“Working at New Horizon Academy, where children have a safe place to grow and learn, I’m doing something that matters and will have a long-term impact on the community.” For Alan Ruth, Vice President of Facilities & Construction, New Horizon Academy is more than just a developer – it works to nurture the children and communities of the future.
The family-owned Minnesota business was founded by elementary school teacher Sue Dunkley who recognised the need for children to learn in a nurturing environment. The company is now led by her son, CEO Chad Dunkley, who was one of the first students at a New Horizon Academy. Since 1971, New Horizon Academy has expanded across the US to design and build bespoke, holistic school buildings and is still growing, with 75 schools in its portfolio and 12 under development.
Ruth joined the business in 2014 and has brought many elements of the business together, overseeing a variety of departments like construction/development, purchasing, maintenance, IT and the company’s 100-plus fleet. “They needed someone to head up that national presence and help grow the brand across the US. I have many different department heads who report to me, and I set them up for the future. I started working with key decision-makers for the company, inside and out, seeing what our goals were and putting all departments on track to achieve those goals.” He also oversees day-to-day facilities management: “At all times, we’re negotiating long- term contracts, for all services, which include: energy, lawn care, snow removal, cleaning and repairs.”
Focus on learning
“Our buildings are designed around the students,” Ruth emphasises, adding that CEO Chad Dunkley works with state and federal government as well as the University of Minnesota, Harvard University, Yale and many others, to ensure the business is focused on child development.
“We find the right environment for the children from the way we build the buildings to size, classrooms, ergonomics, you name it… it’s all put into the plan of how the building should look and feel. We build and install things with a set of eyes of a child. Everything we look at is specific for the clientele, such as the design of doors in our classrooms with finger guards so no child’s fingers get pinched.”
Designing bespoke schools requires collaboration to promote synergy. “Every project has something that creeps up so it’s about being ready with every team member prepared to respond,” Ruth explains. “Not just internally but externally, from ownership to people running the schools, building them and supplying material. We’re all on the same page.” It’s also important that management empowers staff to take ownership and work toward common goals. “They’re really behind the direction we’ve taken the different departments. I’m very fortunate to have the backing of not just the owners but my team members.”
In addition, Ruth has been able to make strategic savings by bringing purchasing together under one roof, so to speak. “Over time, we’ve started to buy materials ourselves. By going straight to the manufacturers, we can reduce costs, avoid mark-ups and basically become our own supply chain. Over time, instead of getting more expensive with inflation, our buildings have slowly gone down in cost because we continue to buy more directly. That’s why I ended up taking purchasing over, to put us in the position to do more of this in the future.”
A key ingredient for holistic building development? “Technology has of course been our friend,” says Ruth. “Each of my departments has specific software to keep projects on schedule and at cost. We send out reports weekly or monthly to share with ownership and other departments, so we have a good handle on where we’re going. Technology has done a wonderful thing for us – we have better control.” Ruth has also found that a level of independence is healthy, ensuring employees have the freedom to explore more digital initiatives. “I leave it with each department head to present me with what they feel is the best software for their department and why.”
BIM (building information modelling) software is also used, with the company’s architect having upgraded from CAD to Revit, which shows preliminary design in 3D, virtual reality model. “Back in the day, if I showed blueprints to people who weren’t in the trade, it was hard for them to see what a room would really look like. With this new software, you can put a 3D model on a screen and walk through the building, inside and out. It helps the group move ahead because there are less change orders. People can question things at an early stage. There’s a clearer understanding throughout the process.”
Transformation is set to continue, according to Ruth. “Technology is going to change the way we build and make our buildings more efficient. We’re going to get a better product, and we’ll be able to enjoy even greater time and cost savings.”
A sustainable, holistic future
As it implements the latest technology, New Horizon Academy is seeing its buildings become even greener through a sustainability focus, from implementing skylights which make the most of natural light, to water-saving sinks and lighting control systems, as well as using automation to control temperature. “We also work with local utility companies to figure out how we can become more efficient without taking away from the comfort and functionality of the buildings,” Ruth adds.
“LED lights have really saved us. With the new lighting control system, we fluctuate how much light we use to save money, and LED has a full range of what you can do, from colours to cycling on and off.”
Lighting is not just a sustainability factor but helps child development too. “There has been a lot of research on colour tuning, natural and unnatural, colours and hues, what’s best for certain activities or how different colours and ray beams help development and growth in each room.”
Classroom design varies across age ranges, but always keeps functionality in mind. In particular, it’s important to have indoor play areas with enough room for activities if students can’t go outside. Even the exterior play areas are designed where children can venture out for work and play. “One of our partners, Cre8play, is a national provider based in Minnesota that studies exterior play areas to understand age-appropriate playgrounds,” Ruth explains. “Like everything we do, it’s for fun but also to help children grow and learn. We partnered with Cre8play to not just get a play area you could have at home, but something that means children can learn as they play.”
“We use different materials now that meet more of the LEED Certification as we strive to become LEED certified. We’re using more recycled materials that are safe for children like LVT (luxury vinyl tile) flooring. We’re becoming wiser with the materials we use, which sends a good message.” Ruth adds that this sustainable focus is important for children to see. “Part of the education is building efficient buildings to teach responsibility for future generations such as how to control lighting.”
That’s just one-way New Horizon Academy is focused on building communities for the future. Its proudest achievement in Ruth’s book is a flagship center in north Minneapolis. “It’s one of the more impoverished areas, but we built our nicest ever building there for the community to reinvest in the children. We’re basically going into areas others won’t, taking on challenges others won’t and turning around projects that the community loves. That’s what I’m most proud of.”