Poway Unified School District (PUSD) extends over 100 square miles of California’s northern San Diego County. In my 22 years with the district, the area’s rapid population growth has driven our expansion from 15 school sites to 35. As part of my position as director of maintenance and operations, I’m involved with negotiating contracts for building the athletic fields, along with the installation of the other external landscape and hardscape features and the construction of the buildings at each site. With 20 new sites developed over that time, and work on three new sites now in the construction phase, I’ve learned what to do—and what not to do—when negotiating contracts.

The field construction contract should include wording that ensures all subsurface work is completed in accordance with the approved field specs. Right, Keep a digital camera on hand to record field construction details, such as placement of piping.

Preparing the specifications

Development of our high school sites is approximately a five-year process from conception to completion, with about two years spent in the actual construction phase. Ideally, the individual in charge of the athletic fields will be involved at the very beginning, as soon as the decision is made to add another site.

To ensure success, we need to know everything we possibly can about the site we’re going to be working on—the soils; the direction of the setting; the prevailing winds; the microclimates; whether reclaimed, potable water or both will be used—every possible detail that will impact the sports fields. We need to know what sport, or sports, each field will be used for and who the user groups will be.

Since I have been with the PUSD for many years, I have developed considerable data from past projects to augment the findings at the site targeted for development to help anticipate issues that might occur. Those new to the ownership group will want to examine data from its previous field construction projects and draw on that as well as their own past experience at other facilities.

We make a realistic assessment of the budgeting for post-installation maintenance to determine what will be available in equipment, materials and staffing. We have standards already established in writing and have the programs in place to ensure that our personnel are trained and thoroughly understand what is expected of them so that our staff operates efficiently and effectively. We plan on at least a year lead time before the design stage to gather all of this information so we’ll be able to develop the specs with the site designer or landscape architect based on our program.

During the initial meeting with the architect, we are prepared to explain what we want and why we want it so they can design each sports field to meet our usage needs within our budgetary parameters for maintenance. We get down to the specifics. For example, we’ve already developed standards for our irrigation systems to maintain consistency throughout our sites, so we state the size of the piping, the layout of the design and which heads, valves, fertilizer injection systems and controllers we want. Though we’ve already done site analysis during our initial planning, we want the designer to pull soil samples and provide us with a copy of the soil report so we’re working from the same data. If we have a similar soil in a field at another site, we’ll know what amendments have worked and what haven’t worked for a modified native soil field and can specify what should be used. We work with this level of detail all the way through the design development, from the positioning of the fields on the site through the turf selection.

PUSD has some bermudagrass baseball fields that stay green year-round, while others are overseeded. Some football/soccer combination fields are an overseeded bermuda; others are a synthetic turf system. The choice depends on potential field use and on the funds budgeted for maintenance.

We anticipate the different options available all through the process and research the cost differentials. For example, we may specify seeding of some fields where timing and weather conditions are favorable. For some fields, we may want to specify bermudagrass sod overseeded by the sod supplier. For others, we may have our staff overseed the sod as it is being installed to reduce the seed and application costs and utilize the same irrigation water to establish both the sod and the overseeding.

We never assume the written specifications provided by the designer will reflect all the details we’ve provided. We thoroughly review the specifications that pertain to the sports fields and note where changes are needed. We also review the blueprint drawings and compare them to the written specifications. The two documents should be an exact match. Some facilities may require that changes work through a designated individual or department to be relayed to the designer. My school district allows me to work directly with the architect. When changes are needed, I explain not only what we want, but also why it is needed. For example, I’ll ask that schedule 80 pipe be used at a certain site because we have so much clay in the soil it expands and contracts, causing main line breaks with piping of a lesser strength.

Negotiating the contract

The contract we negotiate with the architect or designer stipulates that they will develop the specifications and blueprints to our satisfaction, and that they will stay with the project until it’s completed. That’s through the construction and the post-construction grow-in. It also stipulates that they provide a set of “as-built” drawings within a specified time of the completion of construction.

Build inspection points into the contract to ensure that steps, such as grading, are completed according to the specifications. Inspection at pre-negotiated points will ensure the field surface is adequately prepared for the next step in construction. Negotiate approval of the final grade prior to seeding or sod installation.
Negotiate wording in the contract that allows a representative of the owner to be on-site for observation and oversight at any point within the field construction and postconstruction
maintenance periods.
With the sod in place, the 90-day, post-construction, grow-in stage begins. The new field takes shape with the skinned infield and sod installed.

As a governmental entity, all of our construction contracts go out for bid and are awarded to the low bidder. The general contactor who is awarded the contract will name subcontractors for certain segments of the construction. These subcontractors perform their work at the site within the terms of the main contract issued to the general contractor.

