Rebuilding the Barracks

Design and architecture expert Barry Wood brings his management skills to a major renovation project at the US Merchant Marine Academy

If Barry Wood looks familiar to you, there’s a reason for it. Wood, who grew up in Connecticut and studied architecture at Syracuse University, became a fashion model at a young age and eventually won a runway competition that led to work in New York City and Europe. He later started acting and went on to host TLC’s Trading Spaces and HGTV’s Hidden Potential.

The exposure attracted plenty of inquiries for residential projects as Wood obtained his license and opened b.wood Architects 15 years ago, but he didn’t want to be pigeonholed into just one sector of the industry. So, early on, he also helped design massive commercial projects such as the first W Hotel and the University of Maryland Medical System. Over time, his firm also added large-scale project-management and construction-management services, and today it’s overseeing complex, high-profile projects such as the more than $30 million renovation of three buildings at the US Merchant Marine Academy in King’s Point, New York.

Wood says his experience on projects in various markets and industries has brought him success as a construction and project manager, and he believes his background in design gives him an extra edge. “The ability to see the big picture really helps a project manager, and my clients benefit more because I’m also an architect,” he says. “Most managers are strong on engineering or construction, but I can answer more questions for the GC, interpret drawings, find errors, head off potential conflicts early on before they become costly, and understand what the architect intended.” Wood also stresses how important it is to listen to an owner and help prioritize his or her goals in order to minimize the need for alterations or corrections during a job.

“It involves a great deal of coordination and communication. It’s not enough to create a solid schedule; you actually have to adhere to it.” —Barry Wood, Owner & Principal
“It involves a great deal of coordination and communication. It’s not enough to create a solid schedule; you actually have to adhere to it.” —Barry Wood, Owner & Principal

The US Merchant Marine Academy project came to Wood while he was managing the construction of a brownstone in Brooklyn. The contractor for the academy had suggested Wood for the job when he realized the client was looking for a local, hands-on construction manager (Wood lives just 35 miles from the campus). As one of two construction managers, Wood is now overseeing work at Delano Hall, the midshipman dining room, and Rogers and Cleveland Halls, two dormitories.

As barracks buildings, Rogers and Cleveland Halls have similar needs. Rogers, at 50,000 square feet, with a renovation budget of $11 million, is slightly smaller than the 51,000-square-foot Cleveland, which is being renovated for $12 million. Both are undergoing complete gut rehabs that will leave just their concrete slabs and exterior walls intact, and construction crews will then install mechanical, electrical, and plumbing upgrades and update the buildings’ appliances and furnishings. As construction manager, Wood is coordinating every aspect of the detailed work, including the drilling of 158 geothermal wells.

The nature of the US Merchant Marine Academy has presented specific challenges for Wood to navigate. About 950 students occupy the 82-acre campus when class is in session, and hundreds stay behind between sessions. The academy is an active place laid out in a circle around a large quad. The renovation plans placed the geothermal wells in the center of the quad, which forced Wood to come up with creative circulation plans so that students and staff could maneuver around massive and messy drilling equipment without too much trouble. “It involves a great deal of coordination and communication,” Wood says. “It’s not enough to create a solid schedule; you actually have to adhere to it.”

That’s the tricky part. A construction manager on a large project can submit a schedule but remains at the mercy of the general contractor’s progress. Wood works closely with his GCs and pushes them to update project schedules at the start of every month. He then reviews their schedules and provides input and criticism. For the Merchant Marine project, he’s serving as a liaison between the federal government and trade contractors while making sure each party follows the academy’s strict protocols and layers of decision-making and approval. These issues are especially important because the contractors would have severe liquidated damages for late delivery of the project since incoming students would have nowhere else to live.

Wood started at Rogers Hall first and took the lessons he learned there to Cleveland Hall. At the latter, he was able to oversee the coordination of all trades and overlay drawings to see exactly where all mechanical, electrical, and plumbing lines would fall. The building was originally built in the 1940s and was filled with archaic and abandoned electrical, plumbing, steam, and gas lines. Wood convinced the client to spend the time and money necessary to remove old pieces and maximize the space for new systems. He then worked with his partners to bury some electrical feeds underground in a duct bank to further maximize space.

The expansive Delano Hall has presented its own challenges. Wood has so far managed a full overhaul and coordinated the delivery of a new hood system over all grills, kettles, ovens, and miscellaneous appliances. The hood was so large that teams had to transport it in parts with custom rigging equipment. Teams have also built six walk-in refrigerators on-site from the ground up, assembling each and every component, from chillers to sensors to lighting to alarms. Unlike in the dorms, Wood has had to comply with a mandate in Delano Hall to keep the kitchen fully operational during its renovation. So, he has helped the contractor and owner create a way to quarantine food-prep, cooking, and dishwashing spaces while gradually shifting the work zones over a period of 15 months.

Wood says a big part of his role is to protect clients and find hidden opportunities or unusual solutions. At the academy, for example, the plans called for a new fire pump to bring water to new fire-protection sprinkler systems. Wood’s team realized the stronger pump would actually be too powerful and was able to eliminate it in a move that saved more than $100,000.

On typical jobs, change orders average 10–15 percent of the overall construction budget, but Wood has a track record of beating those numbers. So far, he has kept Rogers Hall to 1.5 percent, Cleveland stands at 7.5, and Delano will soon be near 10 (although that project received upgrades that will benefit the entire campus, and there have been many unforeseen issues such as a perforated oil tank buried in the soil that required environmental remediation).

When its renovations are complete, the US Merchant Marine Academy will have a state-of-the-art kitchen and two more-efficient dormitories for its students. Wood, who is also managing a high-end townhouse at 393 Bleecker Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood and a synagogue in the borough of Queens, hopes to continue his work at the federal site and is looking to bring his expertise to other commercial and residential projects around the world.   

At Delano Hall, the midshipman dining room, Wood helped create a plan to quarantine sections of the kitchen so that the facility could continue to operate during construction.
At Delano Hall, the midshipman dining room, Wood helped create a plan to quarantine sections of the kitchen so that the facility could continue to operate during construction.