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Finding social value in building schools

Michael Beach — RTR school construction manager

Photo by Mike Lamb Michael Beach works as site construction manager for the new Russell-Tyler-Ruthton building in Tyler.

Michael Beach stood on what will be the stage inside the auditorium of the new Russell-Tyler-Ruthton school.

He stood there for several minutes, just staring out. Besides the workers scurrying about, there wouldn’t be much to see for most people. There was concrete flooring and a worker was laying a long, curved piece of metal. But Beach could see more. He always had that kind of vision, which has led to a successful construction career.

“I can see the box locations, the curves,” he said. Adding he knows where everything should be installed.

“It’s always been a strength of mine,” Beach said. “I can look at a plan and actually see what it supposed to look like. I can visualize key the dimension. And that helps me a lot. Sometimes I’m wrong, but my mind’s eye is pretty good. But it takes a lot of work to come out here in open space and determine where those hallways are. You have nothing to reference them off.”

There were plenty of walls up and hallways to follow on the mid-March day that Beach strolled through what will be a new $35 million pre-K through 12th grade facility.

The RTR School District broke ground on the new school site in October 2019. Beach ,with Morton Construction managers, actually went to work on the project two months before that.

“The project bid in August of 2019 and we got busy stirring dirt with special permission from the state because they had not granted a permit. And you don’t actually have to have a permit to do dirt work. You just have to have your stormwater in place, which we did,” Beach said, while sitting inside his work trailer next to the construction site.

Even with the quick start, Beach said the project did suffer a five-month delay. However, Beach said the project is on schedule to finish on time in June.

“I think we will be alright, because all we got left after the grid is lights, carpet, doors. That’s not so bad. We can make it ,” he said.

Beach should have a pretty good idea when it comes to predicting making a finishing date.

“I’ve done 27 of these (school and public building projects). I can drive back into anyone of those communities and they don’t throw rocks at me,” he said with a laugh.

But he admits each project has its challenges to overcome.

“There is a lot of moving parts and the ballet for this is very complex,” Beach said. “It’s a high stress job. Very demanding. Very detailed oriented.”

Beach describes his job as site construction manager as being a traffic cop. He directs contractors in making sure each part of the process is completed.

While the owner has control over awarding work to contractors, Beach said he tends to the budget, tend to the contractors, tend to the work detail, organize the schedule and “keep everybody on a path.”

“I have a bunch of rules,” he said of his secret in keeping everything flowing.

“They come from having done this for 40 plus years. He calls one of his rules “rotating my tires.”

“So when a guy is giving me grief and I can’t solve his grief, because I wanna. Or he asks me a question I’m not prepared for, I call it rotate my tires. What I do is, I say, well I have a meeting. I got this thing to do. I’ll be back in 30 minutes.

“That does a couple of things. One, it lets him run out of air. Let them vent. I’m going to do my research. Figure out what the answer is and then go back.”

Beach explains success in the business all goes back to his experiences going back to just out of high school.

“I graduated from high school, I was broke, I had no job. I wanted to go to college,” he said.

But a buddy offered him work on a carpentry crew as a laborer for the summer.

“I’ve always been kind of good at math and thinking. And I was just carrying boards for these guys. That’s all. Just labor. So I loaded up the bench full of two-by-fours to cut and they are all standing at the plan table, jawboning about how to figure out what the layout is, where the studs go,” he said.

“And I said, that’s pretty easy. And of course I go across the page, do the math, add the footage.”

Beach said a week after starting out carrying boards, he was doing layout and cutting the boards.

“And I never looked back. Never went back to college,” he said. “I started out on the residential side of the industry and wound up on the commercial side because I liked it a lot. I like big, heavy, dirty things. I like bricks and block and concrete and precast and dirt. I like that. The finishers are fine, but you know a lot of times the guys doing the finishes are not as fun as the guys doing the heavy work load.”

Most of his completed projects are located in Minnesota and several of those in southwest Minnesota. He has directed projects in Pipestone, Le Sueur, Arlington, Sibley, Bagley, Aurora and Mesabi.

Beach says he always lives in the community he’s doing the work during the entire length of the project. In between jobs, he lives in Battle Lake with his wife.

“It’s a nomadic lifestyle. But it gives you width to your culture,” he said.

Beach admits he could make more money if worked on metro projects such as high risers, parking ramps or shopping malls.

“But what I’m doing here has social value. I don’t know what the lifespan of this building will be. Sixty years? But for every one of those years it’s gonna be a positive experience for everybody in this community. And I did that. I kind of feel good about that.

“It’s nice to know kids will graduate, kids will get educated and kids will have successes in athletics and arts and scholastics. I think that’s fantastic. Usually in a small town like this, it (the school) is one of the major employers of white collar. It’s a fundamental income source for the community. That’s kind of a good thing.”

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