Experience matters: When it comes to correctional projects, look beyond the resume

When you go to the doctor, you want the best of the best operating on you. The same is true for construction, especially for justice and correctional projects. When creating a building from the ground up, experience that’s recent, relevant and local matters. From building a sound structure to understanding cost benefits, it’s imperative to choose wisely when selecting a general contractor to build new correctional facilities and improve existing spaces.


Rick Bruining, project executive in the BELL Building Division, is an industry veteran with 36 years of experience. He has gained substantial knowledge in the justice and corrections market sector through his previous experience as agency construction manager, construction administration, detention equipment contractor, general contractor, design-build and construction manager at risk on local, federal, state and private corrections projects. He has been involved in over 170 correctional projects nationwide with over 34,000 beds, and is recognized as an expert in the field.


Alex Roten, project manager on BELL’s Building Division team, works alongside Rick and understands the benefit of having an experienced industry veteran to learn from as a new professional entering the justice sector.


We sat down with Rick and Alex to learn more about the value of wisdom and experience when selecting a general contractor for justice and corrections projects.


Q: What should owners know about how to select the general contractor for justice projects?

Rick: Before work can begin, contractors with corrections experience know a sound strategy must be developed. Attention to detail is essential. This starts with development of specs so everything is built the proper way to prevent rework and added time fixing items that were not specified or executed properly in the design and pre-construction phase. An experienced contractor is going to be much better at developing schedules, adding things that must be included and removing what’s not necessary. When creating an accurate budget, experienced contractors have access to historical data as well as current project data to develop precise budgets and forecasts. Experience also gives contractors an eye for missing or unnecessary items. At the heart of it all is the ability to know how to truly help clients – customizing the job based on needs and having a deep knowledge of the industry to discern the best plan of action.


As new players enter the Nashville market, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there’s a difference between experience and a resume. Owners should make sure that the actual people working on their project not only have the qualifications, but also the knowledge and experience to deliver a successful outcome. Owners should ensure those involved with the project are intimately familiar with how justice and correctional work differs from other building types as well as the pros and cons of specific products and suppliers for these types of facilities.


Q: Does it matter if a contractor has corrections experience but it’s all out of state/market?

Rick: As Nashville booms and attracts more out-of-state talent, it’s becoming more common for large national companies headquartered elsewhere to pursue local and regional projects. Although these players may be well known, their company leaders often are unlikely to be the ones who will lead projects at a local level. This is one of BELL’s differentiators – we not only have executives with experience that know the market well, but we are physically present and active in all projects. Additionally, we know the right local companies and subcontractors to partner with who use the right suppliers to get the work done. I spend a lot of time educating our partners on how the justice and corrections market sector works, from reading the plans to explaining processes and products. Strong established relationships are a key factor to getting products in time. Experience also plays a significant role in understanding lead times and knowing when products need to be ordered.


Q: Why does previous experience matter so much in the corrections sector?

Rick: While laying a solid foundation with the right strategy and partners engaged is key for all sectors, there are also many critical items that are specific to the justice and corrections market sector. There are a myriad of interconnected project elements, like security, rear vs. front chases, furnishings, specialized painting, and cell types that are important to understand fully in order to implement properly. For example, it’s imperative to make sure all cell fixtures are anti-ligature and all gaps are covered with security sealant. Failure to account for this in the beginning can lead to change orders, ultimately adding scope and cost to fix properly. It’s imperative to understand and plan for these early and throughout the project.


Q: As a young project manager learning the justice/correctional sector, what’s one piece of advice you’d give to owners?

Alex: It’s vital to find a trustworthy company with reputable on-site experience early in the development process. Equally as important, if not more important, is having personnel within the company that are well-connected and respected within the justice/correctional sector. Having relationships directly with vendors and installers can be extremely beneficial over the life of the project – from determining what cell type and cell construction is the best for your application to giving valuable input and providing real-life experience through the design review phases. Additionally direct relationships with vendors and installers can ensure scopes are being completely covered and competitive bidding is occurring, while also providing a quality product on time and within budget with the many nuances present in this sector of work. At BELL, we are lucky enough to have Rick Bruining as our Justice lead. Rick knows almost every player in the justice/correctional sector and brings these relationships to the table for our projects.


Q: What should owners know about the benefits of prefab cells?

Alex: There are a number of benefits for the use of prefabricated cells. Depending on the type, the benefits vary. In the case of prefabricated concrete cells, they can become part of the building structure, saving time and cost from having these separate. As far as prefabricated steel cells are concerned, they are fabricated off-site at the same time as the building is being erected. Once the building is erected, the cells are delivered and fed through an opening in the building. This can be extremely beneficial for a project’s schedule and can save money. Regardless of which prefabricated cell is chosen, they are built by firms that construct cells for a living. The quality will be impeccable and typically better than if they are built on-site under most job site conditions. Cell manufacturers are typically up-to-date on the latest correctional, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and building standards, so there is less worry about the product not meeting code or being rejected by the Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).


BELL has been a leader in the corrections and justice industry for nearly 50 years. Our experience enables us to put the right people on the team, create a realistic budget and use data to complete a job. This expertise ultimately results in a successful project and trusted client/partner relationship for many years to come.


Have questions about justice and corrections construction? Please contact us.