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Camillus House turns setbacks into success

May 26, 2011
by Karen M. Mahar, MA, LEED AP
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Financial barriers drive key design improvements for Miami treatment center's new campus
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Two years ago, the management team of Camillus House (which operates 15 facilities throughout Miami-Dade County) was ready to break ground on the New Camillus House Center, a seven-building campus designed to hold 340 beds for short-term housing, residential treatment, medical respite, and permanent, low-demand housing for persons with severe mental illness, addiction, and/or serious medical disabilities.

Of course, even the best laid plans (which were featured in Behavioral Healthcare) often end up changing and this ambitious endeavor was no exception. Faced with the effects of the financial crisis and a variety of unforeseen changes, Camillus House was forced to make significant changes to its plans, yet has relied on adaptability, flexibility and creativity to keep construction moving.

Now approximately 30 percent complete, the revised $80 million project is on track to deliver its first housing units in July-and is predicted to meet or possibly exceed the expectations of the original construction plan.

Making the right adjustments

The first factor driving the need for change was financing. Due to the economic crisis, Camillus had difficulty obtaining the temporary financing needed to fund construction. In the end, a significant loan would have been needed to follow the team's original plan-building all seven buildings at once. Since the banks were unwilling to help, the project was broken into two phases.

Phasing decisions were made based on how space could be configured to allow on-site services to be provided as soon as Phase 1 was complete. However, scheduling decisions were largely out of the organization's control.

In addition to the looming expiration of Low Income Housing Tax Credits, the zoning and funding agreement with the City of Miami required that Camillus vacate its existing emergency and treatment center upon completion of the new facility. Consequently, funders' needs were not aligned with those of the program.

With the emergency services center not scheduled until Phase 2, the organization had to redesign space in Phase 1 to temporarily accommodate the needs of individuals living on the street. And, this all needed to be done without mixing the emergency services population with clients of the residential treatment center.

To satisfy both objectives, the design team took the following steps:

  • The wellness center was redesigned into a temporary clothing exchange and mail room;

  • The maintenance area in the parking garage ground floor was converted to client storage, an industrial-sized laundry facility, and temporary showers;

  • The data center was relocated into the HIV/AIDS prevention suite, while that suite was moved to leased space offsite; and

  • Residential suites were reconfigured to accommodate medical exam rooms.

Had the architectural firm (Wolfgerg Alvarez) and the general contractor (Coastal Construction) not been personally committed to the mission of Camillus House, the changes would have been costly and drawn out. Instead, long problem-solving sessions kept everything moving along with a small impact on the budget. 

And, although the economic downturn caused up-front financing problems, it also provided an unanticipated financial benefit. Throughout the delay period, construction prices dropped dramatically. The general contractor bids came in 25 percent lower than projected and subcontractors were willing to offer five-year warranties on labor and materials.

Adding a splash of green

The second component driving changes in our project plan was a desire to improve the sustainability of the development. Camillus had set out to attain certification under the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) at the Silver Level, but as the project gained momentum, the goal was increased to Gold Level.

Unfortunately, the team's LEED consultants (Sequil Systems) had not been brought into the project until the initial design was completed, so integrating many of the major “green” elements required significant design modifications. Even after construction began, further exciting opportunities for sustainability improvements were identified, necessitating additional change orders. One such opportunity involved the integration of solar panels, which also proved more problematic than anticipated.

Limited space on the residential facility's roof was preventing the inclusion of a solar-powered water heating system. Instead, shifting to a conventional boiler system achieved the same building efficiencies and allowed for the removal of the 80 individual water heater units from the roof. This freed up space for a large array of photo voltaic panels to provide electricity. The resulting energy savings will benefit both Camillus House and the building's residents.

Camillus also wanted to install a green roof system on one of the buildings, offering vegetable garden plots to residents with serious and persistent mental illness. Told it wasn't feasible in South Florida's climate, the design team brought in a consultant to help them find a way.

They found several facilities in the area that had made unsuccessful attempts to develop green roof systems and observed firsthand what could go wrong. Armed with these lessons, the design team produced a plan that will allow the inclusion of landscaped rooftop on the emergency services building-complete with garden plots and even a picnic area.