The Old College Try
Recent Projects Embody Firm’s Commitment to ‘Preserve, Adapt, Renew’Architects Stephen Jablonski and Brian DeVriese have crafted an impressive legacy of projects involving schools, libraries, museums, parks, and a host of other structures. But rarely have they been tested by the time constraints they faced last summer when Springfield College tapped them for repairs of three tornado-damaged residence halls. The resulting success story is a lesson in teamwork, setting goals, and adapting to change.
When Stephen Jablonski and Brian DeVriese arrived at Springfield College on June 2, the morning after a devastating tornado ripped through the city, they were shocked by the extent of the damage on campus.
But they had no time to lose.
Due to a relationship that stretches back a decade and includes the award-winning Stitzer YMCA Center, college officials quickly tapped Jablonski DeVriese Architects to work with Erland Construction of East Windsor, Conn. to repair three hard-hit residence halls — International, Reed, and Massasoit — as well as a damaged power house.
There was one big question, however: could the job be done in a mere 10 weeks, or would students expecting to live in those dorms need to find other lodging for the start of the fall semester?
“We worked very carefully with the Springfield Building Department because we didn’t want anyone saying we were going too fast,” Jablonski said, looking back on a hectic summer that, indeed, saw all three dorms ready for students by mid-August.
“The Building Department worked excellently with us,” he recalled. “They could easily have said, ‘are you kidding? The whole city was hit by a tornado; we’re not going to approve anything for six months, but we’ll take it under advisement.’ They were there on site the first day.
“As far as we know, International Hall was the tallest building completely damaged in Springfield,” Jablonski added. “We’re not aware of another taller one in the direct path of the tornado, and it was completely repaired in two months.”
Jablonski and DeVriese sat down with BusinessWest recently to explain how that came to pass, and how the project fits into the philosophy of a firm committed to preserving the past while adapting to the often-harsh winds of circumstance.
Plan of Attack
The first step, of course, was turning that initial shock into a well-defined strategy.
“We had to do damage assessment of the dormitories,” DeVriese said. “We went through every room in every dorm and itemized all the damage. In all three, we had a list of every room and all the categories of damage that we could use as a starting point, helping the contractor develop an estimate for what it was going to take to repair the damage.”
Erland personnel secured broken window openings with temporary closures. But a big thunderstorm rolled through less than a week after the tornado and damaged most of those quick fixes. Meanwhile, Jablonski said, “we had to ask, ‘can we salvage these buildings at all?’ We had an intuition that they were definitely salvageable.”
DeVriese, who recently forged a business partnership with Jablonski, noted that the tornado had blown many of the windows out of the building, ripped solid-core doors off the hinges, and damaged much of the furniture. “Light fixtures were hanging down from the ceilings, and there was a tremendous amount of water inside the building. That was mainly International Hall; there was some of that damage in Massasoit and Reed, but to a lesser degree.”
Once they decided the structures, even International, were salvageable, the architects and contractors had a significant challenge: to complete the work in time to house returning students.
Even as cleanup crews were just starting to remove fallen trees, Jablonski said, meetings were quickly convened involving college officials, insurance carriers and agents, and the architects and builders, during which all parties agreed to cost estimates and orders of new doors, windows, furniture, exterior metal panels, and other materials.
Jablonski credited the college’s insurance carriers for acting quickly — though they did have a financial incentive to do so.
“We said to the insurance company, ‘do you want to approve this list right now and get this stuff ordered, or run the risk of students going to the Sheraton to live off-campus?’” — an insured expense no one wanted to trigger, he said. “Even though they brought in their own experts, we shared a lot of our analysis with them, and that was the success of it. We hit the target and did not have any delayed openings at all.”
After seeing several architectural renderings, the college decided to go beyond simple repairs by replacing the original exterior of the building with higher-quality, better-insulated panels than what had existed before, Jablonski said.
