- The Washington Times - Monday, August 19, 2002

The need for new schools to handle the exploding population in Loudoun County could not have come at a better time for many construction companies.
Construction of office buildings has slowed to a crawl in the area, but has been offset by Loudoun County Schools' five-year plan to build 14 elementary, six middle and five high schools. Five new schools will open next week, and five more are scheduled to open for the 2003-04 school year.
With many builders turning to public-school construction for business, the result has been an unusually competitive bidding process meaning money saved for the county.
"It's been extremely competitive," said Tom Sullivan, director of construction for Loudoun County Public Schools. "We're building schools for less than we were a year ago. From our side, it's a great thing."
Officials project that Loudoun County schools by 2005 will have more than 49,000 students, about 42 percent more than last year's enrollment of 34,589 and more than three times that of a decade ago.
For many construction companies, the clamor for new schools in Loudoun has meant an extra stream of revenue. New companies have entered the public sector, while others have expanded their existing operations.
One of these is Tucon Construction of Sterling, Va., best known for building "mission critical" sites like call centers and housings for backup generators.
Tucon's most recent projects include the construction of a "cyber-center" for Qwest Communications and the East Coast Reservation Center for United Airlines, both in Sterling. Now the company is dipping into the public-school market with plans to build Francis Hazel Reid Elementary School and Smart's Mill Middle School in Leesburg.
The two schools, totaling about 244,000 square feet, will sit on the same 66-acre plot off Route 15. The elementary school is scheduled to open in August 2003; the middle school will open the following year.
"This is fairly new on a corporate level," said Tucon President Keith Maddox. "The mission-critical market is pretty much nonexistent With these sectors drying, up we have expanded into the public sector."
Loudoun County Schools paid Tucon $29 million for construction of the schools, a figure Mr. Sullivan said was low thanks to more than a half-dozen bids. It was that competition that almost led Tucon to avoid school construction altogether, Mr. Maddox said.
"A reservation of ours was that highly competitive reputation it has," he said. "But we've actually been able to pull these jobs in on a pretty decent margin."
Companies that are established in school construction say business has become tougher.
"The margins are coming down it's definitely a buyer's market," said Andrew Hess, president of Hess Construction, based in Gaithersburg. "The traditional school builders are dealing with much higher competition."
Hess Construction is nearly finished building Heritage High School in Leesburg. The school is scheduled to open for classes next week. The company has five other public-school construction or renovation projects in the works.
Construction contracts often cover multiple schools. As in the case of Tucon, it is easier and cheaper, Mr. Sullivan said, to allow a company to build more than one school if the projects have similar requirements. Hutchinson Farm and Forest Grove Elementary Schools, both set to open next week, were built by Caldwell & Santmyer Inc., also of Sterling.
Mr. Sullivan said the district will award multiple contracts to a company if it is familiar and comfortable with its previous work. The district has no problem with schools looking similar to one another. In fact, the design often comes in second to one big requirement: getting the school built on time.
"It's got to be done and ready for them to go," Mr. Maddox said. "The overwhelming requirement is timing."
Contractors said the construction itself is not difficult. Designs are usually simple and conservative, with no more than two or three floors and plenty of surrounding open space.
The challenge, companies say, is addressing community concerns. Unlike many office buildings, schools often are built on land bordered by residential neighborhoods, so the concern of construction noise is exacerbated. People also often feel they have a personal stake in the schools' construction.
Presence at periodic school-board meetings is key, companies say, and many have gone so far as to post progress reports of school construction on their Web sites.
Despite the extra effort, companies say it is good corporate policy to be building schools in the areas where they are recognized.
"For this kind of work, it makes sense for us to be here," Mr. Maddox said. "There's good community interest here. All the neighbors will hate me for the next year but once they realize I'm the guy who built their new school, I'll be a hero."

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