ARC Hackley School 11

Q&A with Independent School Expert Kurt Lavaway

Kurt Lavaway specializes in managing private independent school projects throughout New England and has a passion for streamlining processes and maximizing efficiencies.

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Q&A with Independent School Expert Kurt Lavaway

Kurt Lavaway, Associate AIA, MCPPO, is a Geographic Discipline Leader with Colliers Project Leaders and has more than 30 years of experience in structural engineering, architecture, and owner’s project management. He is passionate about exceeding client expectations, knows the ins-and-outs of managing building projects, and has a gift for streamlining processes. Kurt specializes in private independent school projects, spearheading logistics, and ensuring client satisfaction.

We sat down with Kurt to discuss his career and passions.

Why did you start out with a career in engineering?

I was attracted to both architecture and engineering when I went to college at Wentworth Institute of Technology. When I got out of college, it was the early ‘90’s and nobody was hiring for entry-level roles. I ended up working in the mailroom at ESPN, which, by the way, was the greatest job known to mankind! And if I got fired today, I'd go back to that job in a heartbeat. When I finally got a job in structural engineering about two years after college, it wasn't as creative as I would have liked. So, that’s when I transitioned to the architecture career path instead.

Why did you decide to transition into owner’s project management?

With my degree, I can work in either architecture or engineering. Once I switched to architecture, I liked that most, so I kept pursuing it. I got a job at SLAM early on. I stayed there for 17 years and rose in the ranks. But eventually I felt I was plateauing there and ready for the next challenge. I was already at one of the best architectural firms in Connecticut, so I felt that moving to another architectural firm was not going to be a significant enough change and, at 45 years old, I knew I still wanted to remain in the A/E industry. I knew Marc Sklenka, Discipline Leader at Colliers Project Leaders, because we had previously worked at SLAM together. So, I contacted Marc, and asked him about his current role in owner’s project management. The way he explained it was exciting. I didn't know if I could do it, but I took the leap. And I’ve been here now for 12 years.

What methods have you developed that make processes more efficient?

At SLAM, I was part of a committee that put together what we called the Redbook, a manual on how to do architecture at SLAM. Before that, SLAM had acquired different architectural firms and each firm would bring their own processes and ways of doing things. Drawings weren't consistent and there were a lot of opportunities for mistakes to be made. We streamlined the process, so everybody was rowing in the same direction. We were able to cut down on the hours spent on projects and we were able to do things faster and more profitably. About four or five years ago, we were at that same point here at Colliers Project Leaders and growing. I went to leadership and said, “This is the point where SLAM was, and we created this manual. I think we should do that here.” So, we started creating templates and processes to help us align and grow in the same direction. It’s hard to do while you’re also managing clients and staff, but I’m working on it.

What types of projects do you typically work on?

I’m primarily focused on private independent schools in Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts and will be starting to branch out to additional regions as we grow.

What led to that specific focus?

In 2011 I was working at King School in Stamford, CT on a complex “summer slammer” project. The project was pretty intense to complete over the summer. Everybody worked their butts off and we got it done on time and the client was pleased, which led them to refer Colliers to other independent schools in the area. It’s 12 years later and I’m still working for King School now, we haven’t stopped. And for most of the other independent schools that we get referred to, we keep getting repeat business over the years.

What is it about private independent school projects that you enjoy the most?

I like helping our clients with their projects when they are not sure where to start. When they say, “This was so much easier because you guys were here,” that makes all the hard work worth it. I don’t need or want them to pat me on the back, but it’s just fun to know that you did something for someone that they might not have been able to get done by themselves without your help.

In what ways does the construction of a private school facility differ from a typical building?

The difference is in the client’s needs. With a private school, there are different logistics. When you're a family spending a significant amount of money every year on tuition, you expect certain things. You have to hire companies that aren't going to create havoc. We’ve got to make sure contractors don’t make noise on a test day for instance. If there's a function for parents, we can’t have too many contractors park on campus that day because we need parking available for parents and visitors. There's just a different sensibility that you must bring to this type of project.

Tell me about your favorite school project.

The health and wellness center at Hackley School was a really cool project because it was a gigantic, high-end athletic complex with quite a few interesting features. Somebody associated with the school found a painting in their attic and gave it to the school. The school brought it to Sotheby’s, and they were able to finance nearly the entire project with the sale of that one painting – I think it was a Monet.

What was the largest or most complex project that you've worked on?

When I was working as an architect at SLAM, there was an 11-story tower for Danbury Hospital with two helipads that I was fortunate to be included on the design team. We did renovations and additions, and it was all on a steep hill of rock. It was technically complicated but turned out to be a very cool project. You could see it from everywhere in Danbury.

What advice has helped you throughout your career?

When I came here, I remember Jon Winikur, Division Director, telling me it was going to take a year to figure this job out. And he was right. Even though I knew everything there was to know about putting buildings together, I didn't know how to do this job. Jon also said, “You've got to stay ahead of everything.” In other words, you can't let something linger, because things multiply every day. And by the end of the week, you can't get out from underneath it. If I didn't get that advice, I think I would have struggled a lot more than I did.

Do you have any mentors that have helped shape your success?

When I arrived at Colliers Project Leaders, Marc Sklenka had been here for about 10 years. He taught me pretty much everything I know about this job. He was a mentor and he helped me along the way and was a great sounding board.

Do you have any advice to share with someone thinking of getting into the owner’s project management field?

The people who excel in this field know the industry extremely well. Whether you're an engineer or an architect, you've been trained in the field. So, when you get here, you know how to manage it. And, if you don't know anything about the industry, you have to be organized and proactive. You can learn it, but you can't do well if you're not organized, proactive, and anticipating what’s to come on a project.


Click here to learn how Kurt and the Colliers Project Leaders team can assist with your next private independent school project.