Building Miracles Happen: You Can Have it All

Rick Stryker, PE
November 2016

Over the years, we've spent a lot of print space talking about how to do any number of things, and mostly that's been focused on the nuts and bolts of the construction. We have not, however, spent much time talking about whole projects from beginning to end. That's mostly because they can get so complex that it's really easy to get bogged down in the details, which after all, is where most projects set their roots in success or failure long before the first nail is driven. Recently, I caught up with some old friends and learned about a camp building project that I had begun with them before I moved from northeast Pennsylvania to Montana. Like any venture, it had ups and downs, but, ultimately, it turned out to be such a spectacular success that I couldn't imagine a better topic.

The Setup

In the winter of 2013, my client called and asked if I could meet him at camp (buried deeply in the snow) to talk about some development ideas being tossed around. It was a very bright, sunny (but wickedly cold) winter day. We walked around the property as he told me that they wanted to build a new duplex cabin. We'd been working together 12 years already, and we both knew about the challenges ahead. Building on camp was more than calling a contractor, because the total occupant load was tightly set by the capacity of their wells and their sewage system. There is the first object lesson of the day: The discussion about how to meet basic needs for this new building occurred during the earliest concept meeting. The second lesson came on its heels as soon as he mentioned utilities, because his plan was to replace bed space bunk for bunk, and therefore there would be no net increase in occupancy. He had already pared the project down substantially, and it now required no permits from the State Department of Environmental Protection. This was going gangbusters from the starting gate.

Over the next couple of hours, we walked around the buildings that would be replaced and discussed lots of important factors. Many of these had already been considered, such as the architectural style. The new buildings would follow the existing look and feel of the camp with clapboard siding, double hung windows, and roofs all visually similar to the old ones. Of course, budget was another driver. Although a generous donor was fully behind the project, the organization was going to have to budget for and commit a significant portion of their own funds. After all, this was still camp and economy was king. And if money was king, then schedule was the queen. He asked what I thought was a reasonable timetable. Knowing the schedule for camp, I estimated that if everything went perfectly, construction could begin after camp ended in 2015, and the new buildings could be ready for the 2016 season. At first, he thought that seemed like a long time away, but he reconsidered after weighing all that still lay ahead.

One more element that put this project in front of others was that the decision to replace these cabins was being made in the context of a programmatic shift. The organization had decided it needed to actively invite campers with a specific range of special needs, and that instead of trying to shoe-horn modifications onto existing buildings, this would be the first step toward a whole campus renewal. This new bunk would be the prototype and it would roll in the facilities necessary to accommodate a new population of campers and their assistants.

"Here's a list of the things we could think of," my client said. "And here's a friend to us who has been working with our board and committees to shape the outreach to specific communities. She'll be a great resource as you design the bunk."

Wow, I thought. If I didn't know him so well already, I'd be a bit intimidated. He's really out in front of this. How am I going to break the bad news?"

While I didn't have any idea that I would be moving in less than six months, I am not a designer of buildings — not in any way, shape, or form. That's a whole different skill set, and I told him that straightaway. He seemed disappointed that I simply didn't feel right about stretching myself for this "simple project," but he said he understood. I offered the name of an exceptionally talented architect, who, though he hadn't worked on a camp to my knowledge, would provide the best services of anyone I knew. Over the months that followed, the camp's facilities committee and board followed a careful and deliberate plan to select an architect. Eventually they chose my local colleague, Jim Spinola, AIA, of Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, an authority on small, specialized, commercial construction. His intimate familiarity with the relevant codes and the administrative processes would prove to be the game changer.