I’ll participate in all the negotiation meetings involved with development of the construction contract. The specifications and blueprints are extremely important, because we include wording in the contract that they will be followed subject to our approval, and we name the inspection points. We also negotiate a grow-in maintenance period, usually 90 days, from the point of seeding or sod installation. We build in a one-year warranty on the computerized irrigation systems covering the controllers, flow sensors, weather station, any relays to the controller, the main line and the remote control valves. We also include boilerplate wording in the contract that the owner (PUSD) has the right to be on-site and provide oversight as the owner deems necessary.

Each contract is reviewed by the school system’s lawyer to ensure that it is accurate, all details are included, the language is legally correct, and all the protections are in place as required for public works contacts.

Once the bidding process is completed and the contract is awarded, I meet with the general contractor to further emphasize that we’re going to follow the specifications and the blueprints and, if there’s going to be any deviation in that, I need to know about it right away. If the contractor were to say that the main line needed to be moved a certain distance because of a specific site issue, I can make that decision, authorize the change, and then go back to the architect with it.

It’s important for the on-site supervisor to build rapport with the contractors working on the project so that communications flow smoothly. I’ll make a site visit at least weekly from the start of construction throughout the process. Our grounds supervisor, who reports directly to me, will be there at least three days a week and is the primary on-site contact. We also have two irrigation technicians, who report directly to our grounds supervisor. One of them will be on-site at least three times a week. All have direct access to me at any time, if needed.

We start developing a punch list with the first site visit and continue throughout the construction period. Even if everything appears to be moving forward as scheduled with no glitches, we continue the frequent site visits. We want to be on hand for every step.

The inspection points (or job walks) for augmented native soil fields are: at rough grade; at installation of the main lines; at the delivery of the soil amendments; after the soil amendments are ripped into the native soil; at the final grade; at the completion of the irrigation installation for a coverage test; at the point of seeding or sodding; at 45 days into the post-construction maintenance period; and at two weeks prior to the end of the post-construction maintenance period.

Usually, the architect, a representative of the general contractor, a representative of the subcontractor whose work is under review, our grounds supervisor and I take part in the job walks. The architect will have the specifications in hand during this process.

We’ll be reviewing the punch list we’ve been developing. For example, at rough grade, we’re checking for the proper crown and the proper drainage and I’m ensuring that anything we’ve questioned has been corrected. Our right of approval has been negotiated into the contract, so they can’t move beyond the inspection points unless we say so.

The weight of the contract is behind us, but because none of us are perfect, there will be further negotiations along the way. It could be our fault if we’ve missed something in the specs or the contract verbiage. That can open the door for the low bidder to become the highest bidder via change orders. That’s why I put so much work into the on-site discovery and development of the specifications prior to negotiating the contract. I want the contractors to know what they’re going to find so their bid is based on the correct conditions of the site.

Above, A view of the turf looking across the outfield toward the fence. Right, Bullseye bermudagrass overseeded with perennial ryegrass.

So, if they ask to begin the main line excavation at the same time as they are dealing with the rough grade punch list so they can keep the project on schedule, I’ll consider it. If they’re working toward the corrections, I’ll probably approve it and anticipate they’ll be more likely to work with us on an issue where we’re requesting an adjustment. The more we can accomplish working cooperatively, the better. My goal is to get the field we specified within the contracted budget and timeframe.

By the time we get to the job walk at the next stage, all the punch list items from the previous stage should be completed to my satisfaction. We may negotiate some trade-offs at the grow-in stage, depending on the contractor’s expertise, weather conditions and our staffing levels.

By continually overseeing the operations, keeping open communications and negotiating adjustments along the way, we should reach the 45-day inspection point with only minimal details on the punch list. That’s critical, because at the end of the 90 days, all items must be fixed and repaired to my satisfaction (not the architect’s) since, within the terms of the contract, we retain the right to extend the maintenance period until everything earns that approval.

Mike Tarantino is director of maintenance and operations for the Poway Unified School District. He can be reached via e-mail at mtarantino@powayusd.com


Synthetic Fields: Balancing Costs with Field Use

The contracts for construction of synthetic fields are much like those of natural grass fields. The specifications for synthetic fields cover similar subsoil work, including the drainage. The irrigation system, and the materials specified for the underlying layer and the field surface, and the post-construction warranty are the primary differences. The same attention to detail is needed throughout contract negotiations to ensure the field meets the facility’s needs within the allocated budget.

The major stadium fields at the PUSD high school sites are all synthetic systems. The standard synthetic field warranty is for eight to 10 years. The payback from the initial investment is closer to 10 or 12 years, though we may extend use up to 15 years in our environment. Basically, near the point of reaching payback, we’ll be looking at the options for replacing the synthetic surface. From a traditional business standpoint, that’s not a financially wise investment. The decision to use synthetics is based on the multiple sports and non-sports activities that will take place on the field, the safety and sustainability factors, and the need to satisfy both the school and the community based user groups. From the playability factor, for our high school and community sports, it’s a good match.