“Most people feel it looks a lot better now than it did, no question,” he added. “The windows are much more high-quality, and we put in much better insulation; there was no insulation behind the enamel, so we put in a nice air barrier. It used to get a lot of wind-driven leaks.”
R&R Windows of Easthampton provided the aluminum replacement windows and new aluminum panels, while the new doors came from Hardware Specialties of West Springfield, Collins Electric of Chicopee made electrical repairs, and Harry Grodsky Co. of Springfield repaired damage to the HVAC system.
“One thing I’ve been impressed with about Erland — they don’t just order windows and start installing them,” Jablonski said. “They put one in, test it for water penetration, for air leakage; actually an engineering company comes to look at it and blast it with moisture and high wind pressure. And if it doesn’t pass, they have a meeting with everyone about what they did wrong, and keep doing different configurations until they pass the test.”
As new windows, doors, and exterior panels were installed, floor tiles were replaced in only a portion of rooms in order to stay on schedule (floors in other rooms were repaired, cleaned, and waxed). And 10 weeks and $5 million after the twister ripped through, little evidence remained of anything other than a summer remodeling job.
Study in Teamwork
“My experience has been mainly restoration and renovation types of projects,” DeVriese said, “and quite a number of municipal projects, which requires familiarity with public bidding laws. So I think that, combined, we cover pretty much the whole gamut, public and private.”
With the name change came a new discussion of where the firm should focus its energies.
“As a young architect, I was trained to design everything, and I guess I believe in that,” Jablonski said. “But when we formed a corporation, we took the opportunity to really look at what our strengths are. And it seems like almost all the projects both Brian and I worked on individually, even going back to being employed by other architects, were renovations and restorations. So we came up with the motto, ‘preserve, adapt, renew.’ I think that has a real selling power in New England because there’s so much that needs preservation, adaptation, and renewal.”
The next natural question, he said, was what types of customers they should focus on.
“We’re identified really strongly with three or four sectors,” he explained, including higher education; municipal and government work, which includes schools, libraries, park buildings, and museums; and historical buildings of all kinds, which can cut across many sectors.
The firm also does some residential work, “but in Western New England, we’ve found it’s very difficult to be successful in residential projects; there aren’t enough multi-million-dollar houses going up — certainly, in this economy, there are zero.”
The firm’s various areas of focus give it a diversity that can withstand economic trends, Jablonski explained.
“The nature of municipal work tends to be ebbing and flowing, and recently there’s been a serious ebb, and we don’t know when it’s going to start flowing again,” he said. “The great thing about higher education is, they’re fueled by tuitions and alumni donations and endowments. They’re not independent of the economy, but they’re often able to do things the other sectors can’t.”
The partners like to talk about ‘adaptive reuse’ when describing projects, and the firm’s design of the Museum of Springfield History at the Quadrangle is a good example. “It was an old Verizon office building,” Jablonski said. “Springfield Museums, because of its location, wanted to acquire it, but how could they use this as a museum? They didn’t want an office building.
“When people talk about sustainability and sound design, we feel that one of the best ways to embody that is to take resources that are already there — the bricks were already there, the wood, the windows, everything was there, but it didn’t have a current use. A lot of it is imagination, when something is transformed into another thing, but making sure it’s up to date with modern building codes.”
That museum project led to Springfield College hiring the firm for its complete renovation of Judd Gymnasia, renamed the Stitzer YMCA Center. For that design, Jablonski DeVries Architects received the Paul E. Tsongas Award from Preservation Massachusetts, as well as the Springfield Preservation Trust Award for Restoration/Stewardship.
The project had a museum component, Jablonski said, and the wife of college President Richard Flynn is a trustee at Springfield Museums. “She was aware of our work at the history museum, and really liked it, and said, ‘why not give these guys a try?’”
When that call came again last summer, under much more trying circumstances, ‘preserve, adapt, renew’ was more than a motto — it’s why students at International, Reed, and Massasoit halls didn’t have to find a new home.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]