What do schools do when renovation work needs to be done? They wait until the holidays start. The last day of school marks the beginning of work. Time is tight. In around 6 to 8 weeks everything has to be finished before students and staff are back. To make this happen, the project needs to be precisely planned in advance. VIRTUARCH knows this very well. The Swiss Architecture and Project Management company is specialized in school projects of all kinds. We talked with Daniel Heusser, Holt Zhang and Helen Jiang from VIRTUARCH about the nature and the challenges of summer works at schools. Therdsiddhi Hoprasartsuk-Pellaumail joined by Video Conference from the Bangkok office of VIRTUARCH.

Could you shortly explain the term school summer works?

Daniel Heusser: Sure. Renovations, upgrades, or safety improvements often are scheduled during summer holidays, because they simply cannot be carried out while students and teachers are in the school occupying the spaces. You simply have to wait for the school holidays and use this little time window. The longest break of course is in the summer. These are what we call ‘summer works’.

Holt Zhang: Yes, that is the crucial point. We usually have six to eight weeks while students and staff are not in the school. Of course, preparations for this time need to begin long before people leave, so that we are able to immediately start physical construction works with day one of the vacation.

Helen Jiang: A good example for such summer works were the renovation of the library, art rooms and other areas at Dulwich College Beijing: We transformed areas previously occupied by administration offices, extended the building and created a totally new learning environment over a few weeks in summer.

Dulwich College Beijing: Art rooms and library

Therdsiddhi Hoprasartsuk-Pellaumail: Another good example of a tight timeline with a precise planning is the French International School of Yangon in Myanmar. We had to turn a colonial villa, classified as historic monument, into a teaching and administration building. We only had 7 weeks corresponding to the monsoon period in Myanmar. That was a big challenge, which we mastered.

French International School of Yangon Phase 1

French International School of Yangon Phase 2: Inside the classroom

What kind of works do schools need to do, and what do you offer?

Helen Jiang: Actually, we are talking about a wide range of tasks that we are asked for. It could be little things like replacements, re-painting, changing bathroom fixtures, roof repairing, a new environmentally friendly and energy-saving lighting concept. We also were asked to transform spaces into classrooms or refurbish an old canteen or cafeteria and modernize a library.

Daniel Heusser: Some campus upgrading programs are spread over several years, upgrading different areas each summer. A good example for that is Dulwich College Pudong in Shanghai, or also the International School of Tianjin.

Dulwich College, Shanghai Pudong: SE21 lounge and Junior School Canteen

International School of Tianjin: Façade renovation and facility upgrading

This is where the strategic planning comes into play. We carefully analyze the needs of the school and prioritize the works, breaking down the renovation works into pieces that can be implemented over one summer holiday each. We have to complete the first summer works in a way that the school is able to benefit from the upgraded facilities, while there are no resources wasted for the coming summer works. Most importantly: We cannot leave a construction site behind. When the students are back, they need to find a completed space which is significantly better than the space they have left when they went on holiday.

How does an ideal procedure look like?

Holt Zhang: It starts with the task, say the renovation of a library. We ideally know this long before the summer holiday of the school. The later we are informed of a project, the tighter the complete planning will be. After confirmation of a design, we need to procure a construction company who orders all the material needed and make sure that everything is delivered on time. Fabrication of some items may start in workshops of the suppliers way ahead of the construction on site being kicked off. Also, all necessary permits have to be obtained in time to start works.

The first day of holidays is the first day of construction work on site. That means: As a project manager we have to make sure that everything is scheduled perfectly, with the right people present at the right time to do their work.

Beijing AIDI School: Library and student lounges

Helen Jiang: In the second half of the project implementation, we ask the responsible authorities to inspect what we have already done so far. This is very important to avoid an unpleasant surprise later. If everything complies with the regulations, we can continue and ask the authorities to come back at the final stage to do a final inspection. That is the ideal process.

Therdsiddhi Hoprasartsuk-Pellaumail: Health and Safety requirements are key to Educational Projects. Therefore, we always schedule air quality tests before moving in of the furniture, and another one after the furniture has been moved in. We want to make sure that the students not only find a nice new learning environment, but also a healthy one. With the strict control of construction material VIRTUARCH implements in its projects, we have not had one single case where air tests have not been passed when construction works were completed. We have experienced in our projects that the far bigger risk was that furniture was moved in later which resulted in an increased contamination of air quality.

What kind of challenges do you have to master?

Daniel Heusser: Challenge number one is time. Speed is king, but without a proper and careful planning speed drives you only faster in a disaster. Another challenge is risk mitigation. Summer works are often done in buildings which may be not fully documented, and during operation it was not possible to do all inspections. Due to the strict codes for Educational Buildings, we often have to implement structure reinforcements. I give you an example: When we open the ceiling for a check, sometimes new challenges become visible. As a consequence, maybe a design element cannot be implemented exactly as planned. Then we need to find another solution. In these cases, our customer has to make a decision about how to proceed. Sometimes we make the decision for our customer based on our knowledge and experience, and we always make the decision on behalf of the owners. Our customers know this, and this is why they trust us and follow our advice.

German School Pudong Elementary School Breakout Area

Holt Zhang: Coming back to the challenges, I would say school summer works are one of the toughest projects in our portfolio. On the other hand, it is rewarding to see the teachers’ happiness and the students’ faces when they come back from holiday to find their school changed to the better. This is worth all the efforts.

Daniel Heusser: Let me emphasize this point: Design is important, but key to success of school summer works is the planning and the management. We are architects plus interior designers plus project managers. Therefore, we can make sure that even tight projects can be completed in time with quality and within the budget framework.

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