By Tim Gardner
How soon will the new construction and renovations project at Avery County High School in Newland be completed? That has been an ongoing question and even a debate for almost a year. And no one–not even the architect and construction company– can provide a definite answer. However, construction officials have announced August 5, 2021 as their most recent anticipated date for completion.
Representatives of both cite various and sometimes different reasons than the other as why the project has had multiple delays. And the Avery County Commissioners and Board of Education members have expressed frustration and even irritation over why the project’s completion has taken so much longer than its original designated month of finish of August 2020.
The commissioners and school board members met with representatives of Branch Builds and Boomerang Design (architect) recently at the county’s agricultural extension service building to address problems hindering the completion the progress of the project.
“The reason for our joint meeting is to nail down an exact date for project completion since it has been a moving target. It’s been such a frustrating process that will hopefully have no further delays,” said Avery County Schools Superintendent Daniel Brigman.
Mike Love, Project Superintendent of Branch Builds told the boards there are various factors that have contributed to the slow progress of the construction of the new wing of the high school.
“The completion date we currently have is August 5 (2021) and that’s attainable. However, it’s dependent on several critical factors,” Love said. “First and foremost, the biggest factor we’ve dealt with up here (in Avery County) is the weather, and in the schedule, which we haven’t done to this point but this one has it in it, the weather days that are allowed for the (specification) matches up with the schedule. So, in a couple of those school board meetings, you said, ‘Why is it slipping?’ Well, we didn’t build those days into our schedule. That’s why some of it had slipped. That is built into the schedule we had issued as well.”
Love said the company has had to change the way in which it will finish the project. Instead of completing the project in two phases, he explained that the project has now been divided into six phases. Love added that created a need for 15 crane mobilizations instead of five.
Love also said that another factor setting the project back is roofing. He maintained that crews needs five clear days without rain or snow in order to complete the roof. Love expects the completed metal roof to be on the building within the next 45 days.
The project is currently under a temporary weather-resistant structure.
“We were hoping to have it done by November (2020), and we haven’t found that amount of time (necessary to finish it),” Love stated. “We have plans within the next two-and-a-half weeks to have the science wing done as well.”
Branch Builds Senior Project Manager Greg Cook said soil nailing issues located at various points around the construction site has bene a major problem. Soil nailing is a construction technique used to reinforce unstable soil and to stabilize natural slopes that are present around the construction site, of which the high school has several.
School and construction officials have said that until these issues are done, construction crews cannot complete various other mandates, including safely completing excavations, relocating the existing sanitary sewer from pod 100 to the tie-in unit at the science lab and completing the grading between pod 100 and the new classrooms.
Construction crews completed the soil nailing at the site of the school’s original entrance in order to stabilize the slope, but related issues are occurring at other points around the new wing of the high school, most notably in the triangle-shaped area between pod 300 and the existing science wing.
Cook said that without access to this area, construction crews cannot dry-in the south wall of the science lab or be able to install the acid tank, which he indicated would make the new science classrooms unusable.
“What we’re proposing as an option is in place of the retaining wall, we would like to do another round of soil nails that would be incorporated as part of the permanent wall. That would allow us to do the excavation, do proper grading, put all the infrastructure in and do finishes in this time frame. In our opinion, that’s the logical way to go about it,” he shared.
Cook added that the area between the south side of the science classrooms and the existent building (pod 100) did not provide enough space for crews to work. The requirement by the Fire Marshal to install a structure in the area made the situation more difficult, giving crews approximately just 25 feet to work. However, the structure has since been allowed to be removed.
The original construction plans included building a retaining wall in this area, but it has yet to be constructed.
The construction and renovation master plan calls for Pod 100, as well as pod 200, to be demolished, and part of the retaining wall will be built in its place. However, the partial completion of the wall that was planned to be built before pod 100 is demolished also has yet to be completed. The remainder of the wall was planned to be completed after pod 100 had been removed.
Additionally, the presence of pod 100 presents challenges in regard to retaining the soil in that area, since the building is higher in elevation and nailing through the soil too close to the building would present problems once the building is ready to be demolished.
