools overnight, and you also lose in production while you retool up. We try to keep sites fenced in, not only for security, but for safety reasons, keeping people out.”
The high-profile school work has led to other, similar jobs. In one case, an architect driving by a charter school jobsite in the Detroit area was so intrigued by the building going up he peeled off the road and asked for more information. He then recommended Bouma and Tailored to Lutheran church clients in Brighton, Mich., who built a facility similar to the school layouts.
How long charter schools remain a booming market for Bouma and Tailored is uncertain. A recent New York Times editorial, citing a Western Michigan University study and singling out Michigan and Ohio, ridiculed the charter school movement and suggested it be abandoned. Numerous organizations have since denounced the study and the editorial, and some have renewed calls for lifting state caps on charter schools.
Political squabbling aside, Ostrander and Simon don’t see charter schools going away any time soon. “It’s really in its infancy right now,” says Ostrander. “A lot of states are just now adding charter school provisions, and they’re starting to prove themselves to be better performing than public schools. They’re really going to grow.”
Says Simon: “I want to be optimistic — not too optimistic — but I don’t see it ending within 10 years. I just think it’s going to keep going.”