Building Blocks

The Construction Institute at the University of Hartford is technically a networking group for those in the building trades — and also businesses with facilities management issues and concerns. But its directors say its mission goes well beyond the pressing of flesh and, as the name suggests, focuses on education.

Bob Gonyeau draws a clear distinction between education and intelligence.
“Education is learning how to do something,” he told BusinessWest. “Intelligence is learning about things that you need to know about, getting the information you need to do your business better.”

Both processes are at the heart of the mission of the 31-year-old Construction Institute, which Gonyeau serves as assistant executive director. Based at the University of Hartford, but now serving a membership base that stretches from New York City to Boston, the institute was created to serve businesses in what is known as the ‘built environment.’

This means general contractors, architects, and engineering firms, obviously, said Gonyeau, but it also includes companies — like MassMutual, Baystate Health, area colleges, and other businesses — that have vast operational facilities and need to know how to manage them efficiently and cost-effectively.

And, in a broad sense, it includes virtually any business that will be impacted by skyrocketing energy prices this winter and wants to develop strategies to minimize those costs.

“It appears that these higher energy costs will be here for a while — they’re becoming a fact of life,” he said. “In that environment, it just makes sense to build smart and find ways to conserve energy and control your costs; we want to help people understand how to do that.”

This is what Gonyeau means by intelligence, and he says the institute provides it through a number of formal and informal gatherings — meetings of the minds, as he called them, involving people from across the broad spectrum of the built environment.

Such programs include the ‘North-Central Conn. & Western Mass. Construction Forecast,’ set for Jan. 26 at the Basketball Hall of Fame. Titled Bridging the Borders … There’s Work for Everyone!, the program will explore the challenges and opportunities for design and construction in North Central Connecticut and Western Mass., or the I-91 corridor, as it’s called, said Gonyeau, noting that it is one of many regional forecasts staged by the institute to inform members and potential members of opportunities within both the public and private sectors and to provide a sense of what the future holds for the construction sector.

The forecasts are just some of the institute’s many attempts at outreach, said Gonyeau, noting that the most significant of such efforts is the upcoming, two-day ConstruCT 2006, the 9th Annual New England Construction & Facilities Management Conference & Exhibition. Set for March 21st and 22nd at the recently opened Connecticut Convention Center, the event will feature a number of educational sessions to, as organizers put it, “improve the process of construction.”

Such process-improvement efforts are at the very heart of the institute’s mission, said Gonyeau, adding that beyond its basic goal of bringing a diverse set of professionals together to discuss common issues and concerns, the institute wants to help enable those in this sector to do what they do better.

“When that happens, everyone benefits,” he said, noting that ConstruCT 2006 and the annual construction forecasts represent just some of the many ways the Construction Institute moves beyond the realm of the traditional networking group.

Another example is its extensive educational component, which includes continuing education programs in the form of half-day workshops offered by the University of Hartford. Workshops are conducted on a wide range of subjects, from construction management to building codes and regulations.

Designed to fill educational gaps within the industry, the workshops help individuals earn certificates and advance within the industry. It’s all part of the institute’s global efforts to inform, enlighten, and develop business leaders.

In two words, Gonyeau told BusinessWest, the institute is all about building relationships.

Solid Foundation

A look at the agenda for ConstruCT 2006 reveals both some of the issues facing the ‘built community’ and the overall mission of the institute.
Individual educational sessions are slated in such topics as:

  • Energy management, conservation, and sustainable design;
  • Emergency preparedness, safety, and critical response;
  • Design and construction issues in higher education, municipalities, and public schools;
  • Marketing, business development, and customer satisfaction;
  • Successful negotiations, construction claims, and dispute resolution; and
  • “How to Succeed in the Connecticut DPW Design and Construction Process.”

The last of those items is a nod to one of the institute’s original charges said Gonyeau — helping firms across the construction sector understand the rules of the road in the Nutmeg State and successfully attain business there. The others? Well, they speak to the seemingly constant change that defines the built environment, and how the institute has continuously evolved in response.

“The industry is constantly changing, and we want to help people keep pace,” he explained. “You can’t be stagnant in this business — if you do, you’ll be left behind.”

The institute was created in the mid-’70s, said Gonyeau, in response to an emerging need for a forum, in which people in businesses across the construction industry could share experiences and knowledge, stimulate growth within the industry, and, in many ways, create opportunities through relationship-building.

This is the essence of any networking group, he said, adding that the mission has grown and evolved over the years, and the institute, while still Connecticut-based and, in many ways, Connecticut-focused, has broadened its geographical reach.

The institute was created at a time of turmoil and challenge for the Connecticut construction community, said Gonyeau, noting that in the mid-’70s, the industry was fragmented and many projects became bogged down by logistical problems and tangled lines of communication. The institute, a non-profit, non-partisan professional organization and one of the few organizations of its kind in the country, was seen as a mechanism for streamlining and strengthening what was then an industry in disarray.

Within a few years of the institute’s creation, there was a deadly collapse of a section of highway bridge in Southern Connecticut and the nearly tragic collapse of the Hartford Civic Center’s roof, said Gonyeau, noting that these events and others helped inspire the many educational components of the institute.