Cook said that if pod 100 was not there, the crews could excavate and put up the retaining wall. However, the problem exists with the adjacent building to pod 100, which is pod 300.
Board of Education chairman John Greene questioned the project’s construction leadership concerning pod 100, which is scheduled to be demolished along with pod 200 in the third phase of the project.
“The understanding was that we were going to stay in that 100 pod,” he said. “We had to have it for our children until we could move them over or until they were out for summer, then demo it. There is no way that could have happened with this retaining wall. Knowing that, we should have demoed that from the get-go.
School and construction officials agreed about the need to retain the soil since the building is at a higher elevation to prevent the structure from potentially collapsing and endangering workers.
Although several project managers from Branch Builds were not part of the project when the original soil nailing was completed, Commissioner Blake Vance raised the point that the project managers should have known that the same poor soil present at the original entrance would also be nearby pod 300.
“We’ve been talking about this issue, I believe, for six to eight months trying to figure how we’re going to finish it and we’ve gotten nowhere, which is why we need to figure this out and we need help to figure it out,” Heather Bowman, Business Unit Leader of Branch Builds, said.
Cook and Bowman noted that they proposed making the soil nailing by the 300 pod a part of the permanent wall.
Another member of Branch Builds said he had written a Request for Information (RFI) back in July, but did not get approval until September, 2020 adding further that they were completed with the soil nailing by October 15, which put construction crews into the winter to do the foundation work and bring in builders.
Branch Builds officials have said it would take another three to four weeks to complete the current soil nailing that needs to be done.
“We don’t know if they (engineers and designers) would approve it or how they would design it. We don’t carry the insurance to design this type of stuff. This was unforeseen, and we need help getting it designed. We can’t design it ourselves,” Love said.
Commissioner Dennis Aldridge asked about decisions made by construction leadership that has led to further problems and delays, and why Branch did not come prepared to present a solution to the boards.
Bowman responded by saying once again that they are not designers and need Boomerang to help them, to which Boomerang Architect Rob Johnson said that Branch should have used the original person who completed the first round of soil nailing to solve the issue at hand.
Brigman asked the construction officials present if the issue would be resolved if the high school relocated the students from the 100 pod and the construction crews went ahead and demolished the building. Love replied that it was likely not possible because they never know which way the building would fall. Moreover, the entire campus would have to be vacated in order to demolish the building and complete the asbestos abatement.
Bowman said that Branch Builds is not able to do it themselves and they need Boomerang and a civil engineer involved. Brigman expounded upon his previous question by asking project officials if the students occupying campus are creating a hardship for Branch to get the project completed in time. The response from Branch was that it would take about 90 days to complete the demolitions and asbestos abatement.
Cook said that without a design, construction crews cannot proceed with the soil nailing, while Love explained that Branch has to go back out and find another designer for the soil-nailing process and likely could not hire the one they had used before. Branch representatives also have said that soil nailing could start by mid-March.
Vance made known his displeasure with the entire set of delays. He said: “If I ran my home like y’all ran your business, I would be bankrupt. This is a clown show. This is a circus. This is exactly what I have come to expect from Branch. This is $22 million taxpayer dollars we’re talking about right here in a county with 14,000 people. We’re going to be paying on this for the next several years. That’s a lot of money and you all are making a spectacle of it. It’s disrespectful of our taxpayers and our citizens.”
In the contractual agreement between the Board of Education and Branch Builds, one section includes a $500.00 fee per calendar day in liquidated damages for each phase if the contractor fails to achieve substantial completion of the project.
County Manager Phillip Barrier, Jr. told the High Country Press on March 4 that he had talked with the engineers and designers and they ultimately determined that soil nailing would not be necessary to complete the project.
Brigman said in conclusion: “Our ACHS addition continues to move ahead at a snail’s pace and is going to be a beautiful structure once completed. I continue to be very disappointed in the lack of progress made since ground-breaking (of the project) nearly two years ago. Hopefully, the announced date of August 5 for completion of the new wing is an attainable benchmark that will allow our students and staff access to the new facility on the first day of the 2021-2022 academic year.”
An online video of the meeting can be accessed by logging onto the following link:
Pictures of construction site on Friday, March 5