From teddy bears to I-beams: Senior living projects present varied challenges

Part way through the renovation of a senior living community, a Plano-Coudon superintendent discovered that a wandering teddy bear could be a valuable construction tool.

Bob Butt was overseeing demolition of a dining room at Buckingham’s Choice, an Integrace community near Frederick, when he found the abandoned stuffed toy.

Residents were keenly interested in the renovation project which included remaking the dining room, multi-purpose room, several offices and corridors. They monitored progress through the plexiglass windows that Plano-Coudon had installed in the temporary walls around the dining room construction site. They questioned Butt and other workers about each day’s activities, and sometimes seemed disappointed if a few days work didn’t generate dramatic changes.

After finding the teddy bear, Butt got the idea that the toy could become a new point of interest in his closely watched construction site.

“I put the teddy bear inside the dining room and, for the six or eight months I was on that site, I would move it to a new location at least once a week,” he said.

Residents began avidly looking for the bear, which spent time hanging from the ceiling or doorknobs, taped to windows, or sitting atop a 25-foot-high arch. A few residents regularly photographed the bear as they documented the renovation process.

Those interactions fueled a warm relationship between Butt and some seniors who were contending with a renovation within their home.

“He knew them all by name,” said Andrew Hooker, Project Manager on the Buckingham’s Choice renovation. “It was funny as we were demobilizing at the end of the project to see how many residents came up and gave him hugs because they just loved talking with him and they were going to miss him.”

Successfully handling renovation projects within senior living communities requires contractors to make some extra efforts.

“At pre-bid meetings, I tell general contractors that they need to be thinking that they are working in their grandmother’s home,” said Robert Albright, Vice President of Facilities Development for Integrace.

Plano-Coudon, he said, has done “some very nice things to engage residents” and develop good relationships during several renovation projects.

“That’s important because if you have 300 residents, you have 300 sidewalk superintendents,” Albright said.

Senior living projects also require many of the same rigors exercised in healthcare renovation projects.

“One of the first things I do at a senior living site is identify all the air conditioning/heating ductwork,” said Tom Lotz, the Plano-Coudon Superintendent on several senior living projects. “We need to isolate all the air from our work area and create an envelope between us and the residents. If we are making a dusty mess, we don’t want that to get sucked into the air handling unit and then blown into a dining room.”

Lotz instructs all workers on site about extra precautions they must follow, including securing all tools and materials away from residents, ensuring they firmly close doors to sensitive areas such as memory-care wings, and taking extra care in removing any possible trip hazards.

“Some people can be disoriented or less mobile, so they trip more easily,” said Adam Bell, Project Executive. “You have to think about the person who is using a walker and maybe dragging their feet. A loose piece of carpet could be a tripping hazard for that person.”

Scheduling and phasing work on a senior living renovation can be especially complex.

“There is a lot of different things going on in a place like that,” Lotz said.

Construction crews need to work around the schedules of business offices, commercial kitchens and dining rooms, healthcare services, special events and the daily life activities of residents. To minimize disruption, contractors need to do extensive planning and preparation before beginning any site work, and collaborate with facility maintenance staff to plan, minimize and provide long notice of any outages. That coordination sometimes involves dividing work between day- and overnight-shifts, or temporarily securing work within a kitchen so that staff can continue to serve residents mid-renovation and inspectors can access essential installations.

Builders also need to be prepared to handle the occasional structural challenge in the midst of those conditions and in front of a large audience.

The Buckingham’s Choice renovation, for example, included major structural work in order to expand the multi-purpose room.

“We had to move a number of steel beams which meant going through the floor, down through the slab and into the earth below. That’s the kind of thing that keeps guys like me awake at night,” Albright said. “Plano-Coudon gave me a feeling of comfort because I know they have done some very large and complicated projects… I also like how methodical Plano-Coudon is. They don’t rush just to get something done. If they are doing a project, they are doing it safely and very professionally.”

That process eased Albright’s concerns as Plano-Coudon worked through the structural changes and executed the most dramatic piece of the work.

“They had to bring in this huge, 20-foot-long I-Beam,” Albright said. “They had to take out an exterior window, bring it across the resident corridor and into the dining room, maneuver it into place and get the old beam out. It was difficult and it was quite a show for the residents.”