MERIDEN — Hours before the sun comes up or her two children and husband have awoken, Karrie Kratz has begun her day with an 85-mile trip into Meriden from her Plainfield home. Kratz has been making the trip on a daily basis for the last few months as part of her company’s latest major school construction project.
It’s not a terrible trip for the 34-year-old Kratz, who has had to commute in the past to Hopkinton and Cambridge, Mass. and even for one project that took her to Salem, New Hampshire every day. Traveling is just the nature of the construction business, but for Kratz, who oversees large construction jobs as a project manager, she needs more than just that travel time. By the time she arrives in Meriden, Kratz still has a workout at a local gym and a morning run to complete before stepping foot on one of the two largest investments Meriden has ever made in its infrastructure.
Kratz is a senior project manager at Gilbane Building Co., the construction management firm charged with overseeing the $107.5 million Maloney High School renovation project. For Meriden, the project can only be topped in terms of cost by the $111.8 million Platt High School renovation project. For Kratz, it is the fifth major K-12 school building project she has overseen at Gilbane, in addition to her oversight of the construction of the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy.
“I take a lot of pride in building schools,” Kratz said Thursday from inside the Gilbane offices on the Maloney site. “I feel like I’m contributing to the community when I’m building schools. There’s a lot of gratification in partaking in a community project such as a school.”
Kratz started out as an account clerk for Gilbane at the age of 19, working evenings out of necessity to pay her way through business school, which she took classes for during the day. While working as a clerk, Kratz said she became interested in the construction field and engineering. She soon pursued a degree at the New England Institute of Technology, which allowed Kratz to segue into the role of a project manager at Gilbane – something Kratz has never second-guessed, enjoying the problem solving and engineering that comes with the job.
Since becoming a project manager for a company that has the largest K-12 building sector in the world, Kratz has worked on award-winning school projects in and out-of-state, most recently the West Bristol School for kindergarten through eighth-grade students. Kratz also served as a project manager for the construction of the new Killingly High School, as well as Fitch High School in Groton. For somebody employed by a company for nearly 15 years, Kratz’s resume is strong, but for somebody who did not work their entire career in construction management and is still only 34, it’s impressive, said Gilbane Vice President and District Manager Steven Kononchik, who heads the firm’s Glastonbury’s branch.
“My favorite girl” Kononchik said at the mention of Kratz’s name by a reporter in a phone interview Thursday. “I think her experience is well beyond her perceived areas of age...Her communications are probably the best, but she has a lot of skills. She’s tremendous.”
Kratz’s experience and the recent completion of the Bristol school allowed her to take on Gilbane’s next major project. It includes the construction of a four-story classroom wing that is in progress, interior and exterior renovations to the building to make it “like new” and the demolition of a classroom wing.
To get to Maloney, each day Kratz is awake by 4 a.m. and out the door about 20 minutes later. Though it is a longer commute than some of the projects she has worked on, Kratz makes the hour-plus journey without many other vehicles on the road. The commute does not bother Kratz and the following workout is something that is important for both her and those she is working with during the day.
“It gives me a lot of thinking time,” Kratz said. “Between the drive and the exercise, it gives you a chance to get the thoughts out and clear your head ... You need that buffer time.”
Kratz is on site before most each day, with work commencing every day at Maloney at 7 a.m. Gilbane requires those working on the project to partake in a brief stretching and flexing period that allows the construction crews to get their bodies and minds ready for the day. Gilbane officials go over what needs to be done and make any other important announcements. From there, each day can be different.
Some days, Kratz said, she returns to the office that Gilbane and Arcadis workers have turned into their home for at least the first year of the project. Arcadis was hired as the program manager for both high school projects, working as a representative on the city’s behalf.
Their office is different than the usual construction trailer because it is an actual house, 179 Gravel St., which was purchased for the project. The house will likely be demolished next year in order to improve utility connections underground and later as a location for additional parking and a tennis court. For now, Kratz has a former bedroom set up as a small meeting room that she also uses for office space. The kitchen, still with some appliances, has plans laid across a table. A former living room now has desks and computers set up for those involved with the project. A meeting room had been set up downstairs, but because of the low ceiling, they avoid using it to accommodate the taller workers who would have to duck to avoid hitting their heads. At the entrance, the floors are smattered with dirt from workers coming in and out of the office.
“We were fighting a losing battle with that,” Kratz says with a laugh.
