School’s out for summer, but for contractors on the $10.5-million renovation of Metairie Park Country Day School near New Orleans, that means the hard work is just beginning. A compressed timeline and combination of existing soil conditions and various unknowns have been among the challenges facing the project team.

The private school in suburban Metairie, La., is undergoing a 35,480-sq-ft renovation and expansion that includes ground-up construction of a three-story science building, a new central plant and renovation of the dining, science and facilities buildings. The dining room is also being expanded, a courtyard added and the science building will be converted into an art building. The project has been phased to allow for the school’s continuous operations.

Nearly 35% of total construction will need to take place this summer during the seven weeks before students return for the school year. The contractor says that relying on a design-assist delivery method—along with extra planning, meetings and scheduling—has been critical in keeping the project on target.

“These are the time constraints, and they’re part of working in schools,” says Patrick Thomas, project manager with Ryan Gootee General Contractors LLC, the lead on the project. “You cannot get into these areas until they’re out of school, and you need to have those areas back up and running before they start the next semester.”

The contractor will have crews working concurrently at multiple locations. As of mid-May, workers had logged about 78,000 man-hours with another 35,000 anticipated this summer.

Further complicating the tight schedule is the likelihood of inclement weather. “You know full well that in New Orleans in the summer, we’re going to lose 25% of our schedule due to rain. That’s in a good summer,” Thomas says.

The first phase of the project began last June and included expanding the school’s facilities building and dining hall, along with construction of a new central plant and the science building. The first phase was completed in early August, allowing school employees to relocate into the new buildings so that construction could begin on the second phase, which will include the renovation of  the old science building and dining hall. Contractors continued to work throughout the school year on areas not occupied by students.

New Spaces

With new educational developments under way in its math and science departments, Country Day needed space for new types of instruction. For example, students are applying hands-on techniques for solving problems, such as creating prototypes of machines to carry out a task.

“It just seemed natural for these projects to develop. But we need more space and particular types of equipment for an engineering lab,” says Carolyn Chandler, head of school.

Working in occupied buildings during the school year presented several logistical concerns. Workers had to install ductwork, mechanical systems and piping in attic space over classrooms and dining rooms. Construction teams worked closely with the school to make sure those attic spaces were stable enough to work within while students were sitting directly below.

“With anything you do in a school, there’s a ripple effect. There’s a lot of planning and scheduling involved.”

– Gary Lotz, Facilities Director, Country Day School

“With anything you do in a school, there’s a ripple effect. There’s a lot of planning and scheduling involved in not interrupting classes,” says Gary Lotz, facilities director at the school.

In the nearly 89-year-old dining room, crews put up a temporary wall next to the dining hall so that they could work during the school year. The wall will be removed when school lets out so that renovations can begin to the existing dining room.

The new central plant will service the HVAC systems in adjacent buildings. Crews used 4,000 linear ft of a new plastic piping called Aquatherm to replace the system’s aging hot and chilled water piping. Aquatherm is lighter and less expensive than steel and copper and less labor intensive to install.

Foundation Concerns

Because the school dates to 1924 and Hurricane Katrina destroyed many records of older structures in south Louisiana, the architectural drawings were incomplete. Engineers didn’t have a clear picture of the school’s foundations, says Steve Hughes, a civil and structural engineer with Schrenk, Endom and Flanagan.

“Today when we produce a set of documents, it’s 50 pages long. Structural drawings in 1920 were three or four pages, so the level of detail was a lot less,” Hughes says.

Soil conditions in and around New Orleans mean that buildings are susceptible to settlement, making it necessary to drive tempered or concrete piles to support structures. The engineers had drawings of the school’s kitchen, which showed the piles, but other sections of the school were not resting on piles.

The structural engineer asked the contractor to dig down and verify the edges of the structure’s existing footings to cantilever its foundation for the expansion.

“There are existing utilities and things on the ground, and we had to shift foundations around,” Hughes adds. “A lot of it came as a surprise because the original documents were incomplete.”

The engineers also required visual verification to decide whether to remove load-bearing walls in the original cafeteria building, which needed extra structural steel to support the renovations. Crews drove more than 200 8-ton-capacity piles to support campus buildings.

The project calls for 137.6 tons of steel. Country Day’s new science building consists of structural-steel moment frames with bar joists and light-gauge roof trusses, while the central plant has braced frames. The facilities addition required standard residential-type construction with load-bearing wood exterior walls and wood rafters on top of cement-block piers.


The project is a negotiated job. Country Day and the architect approached Ryan Gootee directly to work as the general contractor since the firm had done work for the school in the past. Project managers credit the project’s design-assist delivery with the team’s confidence that it can meet the seven-week schedule over the summer. Design-assist allows the contractor to ensure that architectural designs and unforeseen conditions don’t add to the project’s original cost or timeline.

It’s a method that Ryan Gootee likes to use with repeat clients. “It’s a way for us to be involved all along during the design process to make sure scheduled milestones are being achieved on the design side and that we’re staying within the original budget,” says Michael DeGruy, vice president of construction management for Ryan Gootee.

The contractor worked with the architect and the owner for several months in a design-assist capacity before starting construction, doing several rounds of pricing to control costs.

The process also allowed the contractor to work with the owner to do some exploratory demolition to mitigate unforeseen conditions that could cost more time and money. “Otherwise, owners aren’t really keen on people going in and tearing out their walls to find out existing conditions,” Thomas says.

Through design-assist, Ryan Gootee prioritized different segments of the project. For example, the contractor determined last summer what tasks needed to be done before the 2016-17 school year began. That included underground utilities, the facilities addition and some concrete repours as well as construction of a new steel loading dock so that deliveries would not be interrupted during the school year.

The contractor also removed the temporary trailers that housed old maintenance offices, made way for the central plant and built the maintenance addition before design was complete for the dining hall addition and the science building.

“So, as we were working through design-assist, we were targeting those items of work that needed to be completed first,” Thomas says.

Although completing the project by Aug. 7 will be a challenge, Thomas says design-assist will help meet the deadline. “There have been significantly fewer change orders on this project than most, and that’s industry-wide,” he says. “That’s the result of the design-assist.”