The Plan

Concept plans had been an integral part of the vetting process, and those served as the starting point for the building design, which began in earnest. By working with the camp's friend, the architect was very quickly able to incorporate the necessary components and features. There was, however, one fly in the ointment. After the camp was built in the 1960s, Pennsylvania adopted a commercial building code in the early 2000s that included the provisions of the fire protection manual. This had become an enormous stumbling block to camps across the state. From long homes to country retreats for children and adults alike, the requirement for fire protection had universally been interpreted by contract plans reviewers as "automatic sprinkler systems." Camp after camp was forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars to install enormous storage tanks and power fire pumps to meet this requirement when they wanted to build on. But as is often the case, there was more to the story. As it turned out, many of them simply failed to prepare with enough time and care at the outset. By failing to plan ahead, they chose an expensive route by default and the conclusion among the camps in the area was: "You can't build without sprinklers. They won't let you."

For years, I have sounded a monotonous drumbeat about choosing qualified professionals to help plan your facilities well in advance of when you want to build; it will pay dividends in the long run. For this project, that approach paid big time. No bribes, threats, or angry confrontations with the building code powers that be were required. Instead, Spinola simply knew the applicable codes and designed to meet the stated intent of the code, which is not to stop or extinguish a fire, but to provide occupants time to evacuate. His solution represented a logical response to the code by specifying common building materials, careful arrangement of the space, and providing multiple routes of egress all to meet the requirements. He anticipated the building reviewer's rejection of the preliminary design and prepared his presentation for the review board. Spinola didn't ask for a waiver for camp, mind you, but instead was seeking an appeal to a decision stemming from past practices instead of innovative design. That may sound like legalese, but it's really not. To put it another way, he wasn't telling the board that this project wouldn't comply with the rule, but that it proposed compliance in a way that they hadn't seen before. The board heard and accepted his well-reasoned and solidly supported presentation that demonstrated his design contained no compromise of the occupants' safety whatsoever. As a responsible and competent design professional, he instead interpreted and implemented the intent of the code rather than seeking the standard, far more costly solution.

The project was approved for construction without building sprinklers, a storage tank, or any fire pumps. The dollar amount they saved was well into five figures. The new building project was screaming "Success!" and they hadn't even selected a contractor yet.

The Execution

The final project plans were approved, they took bids for the construction in the spring of 2015, and a local contractor was selected to begin demolition as soon as camp emptied in August. As with any construction project, there were some rough spots along the way. Not knowing (or perhaps disregarding) the reasons behind the specified materials and methods, the contractor submitted alternates that didn't meet the requirements (like foundation waterproofing). The back-and-forth caused delays as the contractor claimed stock unavailability, excess expense (job was bid at lump sum), and other similar troubles. Eventually, the approved plans won out and construction began. The contractor was paid incrementally for work completed, with a percentage withheld in a fund called "retainage." Again, this was a bit troublesome, but also again, the terms of the contract had been clearly spelled out at the beginning. As it turns out, that retainage will just about cover the finished grading and landscaping that the contractor hasn't been able to get to since the building's certificate of occupancy was issued last spring.

The Final Story

In the May/June 2013 issue of Camping Magazine, we looked at a hard-and-fast rule of the construction world: Right, fast, or cheap — you can pick only two of the three. In this case, camp was the big winner in that by planning ahead and allowing a highly qualified professional to help them bring together all of the things they needed and wanted, camp got a brand new facility right. They constructed a code-compliant building to accommodate special needs campers without having to install expensive and troublesome infrastructure like a separate water and fire sprinkler system. So they got the project cheap. Lastly, my client occupied his project on time because the whole process had begun early enough to allow all of the other pieces to fall into place. In the construction and engineering world, "on time" is so rare that I'd be willing to call it fast.

Their recipe was no secret, and no magic was required. Every organization that's willing to commit to a clear process, work closely with their consultant, and compromise along the way can achieve their facility dreams. It begins and ends with program: Know who you are, who you serve, and who you know needs to come to your camp for opportunities that are as unique as they are. In the middle is foresight, planning, hard work, and dedication to the development of the facilities that will provide the backdrop to deliver those life-changing programs that make your camp special.

In spite of my earlier column's assertion, it turns out that you can have all three in the same project: right, cheap, and fast. I'm glad I was wrong.


Rick Stryker is a professional engineer who is passionate about camps and the opportunities that they provide. He's always delighted to answer e-mail questions at rstryker@reagan.com.