If you’re meeting with Sandra Duran, you better be prepared to keep up. During her interview, Duran’s phone chimes repeatedly, signaling a slew of new emails and messages. Finally, it rings, and she answers. There’s a water leak in a building at St. Mark’s School, where she works as director of facilities. Today, Duran is wearing a white hard hat with her name on it, a gift from a contractor. A clerk of the works is out sick, and in addition to her regular job duties, Duran is filling in.
A lifetime of hard work prepared her for this demanding role. In fact, Duran can hardly remember life outside of the construction industry. Her father and mother started a small roofing and maintenance company in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when she was just nine years old. Soon, the young Duran was shoveling gravel for her father’s roofing projects into small buckets. As the business grew, Duran grew along with it. She learned to read blueprints, estimate projects, assist with payroll, and clean the office. When she was just 18 years old, Duran joined the carpenters’ union, took an apprenticeship, and later managed large projects.
But Duran wanted more. She was drawn to New England and dreamed of studying mechanical engineering at Northeastern University, so at age 21, she moved to Boston with two suitcases, two cats, and $600. Duran landed a job at a small design-build firm, enrolled in college, and set out on a new path.
In her early roles, Duran created and maintained large CPM schedules, administered corporate safety programs, negotiated contracts, and managed projects. In 1994, she started her long tenure with the City of Boston. As a construction manager, Duran was responsible for the implementation of a critical lead abatement and rehabilitation program.
“We were working with homeowners to change their living environment in safe and responsible ways,” she recalls. “It was really gratifying work and I had the chance to step into larger leadership roles.” Soon, Duran was creating policies, recruiting contractors, and working with agencies like HUD and the EPA on large environmental and remediation projects. She later managed the city’s tax foreclosed and surplus property.
As Duran rose through the ranks, she developed important relationships with city and state leaders, architects, contractors, and other key partners she still relies on today. She also developed a reputation for her direct, transparent, and respectful leadership style. Duran was recruited to the state level and spent four years as the director of facilities, managing a building portfolio of more than ten million square feet of occupied and surplus space, and one year as acting deputy commissioner for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
After many years in management, Duran longed to return to her roots and get her hands dirty again. That chance came when a former colleague recruited her to the Perkins School for the Blind, where Duran spent three years as director of facilities and property management. The role gave Duran a view into congregant living and serving individuals with unique needs.
Nicholas Derr, project development leader of CannonDesign’s facility optimization solutions team, recalls his collaboration with Duran during an assessment of Perkins. “Sandra fostered an environment of collaboration and respect. She welcomed our team on site, gave us a place to work, walked the grounds with us, and made sure her team had the time to commit to working with our facilities and operations experts,” Derr says. “Sandra never micromanaged us. She knew when to step back and let the teams work, but she also understood when to step back in and break bread with the teams and be a leader.”
By 2018, Duran was moving and looking for a new position. She heard about an opening at St. Mark’s School, and when she drove by the 200-acre preparatory school in Southborough, she knew it was a perfect fit. “The school’s leaders wanted someone they could truly collaborate with,” Duran says. “As I looked at the beautiful campus, I saw many ways I could use my life’s experience to help make an immediate impact.”
St. Mark’s, founded in 1865, is one of the region’s oldest private boarding schools. Although the campus started as a one-building schoolhouse, it has grown over the years to include classrooms, residence halls, arts and athletic centers, playing fields, a chapel, and 33 faculty homes comprising 71 housing units.
Over the past three years, Duran has focused on tackling a deferred maintenance list to help modernize the historic school’s facilities. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she leaned on her experience in the construction of cleanrooms, regulatory compliance, and healthy buildings to help make necessary adjustments. Duran helped St. Mark’s install bipolarization HVAC systems and transition to medical-grade HEPA filters that provide students and staff the safest possible environment.
The school is also getting some major upgrades. In 2020, Duran and her team completed a new entrance at St. Mark’s East Gallery. They demolished an outdated stairway and office, relocated beloved hemlock and dogwood trees, and created an accessible entrance to the main building. An outdoor patio and multilevel gallery with panoramic glass walls creates a natural gathering space and also showcases work from St. Mark’s art program.
St. Mark’s is also getting a new 90,400-square-foot residence hall that will house 140 students and 12 faculty apartments. “We’re working to provide new and modern facilities that will give our students the best experience possible here,” says Duran. The structure will replace a dorm on the far west side of campus and bring students closer together.
At the end of the day, when Duran removes her director hat and goes home to her partner and children, she’s energized. She knows she’s making a difference for students and faculty at St. Mark’s. For young women aspiring to follow in her footsteps, she has a few simple words: “Be assertive and accept nothing less than equality, inclusion, and equity in the workplace.”