“Those events helped give the institute a sense of purpose — and some credibility,” he explained. “They provided a sense of urgency within the industry to focus attention on issues and improving communication.”

In other words, the institute helped create a dialogue among professionals within the construction community that simply didn’t exist before. Today, that dialogue continues, shaped by emerging trends, economic conditions, and factors that impact builders and end-users alike.

Things like energy costs.

“They touch everyone who owns a building or is thinking about building one,” said Gonyeau, noting that the institute recently staged a seminar, in conjunction with Northeast Utilities, on soaring energy costs and what can be done about them.

“We addressed it from a design standpoint, a construction standpoint, and an operational standpoint,” he explained, “and discussed what people can do, from materials for building, sensible design, and sustainable building.

“When you make a capital investment in a property you intend on keeping, the life-cycle costing is very important,” he continued. “You need to address matters such as where your windows face, how well the building is insulated, how your connections are made in the construction process so you don’t have a lot of air loss; these are all issues to be considered.”

Shedding light on such issues is part of the institute’s broad efforts to educate and disseminate information, said Gonyeau, noting that the educational component continues to grow. Indeed, several hundred students enroll each year in the workshops, administered by the University of Hartford’s Office of Continuing & Professional Education.

Workshop subjects are designed to address specific industry needs, he explained, and involve a hands-on, learn-by-doing style of training. The list of offerings includes subjects that are broad — “Environmental Health and Safety for Facility Managers” is one example — and also quite specific — “Construction on Contaminated Land: How to Prepare and How to Respond.”

Concrete Examples

And while the institute strives to widen the scope of its educational and informational initiatives, it is also working to broaden its audience.

The institute now boasts roughly 375 members, which represent every facet of the built environment. More than two-thirds of those members are from Connecticut, said Gonyeau, but the number of those from out-of-state has grown steadily in recent years.

A number of firms based in Western Mass. or with regional offices there have joined, including Holyoke-based Daniel O’Connell’s Sons Inc., the Mount Vernon Group, a Chicopee-based architectural firm, Tighe & Bond, an environmental engineering firm with headquarters in Westfield, and B-G Mechanical Contractors, also in Chicopee.

Efforts to recruit more companies in this region continue on both a formal and informal basis, said Gonyeau, noting that the institute stages a number of programs over the course of the year during which attendees can learn about the many benefits it offers.

New members have been recruited from New York and Rhode Island, he said, but the natural direction for expansion is north, to the Pioneer Valley. This initiative parallels other efforts, such as the creation of the Hartford-Springfield Economic Partner-ship, to bridge the border between the states — or effectively erase it.

The economic partnership is a now five-year-old effort designed to market the region from Amherst to Storrs, Conn. as one economic region. By combining the demographics of the two major cities and the region between them, organizers believe they can create more economic development opportunities for businesses and residents in both states.

Gonyeau added that the institute takes has adopted a similar philosophy, noting that development in Connecticut could yield opportunities for construction-related businesses in Massachusetts, and vice versa.

“There will always be some measure of territoriality,” he explained, noting that construction and architecture firms in some cities and regions aren’t enamored with the thought of companies from other area codes taking work that could go to them. “But, as the name of our forecast suggests, we really believe there is enough work for everyone.”

Attendees at the Jan. 26 North-Central Conn. & Western Mass. Construction Forecast can find out about some of that work, said Gonyeau, adding that they will hear about opportunities on both sides of the border.

Indeed, among the speakers will be Oz Griebel, president & CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance, and Sandra Johnson, vice president of Business Development for the alliance. They will address current revitalization efforts in Hartford, including the broad Andrien’s Landing initiative on the riverfront.

Meanwhile, Peter Pappas, an East Longmeadow-based real estate developer, one of two partners who have forwarded a $9 million proposal to renovate and expand the old Basketball of Fame Hall building into an integrated sports, fitness, and entertainment complex, is scheduled to talk about that specific project and also the broad subject of riverfront development in Springfield.

Also on the agenda is Westfield Community Development Director James Boardman, who will detail a series of public (a new bridge over the Westfield River, for example) and private construction projects slated in that community.

The institute stages a number of regional forecasts each year, said Gonyeau, all designed to keep members and potential members informed about what’s happening, and also foster the relationship-building efforts that make the group successful.

Hard Hat Area

As he talked about the construction sector, Gonyeau said that large projects, and even smaller initiatives, are marvels of coordination and communication.

Fast Facts

Agency:The Construction Institute

Address:University of Hartford, 312 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford, Conn. 06117

Phone:(860) 768-4459

Web Site:www.construction.org

Bringing a project to successful completion requires organization and a step-by-step approach to getting the job done, he explained. “It can be very complex … one hand has to know what the other is doing.”

Bringing together elements of the built environment can be equally complicated, he continued, but such efforts are vital to moving that sector forward and creating opportunities for companies and individuals.

The Construction Institute is succeeding in that mission because it has created a solid foundation and continues to build on it.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]