'Right time' for $500M campus build

Construction crews, absent since the mid-2000s from Wilmington's overbuilt banking and corporate headquarters district, are midway through a $500 million+ expansion of the University of Delaware campus in nearby Newark.

“We have the good fortune to be engaging on a majolyr campus construction project at exactly the right time: the construction industry is in the tank, and we have developed a major capital campaign. It's given us a choice of excellent builders,” says Delaware vice president David W. Singleton, who with school facilities executive Kathy Comisiak is coordinating work under Delaware's board and President Patrick Harker, who arrived at Newark five years ago (after serving as Penn's Wharton School dean) with a mandate to grow.

What's the advantage of doing big jobs in lean times? “Contractors are working wth much less margin,” says Lyle Frederick, project executive on general contractor Skanska's two-year, $80 million job site building four five-story Flemish-bond-brick-walled freshman dorms, totalling 800 beds, adjoining Delaware's aging Russell housing complex.

That doesn't mean doing the same job for less. Rather, bid competition has pushed builders to find ways to speed construction – “value engineering,” as Frederick puts it – by, for example:

- Using iPad-mounted software to schedule deliveries straight to work crews as needed, instead of letting bricks, framing, wallboard and fixtures pile up in storage sites;

- Setting up off-site modular construction shops so metal wall frames and other components – even bathrooms – can be trucked to the job and shimmed into place on upper floors, avoiding the need to keep crews on ladders on site in all weather;

- Negotiating lower materials prices with suppliers and shorter labor periods with subcontractors. For example, says Frederick, “Subcontractors can bid tighter, if they know there's going to be a prefab.”

Sitting in the trailer office complex set up by Skanska for the project, which is scheduled to wrap next summer,  Singleton ticked off other recent projects – “another major dining hall, a small residence hall, and another coming after that, the renovation of Allison Hall – that's one of our major classroom buildings – and the life-science research facility, that is about to have a major impact on this campus. And we're under constrution with the renovation and expansion of our (Robert W.) Carpenter sports building," named for a former DuPont Co. chief (whose clan later owned the Phillies) and known to students as “the Bob.” There's also the engineering school's planned expansion into the sprawling former Chrysler manufacturing plant site at the campus' southern edge toward I-95, which Delaware has acquired.

The quad, financed through bonds to be repaid by student housing fees, attracted competitve bids in 2010 from five major firms, at least some of which bid on the most recent dorm project earlier this month (Delaware has not announced a decision).

Singleton said Skanska's global scale and experience made it attractive; its bid wasn't necessarily the lowest; the guarantee that project executive Frederick, senior project manager Michael Gross and other campus construction veterans would be on site helped seal the deal: “Skanska has 20,000 employees. I'm concerned about the 10 who are going to be living with us. We wanted to make sure we are getting the A team.”

The two-year project averaged 170 workers on site and peaked around 250 (currently about 225), Frederick says. Skanska is using a mix of union and “open” sites of the sort stoutly resisted by Philadelphia unions but tolerated by Delaware organized labor, at least in this time of job scarcity.

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