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Early start and Covid shutdown put contractor on path to finish HHS early

Henderson County construction manager David Berry describes acoustic panels in band room. Henderson County construction manager David Berry describes acoustic panels in band room.

Guiding a tour of the new Hendersonville High School, John Mitchell responds to a visitor’s skepticism: It looks like you’ve got a long way to go.

“Where we’re at right now is about where we were two weeks before the Innovative High School opened,” Mitchell said, unfazed.
Contractors have nine weeks to finish the new school building, not two. If their past performance is a guide, Vannoy Construction and 37 subcontractors will get the job done, maybe early, almost certainly under budget.
If getting the Hendersonville High School approved was the most harrowing political ride of the teens, completing the $59.1 million construction and renovation job has been a model of quality and speed. What it lacks in drama, it makes up for in efficiency and cooperation. The taxpayers — and HHS’s Class of ’24 — can thank the Covid shutdown for that, along with the very sharp pencils and laser scrutiny that Mitchell and the county’s construction manager, David Berry, have applied to every materials and supply purchase and to every task, from cleaning bricks to watching steel beams go skyward.
“The Henderson County commissioners, Henderson County public schools, Henderson County staff — when they made that decision to get an early start, in the summer (of 2019), when the kids were not in school” is a big reason for the accelerated construction, Berry said.
That early work pre-Covid on drainage and other early jobs, was followed by spaces that were vacant when they should not been. As a result, Vannoy Construction, the managing contractor, its symphony of subcontractors, suppliers have moved fact. So fast, in fact, that the project’s minders — Mitchell and Berry — were able to announce in April that the school would be done in August 2022, a full year ahead of schedule, and not on budget but a half million dollars under budget.
“On paper it looked like it saved us about three months because that’s what we worked, when actually it probably saved us six months,” Berry said of the first summer’s work. “The biggest help besides the fact that Vannoy has been super-aggressive with the subcontractors would be the fact that we took advantage at every construction meeting with the situation with Covid. The schedule constantly changed.
“When we realized, well, this is what they’re supposed to be doing, we’d say, if we can have that area (that became vacant), we could change the schedule” and do two phases or more at once, Berry said. “Every month we were looking at different ways to save time. And the challenge to doing that, even though it’s available, is manpower. So we then we had to lean on Vannoy and Vannoy had to double check and triple check with their subcontractors and suppliers to make sure that all those (accelerated phases) could really happen. Most of the time, they were able to do it.”

Stepped up security

The main entrance and lobby is protected by an “airlock” that allows a receptionist to let in visitors, a big improvement from the entrance to the Stillwell building, which opened in 1926. The single entrance is a security improvement, doing away with the multiple entrances at the old school.
The gyms are served by locker rooms for varsity sports and phys-ed, all painted Bearcat red. The 1970s Jim Pardue gym will continue to serve as the space for varsity games. A new gym will be used for practice and other athletics as needed.
The bandroom and chorus room have built-in acoustic panels and room outside for the many trophies the programs have won over the years.
Hallways and classrooms are awash in bright and clean LED light while the media center and cafeteria have wide and tall windows that bathe the space in sunlight.
In the coming weeks, the vocational-ed building, which has served as swing space, housing a makeshift cafeteria and other uses after buildings were demolished, will itself be knocked down and hauled off.

Students enter new building in August


While the whole project won’t be done until a year from August, students will be learning in the new school this coming August, and in temporary spaces in the north end of the new parking lot.
A contractor is currently pulling in mobile units that will serve as classrooms for the 2021-22 school year.
“There will be 15 modular units, of which there’s five or six already out there,” Berry said. “The school actually had ’em. We had to get ’em from here and yonder but they belonged to the school. And then this time next year, we’ve already contracted with the guy that pulled them in to jerk them out of here.” There at their end of their useful life, Berry said, so instead of paying the contractor to haul them off, “We said, why don’t you just have them.”
Mitchell says hiring Berry was one of the best decisions County Manager Steve Wyatt made to protect the taxpayers’ money. Berry is the link between construction projects that cost tens of millions of dollars and the elected commissioners who are in charge of writing the checks. No matter how arcane or minute the questions from commissioners, Berry has never been stumped nor rattled. In fact, Berry is the guy Mitchell turns to if he is stumped.
“We watch the budget like it’s my checkbook,” Berry said, “and we’re constantly looking at ways to save money because we know there’s going to be some unforeseens,” he said. He guards the contingency account like a pit bull. “That’s what I really watch. Some people would like to spend that money at the front end of the job and I’m going, ‘No, we can’t.’”
Mitchell’s next job is an even bigger one. His record for leading the county’s most challenging projects under Wyatt’s tutelage has won him the job as county manager starting July 1. If Mitchell moves a few boxes around, taxpayers can make a safe bet that Berry won’t be one of them.