The engineering firm Dewberry helped convince voters in Deerfield, Illinois, that a renovation and expansion of its public library would be more cost-effective than continuing to maintain the existing building as it was. © Dewberry/Dave Huh, photographer
Some design, engineering, and construction firms find that addressing public project funding early and creatively helps move them forward in the face of tight and uncertain budgets.
February 25, 2014—With engineering and construction projects in the public sector beset with funding uncertainty in the lasting wake of the Great Recession, some engineering and design firms have found that taking on a greater role in securing funding can help ensure that a project moves forward. Although some firms were already developing this expertise before the recession, they have found that it pays greater dividends today.
In October 2012, the Bay Park Wastewater Treatment Plant, in Nassau County, New York, was severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy. The plant’s critical electrical systems were destroyed when 9 ft of water inundated the facility. The plant, which provides service to half a million residents, was completely shut down for more than two days as about 200 million gallons of raw sewage was released. Full treatment wasn’t restored at the 70 mgd capacity plant for more than six weeks.
The Nassau County (New York) Department of Public Works (DPW) tasked a joint venture of ARCADIS, the Dutch engineering firm with a U.S. headquarters in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, and Hazen and Sawyer, P.C., an engineering firm based in New York City, to stabilize the situation and help develop a plan to restore the plant and improve its resiliency. As soon as the plant was stabilized, ARCADIS sent a team of funding experts to work with the engineers to determine the best path forward.
“One of the unique things about the Bay Park project is [that] we had great clarity, early on, about what potential funding sources were available to us,” says Peter Glus, P.E., a vice president of ARCADIS and its business development director for New York City. “The county cast a very large vision of what they wanted to do,” he says. “And [the funding] team worked with the engineers at the plant to build toward that vision.”
The DPW was awarded $810 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for the project. That’s the largest level of support FEMA has awarded for a Hurricane Sandy recovery project, according to a press release by New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, who committed at least $73 million in additional federal community development block grant funds to the project.
The project includes multiple tiers of defense against future large storms and storm surge. The first level of defense is a dike around the plant. Inside the plant, the electrical system will be elevated and hardened against water. Pump stations will also be hardened. New, upgraded (though not actually larger) sewage collection lines will better manage storm flow surges.
One of the funding experts that ARCADIS sent to Nassau County was Carly Foster, a certified facility manager and a senior planner at the firm who specializes in hazard mitigation projects.
“As a hazard mitigation planner, I was already familiar with all of the federal sources that would be available to the facility,” Foster explains. “I flew to New York, went to the facility, and met with engineers. We talked through the entire mitigation planning and decision-making process and determined the highest priorities for protection at the facility.”
That legwork was necessary if the project was to obtain as much funding from outside sources as possible. “In order to apply for these grants, you have to show that you have identified the best, most cost-effective projects,” Foster explains. “A lot of the time, if you don’t use this planning process to identify the necessary projects, and you think you have a solution before you really understand the problem, you’re going to have to justify your projects in a backwards way—which takes a lot of time [and] a lot more energy, and you are a lot less likely to be successful. You have to justify every decision that was made. If you realize your decisions weren’t very good, you have to rewind.”
One key to the project’s successful funding was the extreme resiliency of the design and the fact that even so, the solutions identified were practical and cost-effective. The hydrologists and planners developed a strategy that accommodates a 500-year storm event, plus 3 ft to account for freeboard, a safety factor, and anticipated sea level rise over the course of the next 50 years.
Knowing what funding was available for the project and how to secure it helped the engineers design the best solution, Glus says. “Two, three, or four months after a storm, you are making a lot of decisions about what you are going to fix. You have to fix things immediately in order to bring them back to normal functionality,” Glus says. But in some cases, it is better to install temporary fixes and plan a future, permanent solution that might be more comprehensive and add a greater level of resiliency.
“You are always caught in this tension,” Glus says. “If you don’t have a complete vision of the magnitude of the project and what funding options are available to you, you’re in this really difficult situation where you are trying to decide between implementing permanent or temporary solutions.
“Engineers make tremendous plans. But it’s the plans that get funded that become real,” he explains. “If you can’t fund your plan, you don’t have a plan.”
Another example comes from a point roughly 860 mi west of Long Island, where the City of Deerfield, Illinois, recently completed a renovation and expansion of its public library. The library project was funded by an $11.7-million bond referendum. Voters approved the measure in 2010, arguably the worst time in decades to seek public approval for a project that would increase taxes. Voters had already rejected a larger referendum to replace the library in 2004, when the economy was much stronger. The project was designed by the Elgin, Illinois, office of Dewberry, headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia.
“In our office, about 95 percent of the work that we do is publicly funded,” notes Doug Pfeiffer, AIA, LEED-AP, a director of Dewberry. “The work that we do is dependent upon the support of the community and taxpayer dollars. And in our case, there are two prongs that we invest our time in. One side is the grant support and the other side is helping to support the passage of referendums and building taxpayer support.”
Pfeiffer says the idea of helping to support bond referendums has evolved over the past decade at the company, but came into sharper focus after the economic downturn of 2008. The Deerfield Library was “an eye opener” and the first of a new model, Pfeiffer says. “In the past we would typically be asked to help design a building, so there was something tangible that we could present to the public and ask for their support. The second time around—right at the worst possible time to go ask taxpayers for money—we took a different approach and demonstrated the need,” he says.
To demonstrate the need, the team prepared a detailed cost-of-ownership analysis for the building. This analysis clearly showed that the aging building would cost the community as much as $2 million in mechanical upgrades that did nothing to increase the level of services that the library could provide. “We started to ask the question, ‘If you are going to spend $2 million over the next 5 years to replace mechanical systems and electrical systems that are at the end of life, at the end of the day … do you have a library that functions the way it needs to for the next 20 years? Is that $2 million a wise investment to make?’” Pfeiffer asks.
The firm didn’t campaign for the referendum or participate in polling efforts, but helped the Deerfield Public Library with a grassroots education campaign to present the idea of a more significant renovation and expansion project to voters. It wasn’t until late in the process, as voters began to favor the proposal and became curious as to the form it might take, that the team developed general plans of what the renovation and expansion would entail.
Although Pfeiffer says the funding environment is easing from the worst days of the recession, this new model of presenting the business case for public projects to the public in advance of the design might become a new paradigm.
“There is a real trust deficit that exists between our public representatives and the community,” Pfeiffer says. “Right or wrong, there is suspicion there. It became very clear that there was a need to step up our participation in the process.
“We are hired as an expert on behalf of the client. We have expertise and experience that they don’t have,” Pfeiffer says. “We can bring our experience from having 15 to 20 years of history working on these types of buildings.” And that experience can help projects go from drawing board to reality—even in difficult economic times.