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Financial Barriers Drive Key Design Improvements for Miami Center's new Campus

Published Thursday, May 26, 2011 9:00 am

by Karen M. Mahar, MA, LEED AP
Vice President of Strategy Management, Camillus House, Inc.
(This article first appeared in Behavioral Healthcare magazine)

Two years ago, the management team of Camillus House was ready to break ground on the New Camillus House Center, a seven-building campus, designed to hold 340 beds for short-term housing, residential treatment, medical respite, and permanent, low-demand housing for persons with severe mental illness, addiction and/or serious medical disabilities.

Of course, even the best laid plans often end up changing and this ambitious endeavor was no exception. Faced with the effects of the financial crisis and a variety of unforeseen changes, Camillus House was forced to make significant changes to its plans, yet has relied on adaptability, flexibility and creativity to keep construction moving.

Now, the revised $80 million project is on track to deliver its first housing units in September 2011 — and is predicted to meet or possibly exceed the expectations of the original construction plan.

Making the right adjustments

The first factor driving the need for change was financing. Due to the economic crisis, Camillus had difficulty obtaining the temporary financing needed to fund construction. In the end, a significant loan would have been needed to follow the team's original plan — building all seven buildings at once. Since the banks were unwilling to help, the project was broken into two phases.

Phasing decisions were made based on how space could be configured to allow on-site services to be provided as soon as Phase 1 was complete. However, scheduling decisions were largely out of the organization's control.

In addition to the looming expiration of Low Income Housing Tax Credits, the zoning and funding agreement with the City of Miami required that Camillus vacate its existing emergency and treatment center upon completion of the new facility. Consequently, funders' needs were not aligned with those of the program.

With the emergency services center not scheduled until Phase 2, the organization had to redesign space in Phase 1 to temporarily accommodate the needs of individuals living on the street. And, this all needed to be done without mixing the emergency services population with clients of the residential treatment center.

Shifting to a conventional boiler system freed up space to install a large array of photo voltaic panels for electricity.

To satisfy both objectives, the design team took the following steps:

• The wellness center was redesigned into a temporary clothing exchange and mail room;

• The maintenance area in the parking garage ground floor was converted to client storage, an industrial-sized laundry facility, and temporary showers;

• The data center was relocated into the HIV/AIDS prevention suite, while that suite was moved to leased space offsite; and

• Residential suites were reconfigured to accommodate medical exam rooms.

Had the architectural firm (Wolfberg Alvarez & Partners) and the general contractor (Coastal Construction Group of South Florida) not been personally committed to the mission of Camillus House, the changes would have been costly and drawn out. Instead, long problem-solving sessions kept everything moving along with a small impact on the budget.

And, although the economic downturn caused up-front financing problems, it also provided an unanticipated financial benefit. Throughout the delay period, construction prices dropped dramatically. The general contractor bids came in 25 percent lower than projected and subcontractors were willing to offer five-year warranties on labor and materials.

Adding a splash of green

The second component driving changes in our project plan was a desire to improve the sustainability of the development. Camillus had set out to attain certification under the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) at the Silver Level, but as the project gained momentum, the goal was increased to Gold Level.

Unfortunately, the team's LEED consultants (Sequil Systems) had not been brought into the project until the initial design was completed, so integrating many of the major “green” elements required significant design modifications. Even after construction began, further exciting opportunities for sustainability improvements were identified, necessitating additional change orders. One such opportunity involved the integration of solar panels, which also proved more problematic than anticipated. (Note: LEED Gold certification was granted in April 2012.)

Limited space on the residential facility's roof was preventing the inclusion of a solar-powered water heating system. Instead, shifting to a conventional boiler system achieved the same building efficiencies and allowed for the removal of the 80 individual water heater units from the roof. This freed up space for a large array of photo voltaic panels to provide electricity. The resulting energy savings will benefit both Camillus House and the building's residents.

Camillus also wanted to install a green roof system on one of the buildings, offering vegetable garden plots to residents with serious and persistent mental illness. Told it wasn't feasible in South Florida's climate, the design team brought in a consultant to help them find a way.

They found several facilities in the area that had made unsuccessful attempts to develop green roof systems and observed firsthand what could go wrong. Armed with these lessons, the design team produced a plan that will allow the inclusion of landscaped rooftop on the emergency services building-complete with garden plots and even a picnic area.

The final step was to receive LEED certification, but it required that areas within 25 feet of building entrances and windows to be non-smoking. With seven buildings on just over three acres, the new campus had virtually no areas outside that perimeter-and the facility had always allowed smoking outdoors.

In the past, the facility's policy allowed clients to smoke because giving up nicotine while withdrawing from other drugs would be too difficult. Additionally, new clients were thought to be less likely to stay on the campus if they couldn't smoke — a factor which might lead to more individuals wandering through the surrounding neighborhood.

Ultimately, staff agreed to adopt a campus-wide tobacco-free policy, to be coupled with intensive smoking cessation programs for both clients and employees.

Another way to serve the community

A new 2,000-KVA generator will power the campus for five days after a storm.

One of the most valuable lessons learned addresses the job creation associated with large-scale construction projects. The entire campus is projected to require approximately 350 construction workers to be completed. From a purely mission-driven standpoint, Camillus wanted these jobs to go to as many low-income and formerly homeless individuals as possible.

From an economic standpoint, it also made sense to keep the jobs in the community, since an increase in employment opportunities is an important social factor in ending homelessness. And from a community relations standpoint, hiring from the surrounding neighborhood was essential.

The design team also observed that other large, local construction projects were getting a tremendous amount of negative feedback for their hiring processes-something Camillus House didn't want to endure, since one fourth of its public sector funding is provided by the local Community Redevelopment Agency.

As a result, Camillus included a special provision in the GC contract. It required that hiring preference be given to individuals living within a five-mile radius — with financial penalties involved for failure to comply. Neighborhood job fairs were held and local homeless providers were notified of the openings. The results were better than expected on many levels. The contractors reported that their fears of unqualified applicants proved to be unfounded; the negative publicity plaguing other projects did not occur for Camillus; and most importantly, Camillus' own target population got jobs. The upfront effort proved to be well worth it.

The first building to be completed in September 2011 will house 80 persons who are chronically homeless and suffering from mental illness. Many of these future-residents are currently sleeping outdoors in Camillus' courtyard, a factor that what keeps everyone involved in the project motivated.

As the rest of the buildings come online in throughout 2012, Camillus will grow ever closer to its goal of ending chronic homelessness in Miami.

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Serving the South Florida community since 1960, Camillus House is a non-profit organization that provides humanitarian services to men, women and children who are poor and homeless.