If Kratz isn’t spending hours planning, meeting in the office or filing paperwork, then she is out on the job site where workers are constructing a foundation for the new classroom wing. The trip to the site from the former house is not a long one for now, requiring a walk out the front door, around the house and past the left-behind jacuzzi, and through a temporary parking lot. As construction around the school expands, the walk around the construction site will only become longer, especially when there are multiple floors to inspect.
In November steel beams will be erected for the new wing, which construction officials consider a major milestone. Much of the work so far has been site work in preparation for the wing on the north side of the building and has included the removal of soil from the grounds to reshape the land around Maloney.
“Every single site we mobilize to, we could be building the exact same building, but the site is different,” Kratz explained. “No two sites in the world are exactly the same.”
While the steep hills to the rear of the Maloney building are a challenge, it is nothing Kratz and Gilbane haven’t seen before. In Killingly, construction crews had to blast 100,000 cubic feet of rock to make way for the new high school.
“You have to have an understanding of the limitations of the site and always have a plan,” she said.
Having worked on several school projects, Kratz said foresight is the key to avoiding future issues. Being able to forecast what could go wrong is important and Kratz makes sure to work closely with city and school officials whether the issue is good or bad. She applauded their communication skills and Kononchik noted the heavy level of interest in the project from city officials.
“Every community is different; no two communities are alike,” he said. “Meriden is very hands on, which is good. Meriden has a great staff and they have done a great job.”
In addition to overseeing work as it progresses, one of Kratz’s main obligations is to anticipate what will happen next and how to go about the next challenge.
“When you have this much going on, this many moving parts and pieces, you really end up with everything and anything,” she said, explaining the importance of everybody being on the same page. “In order to build a building, you need to build a team to build that building….No one person runs the whole show on a project of this size.”
Kratz is responsible for continuously communicating with school and city officials, Arcadis, Fletcher Thompson, the architectural firm, and the 30 or so contractors on site daily. So far, the communication has been “very good,” Kratz said, noting it will be important to continue that when work gets underway inside the existing school. Assistant School Superintendent Michael S. Grove agreed, commending Kratz for her communication abilities.
“Every time the city or Board of Education meet with her, she’s forthcoming,” he said. “At meetings, she’s very professional, even when there’s a tough situation. And she explains it all to staff that are not all knowledgeable about the construction field and makes people understand it.”
Making sure people understand the complexity of the construction process is something Kratz enjoys about the job, routinely appearing at School Building Committee meetings. There, she fields questions from members, including some people who have been involved with construction or city projects for several years and others who have not. The case is the same in municipalities all over the state and region, Kratz said.
“I enjoy teaching people about construction and seeing their knowledge about building a building grow throughout the projects,” she said.
In working with local officials, Kratz said she and her Gilbane team build relationships and she often keeps in touch with people long after projects have ended. As with other projects, Kratz said she knows the Maloney project will consume a few years of her life before it is completed and she is called on to her next task.
While Gilbane is in town though, employees often get involved in activities. Kratz and her group are assembling a team to partake in an upcoming 5k race at Maloney that benefits the John J. Nerden RTC camp in Middlefield. She has worked on food drives and other community events in the past and said she intends on working with Maloney’s career office in case students are interested in construction.
Kratz did not always envision a career in construction, she said, but she has spent nearly 15 years with Gilbane. People are no longer surprised to see a woman working in construction as they once were, she said.
“Personally, I’ve heard nothing but great things in terms of acceptance from the industry,” Kratz said of working in a field that has been dominated by men.
Kononchik agreed, calling the company “progressive.”
“Fifteen or 20 years ago you wouldn’t see that,” he said.
Most people, Kratz said, are more surprised to learn that someone so young has the experience to run a large project. Kratz said her relative youth is beneficial because she is constantly open to and learning new technologies to improve her daily work.
By 4:30 p.m., most days, work wraps up and she is back on the road to her home, husband and 7 and 4-year-old daughters. Again, the commute allows Kratz to collect her thoughts and unwind from work. While the drive is a long one, she prefers it to another school project Kratz worked on that was five minutes from her house.
“When it’s too close, you end up working a gazillion hours because it’s just five minutes,” she said. “I would just pop in there for a few hours on Saturday...It was crazy.”
Kratz credits her husband and parents, who live next door, for providing a strong support system, especially when projects are far away. Her husband is responsible for getting the children ready for school, though lunches are packed at night and clothes are laid out. Without the downtime between work and home, Kratz said she would likely bring her job and stress home.
“I can’t do that; I’ve got a husband and two kids that need dinner,” she jokes. “I’ve got soccer games to go to ... I’m the girl scout leader for my daughter’s troop. I’ve got a full plate.”
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