School construction among key themes at US-German Partnering Conference

Published April 10, 2014
REGENSBURG, Germany – Lessons learned during the planning and design phases of several school projects around the state of Rhineland-Palatinate will pave the way to greater efficiencies in what remains an active recapitalization program by the Department of Defense Education Activity in Europe, U.S. and German officials said recently at their annual Partnering Conference.

It was among numerous topics discussed here March 26-27 as U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District leaders got together with key counterparts from German federal and state ministries. The forum also included Bauamts representing regional construction offices in Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Rheinland-Pfalz and Hessen.

The gathering, first staged in 1992, is aimed at highlighting progress, ironing out differences, and gaining a stronger understanding between the U.S. and German partners. More than 100 people attended the two-day session, which returned to Regensburg for the first time since 2000.

“Regensburg is not only a medieval city, but has been a university city for more than 50 years,” Johannes Nolte, chief of the Bavarian State Construction Directorate in Nürnberg, said in his opening remarks. “One of Bavaria’s most important universities is located in this city. Therefore, we could not have found a better place to address the topic of education that will be mentioned in connection with the school construction program.”

Overall, Europe District is responsible for the planning, design, and construction of 40 current and future school projects totaling about $1.8 billion, according to Lisa Bobotas, the agency’s Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe program manager. That includes replacement or renovation work at Army garrisons or Air Force bases in Grafenwoehr, Wiesbaden, Spangdahlem, Rheinland-Pfalz and Stuttgart.

From now through 2017, the district is expected to manage more than $900 million in school construction in Germany, as well as Belgium, the United Kingdom and Turkey.

Last November, ground was broken on a new elementary and high school complex at Panzer Local Training Area near Stuttgart, as well as a project that will expand the middle and high schools in Ansbach. Work is scheduled to begin this spring on an addition to Netzaberg Middle School in Grafenwoehr.

Hainerberg Elementary, Wiesbaden Middle School, Kaiserslautern Elementary and Ramstein High School are among the other ventures funded in fiscal year 2014.

“Our biggest challenge is dealing with technical differences between German and U.S. codes and standards,” Bobotas said. “In particular, the open classrooms in our 21st-century schools do not have a German equivalent and therefore leave it up to interpretation as to what applies. These are particular challenges with respect to fire protection and life safety.”

Among several lessons learned from past school project collaborations, U.S. and German planners hope to shorten and simplify the design process for basic elements and concepts, particularly if they can be applied to multiple projects, said Wilfried Hoffmann, the U.S. school construction program project manager for LBB Rheinland-Pfalz’s Trier Branch.

“The single projects must not be viewed as isolated measures but must always be considered in the context of the program,” he said through a translator. “This way, not only synergies between the single projects can be used effectively, but also coordination can be performed principally and for several projects, which means that many topics do not need to be discussed separately in every project.”

Hoffmann said the advanced schematic design concept used in Rhineland-Palatinate’s recent school projects required more time than the traditional ABG-75 procedure. The need to incorporate German rules and regulations into the design led to additional costs.

ASD changes are forthcoming as modified pre-planning methods that started two years ago will be condensed, said Lalit Wadhwa, the assistant deputy district engineer. The U.S. side is set to do a smaller percentage of estimate work.

“Experience from the current projects has shown that the requirements toward design have sometimes not been determined sufficiently at the start,” Hoffmann said. “This shows the importance of finalized requirements planning before the actual start of design.”

Through its “21st-century teaching and learning” model, DODEA wants to align the latest instruction and learning concepts with state-of-the-art facilities that maximize energy and sustainability features while changing the focus from teacher-centered to student-centered education.

However, facility education specifications developed for the 21st-century program represent a “living document,” Hoffmann said, adding that construction trends and any savings that might be generated in the design process through adjustments must always be considered.

“The specifications constitute special challenges for all stakeholders due to the required flexibility regarding the building design and use,” he said. “It’s a document that is updated and completed constantly. It is important to determine the status of the [education specifications] for a special project to avoid design changes.”

Hoffmann said the LBB created his position in part to optimize the exchange of information between the German construction authority, Europe District and stakeholders from both sides. While the Partnering Conference is well suited for initiating basic discussions, other panels such as the DODDS program steering group are vital to solving complex issues, he added.

“By ensuring the flow of communication and information, coordination processes can be harmonized, as well as accelerated and simplified,” he said.

The conference agenda also featured working group presentations on additional services; the optimized handling of supplements, deficiencies and construction time extensions; and contract closeout. Progress was reported in several areas, but fire protection remains a contentious topic for American and German officials.

U.S. fire code requires sprinkler systems, while strict German regulations call for thick walls and doors. District officials maintain it’s cost-prohibitive to install both. Wadhwa said talks between the sides have been ongoing in working groups and elsewhere for 18 months.

“We need to bring this to conclusion,” he added. “It’s costing us a lot of headache, time and money.”

Matthias Vollmer, director of building engineering for the German Federal Ministry of Transportation, Building and Urban Affairs, said there’s a strong need for further negotiations.

“We are most interested in unified solutions,” he said through a translator. “It is incredibly important to create an environment like this in which we can discuss these difficult issues. … We certainly hope this conference can continue as we do this constructive work.”

This marked the final Partnering Conference for Col. Peter Helmlinger, the Europe District commander, who’s set to turn over the leadership post in June.

The meeting allows both sides to strive for tighter collaboration and find mutually beneficial solutions that meet engineering challenges, he said. The partners get an opportunity to exchange ideas, best practices and learn more about the other’s requirements.

“It’s been a tremendous experience for me these past three years,” the colonel said. “As I look back at all the ribbon-cutting and groundbreaking ceremonies we attended, I see the tremendous success we have brought together. I am proud of the teamwork and partnerships we’ve built.

“We have our challenges and differences of opinion, but our teams have always been able to work together and overcome them. We’ve made a big difference in the lives of our Soldiers and families as we support the NATO defense alliance in Germany.”