Skillpoint plans new headquarters in East Austin

September 2015, MY Statesman

Margo Dover didn’t set out to build a new headquarters. She set out to make a statement.

The network of workforce-training and education programs Dover helped build and oversee at Skillpoint Alliance had become increasingly burdensome. With classrooms scattered across Central Texas, the organization’s costs were rising and its mostly low-income students were having a harder time getting to class.

The nonprofit needed to consolidate its operations, she decided. Dover started to dream up something much more ambitious than a new office with a few classrooms and labs.

Her new headquarters would produce as much energy as it consumes. It would put the state’s most-advanced, adult-workforce training facility in East Austin, where most of its students reside. And it would draw youth from around the area to its array of science, technology, engineering and math programs.

In short, it wouldn’t just house a few offices and classrooms. The site would become a community center, the entire building would become the classroom itself.

“I can’t separate the building from Skillpoint,” Dover said. “To me it’s one holistic, living, breathing thing.”

Dover’s plan took a major step closer to reality last month, when the Austin City Council approved a $1.3 million deal that will give Skillpoint a lease of up to 50 years on a 5.5-acre plot at Bolm Road and Airport Boulevard.

With the site secured, the Alliance’s board in agreement and blueprints for an innovative new building in hand, Dover and her colleagues will start raising funds for the project, much which they hope to finance with private money.

If all goes to plan, the new facility will provide Skillpoint the capacity to expand its job-training programs and make them easier to access for many of the hardest-to-employ Austin residents, such as former felons and long-term jobless workers with little training.

But Skillpoint also designed the facility as a broader community resources, including a range of potential new services designed to help residents learn new skills, launch businesses or organize their everyday lives. The group sees it as nothing less than a chance to plant the Skillpoint flag, lifting the profile of the organization as well as its students and community.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if every kid who walked into this building said, ‘Wow, this is the future, and this is in our neighborhood’,” Dover said. “We plan to build the most advanced (science, technology, engineering and math) classroom in the region — in the state — and build it in East Austin.”

She said school kids who once had to travel to other parts of Austin for STEM programs and competitions will now see outside students coming to their facilities.

Yet the more mundane benefits of the consolidated location — along bus routes, near the students it will serve — might have an even greater impact for the youth and adults Skillpoint trains. Dover and her colleagues say the new facility will help the organization reach an even wider student base while improving retention rates, all while raising Skillpoint’s profile in the community.

“We’ve been around 20-odd years, where we’ve floated around from HQ to HQ, and training was distributed here and there,” said Brent Schneeman, its chairman and director of data science at HomeAway. “We can still do that, but here we have a common place where we can really showcase our identity a bit more.”

The building as curriculum

Schneeman continued: “We can sit down and say, ‘See that? That’s Skillpoint. See those exposed walls? That’s actually a classroom. That’s what we do here.’”

For adults, the Alliance focuses most of its job-training programs on high-demand, middle-skill jobs, including nursing and skilled construction trades. The organization works with local government and industry to craft programs that are most likely to move graduates into jobs.

As such, the new headquarters will play a novel role in construction classes. With exposed walls and an innovative new building designed by BONE Structure, a Canadian company, students in those classes will be able learn by working on the building itself.

“Not only will we be utilizing some of our own people we’re training to build the product, but it can maybe bring new ideas for construction within the city limits of Austin,” said Megan Lasch, chair-elect at Skillpoint and development associate at Pinnacle Housing Group.

In fact, the involvement of Skillpoint students and graduates cinched the deal for BONE Structure executives, who jumped on the project and saw it as a fitting showcase for their debut in Texas. They eventually hope to employ Skillpoint graduates to cut and assemble all their digitally prefabricated buildings across the state, said Charles Bovet, the firm’s vice president of operations.

“Skillpoint and their mission is 100 percent in line with ours,” Bovet said. “This is everything that we do internally as a company.”

The elegance of the BONE Structure process lies in its attention to detail. Pieces are digitally designed, cut and prefabricated out of recycled steel. There’s no cutting or piercing on the construction site, so no waste on-site. It uses a bare minimum of tools and parts to assemble the building shell, a process that makes for greater speed and ease.

Bovet said the company built the shell of a McDonald’s in less than five days, leaving open the potential to either expand the restaurant or disassemble and recycle it piece by piece later.

“It’s not just the prefabrication of a building off site and bringing it on site, but completely changing the way we build to leverage digital fabrication,” he said. “It’s more like assembling a 747, like Boeing would be doing.”

But the prefabrication itself also follows a trend toward high-quality prefabrication in the building industry, said Brian Haulotte, a member of the Skillpoint building committee and vice president at JE Dunn Construction.

Construction companies have found it increasingly difficult to find skilled and semi-skilled workers to fill their crews, Haulotte said. Given the pace of construction in Austin, local contractors often poach quality workers from one another.

“We’re not trying to drive labor out of it,” he said. “There are less people entering the construction industry as a skilled trade, wanting to have that as a career. Meanwhile, we’re still building buildings, especially here in Austin.”

Technology such as BONE’s allows builders to prefabricate well-designed modules for structures, and do so in a controlled, safe factory environment, Haulotte said. That increased quality and efficiency shifted prefab from a fringe discussion to one that’s front of mind.

More and more, Haulotte said, Skillpoint graduates will have to understand that business model and find a place within it.

“Skillpoint does a fabulous job of workforce training and development,” he said. “But now to have this one place where all of that is going to be done — I saw it as a living, learning laboratory for adult workforce development and youth STEM education.”

That was Dover’s design from the start.

September 2015, MY Statesman | Read the article