The first week into the Penticton pool project, the architects working on designs knew they were in the deep end.
Glen Stokes, a partner with Bruce Carscadden Architecture, said they had been contracted in January of 2010 to design the $23.3 million pool and community centre renovation and expansion and received a firm completion deadline of March 31, 2011 — when the construction must be completed to ensure federal and provincial grants would trickle in. After the schematic designs were drawn up and shopped at community open houses, a construction schedule was put down to paper.
“As I recall, we had to start construction within a week of whenever that was. We were already behind the eight ball even when we were just getting started,” Stokes said with a chuckle.
In fact, the timeline was considered so intense, a friend bet Willie Joubert, the Stuart Olson Dominion Construction project manager overseeing the build, a bottle of champagne that it couldn’t be done.
“He wasn’t seeing us doing it in time. Always open for a challenge, I said, ‘Sure, we’ll do it,’” Joubert said. “We pulled it off, and I had my bottle of champagne. It was an expensive bottle, too.”
Stuart Olson proved to be the toast of the industry last week, as the Vancouver Regional Construction Association recognized the Penticton Community Centre with a silver Award of Excellence in the general contractors for $15 to $40 million category, due in large part to the Herculean feat of finishing what is usually a two-year project in the span of 15 months.
“Normally for institutional projects you get as much time to design it as you do to build it. It usually takes at least a year to design an aquatic centre,” Stokes said, adding the first tender package went out in March — shaving the year down to two months.
Faced with a tight deadline, Stokes explained, the firm decided to use three strategies. First, they would split up the project so they could design what would be going into the ground first anyway: piles and things like pool tanks that would be below grade.
“We submitted the pile design right away,” he said. “While they were driving piles, we worked on the second piece, which we call the superstructure: everything above grade that keeps everything from falling down.”
When summer approached, Stokes said, they moved ahead with finishes like paint and various flooring choices for the remainder of the building.
The second prong of the speed strategy was to try to expect the unexpected.
“Every construction job has challenges, but normally you have a little bit more time to deal with them or suss them out,” he said. “We had to design the building to withstand whatever challenges were going to be, even though we didn’t know what they were.”
That prompted architects to plan for a larger mechanical room, to ensure all operational components would not only fit, but function inside the space. Also, existing walls deemed to be structurally dubious were torn down rather than renovated, to keep budget costs down.
The third strategy was to communicate with builders on the ground constantly. The architects tried to anticipate what questions trades might come across, and if something new arose, solutions were found as quickly as possible.
Joubert said once they begun work, hiccups seemed to pop up repeatedly, but crews were relentless in making progress.
“Everyone had to take all the rules, throw them out, and the ones that were left over, just bend them. That’s the only way we could do it,” Joubert said, adding trades moved quicker than they have in most years. “We had to go on our word. That’s where very good relationships came into play. … It’s good, old-style contracting where you give a guy a handshake and he’ll still do the work. If there’s a problem, we’ll sort it out, but at least the work is going on.”
One decision all involved had to make was whether they wanted to let off the gas partway through the project. The federal government had announced a relaxation of the deadline to complete projects, after many communities complained about the stringent timelines, giving cities and towns until October to wrap up work.
Stokes said everyone on site in Penticton was already full steam ahead.
“To relax the deadline would just have basically meant throwing money away, because we had already ramped up,” he said, adding crews were on site working from early morning to late in the day, if not through the night.”
Joubert said City Hall also played a big role in ensuring a fast process, striking a steering committee that would meet at a moment’s notice if designs had to be changed or decisions needed to be made.
They also had ready access to the mayor’s office, and Joubert said Dan Ashton helped troubleshoot a few hiccups with suppliers and other issues.
“He was always willing to move and roll rocks out of the way for us,” he said. “He did an appreciation barbecue for the trades one day, and he flipped burgers. That was cool.”
At the end of March, the site was ready for asphalt, which was among the final projects. Recognizing the enormity of the task, Joubert drew up a submission for the Vancouver Regional Construction Association’s annual awards.
“We knew we had a good project, because it had so many hurdles that we could overcome and it was a victory for us,” he said.
While Joubert and Stokes chuckle about the insane pace of the project, both said they would do it all over again.
“This was fun because it was a challenge. Everyone knew that to pull this off, it was going to be huge,” he said.