Dick Koch has been construction project manager for the Surrey School District since Jan. 3, 1992. Thursday morning (Aug. 26, 2021), one last check on the new Grandview Heights Secondary in South Surrey marked the end of his nearly 30-year career. (Contributed photo)

Dick Koch has been construction project manager for the Surrey School District since Jan. 3, 1992. Thursday morning (Aug. 26, 2021), one last check on the new Grandview Heights Secondary in South Surrey marked the end of his nearly 30-year career. (Contributed photo)

Longtime Surrey school construction manager ‘had the time of my life’

After overseeing more than 50 projects, Dick Koch’s last official day with the district was Aug. 26

At just before 11 a.m. on Aug. 26, Surrey School District’s construction project manager Dick Koch was making his way toward South Surrey’s newest high school, Grandview Heights Secondary.

Pulling over on 168 Street near the Nicomekl River to take a phone call, Koch explains he’s off to one last meeting with an on-site contractor to talk about “a couple things” before the much-anticipated 16987 25 Ave. school opens on Sept. 7; namely the progress of related road-building and paving.

“And that is basically it,” the 70-year-old said. “That’s the end of it.”

While Koch could easily have been referring to the end of a multi-million-dollar project that first saw shovels in the ground on May 17, 2019, last Thursday, the simple statement had far greater significance – it described the end of a career in Surrey that has spanned nearly 30 years and seen Koch oversee the construction of dozens of learning institutions, both within the district and beyond.

“I just cleaned out my desk,” he said. “I’ve been working with the Surrey School District since Jan. 3 of 1992. That’s 29 years and eight months now.

“I’ve done 53 new schools – I think about a dozen high schools – over that period of time, including eight brand-new schools for other districts.

“As Bill Medley says in that song, I’ve had the time of my life.”

Koch – whose own kids graduated from Earl Marriott Secondary – has more than 50 years in the construction industry under his belt. He came to B.C. from Edmonton in 1970, and recalls his first project in Vancouver was the Terry Fox research centre at UBC Hospital.

After 30 years in Surrey, and with more than 120 schools now in the district, Koch still remembers the first school project he oversaw here, that of the construction of Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary at 6151 180 St., and that he refused to let inclement winter weather get in the way of its 1993 opening schedule, despite a contractor who insisted pushing through was not the standard.

“It would drop a couple months in the schedule just because of sitting around watching the snow melt,” Koch explained of his demands for heaters, tarping, snow-clearing and such.

In the years that followed, Koch travelled as far as Terrace and Squamish to oversee school construction, and, there wasn’t a Semiahmoo Peninsula-area school that he wasn’t involved with.

“Earl Marriott, the Semiahmoo shop upgrade, Elgin addition, Salish Secondary two years ago, Grandview… most of the South Surrey, Cloverdale area, I’ve been involved in every one of them. And the north side, too. Feels good.”

The years-long challenge of Earl Marriott being over-capacity – but far from the only school in the predicament, as the use of portables continues throughout the district – highlights the importance of getting new schools like Grandview built, he said.

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It’s a never-ending battle, however – “By the time you get a school finished, you’ve got another 2,000 kids.”

As project manager, Koch said his job, in a nutshell, was to make sure that everybody else – from architects to computer techs to suppliers – did their job. Setting each project’s schedule was another critical task – “Period.”

“‘This has to be done by such and such a day in order for us to open up that school in September, because there’s another 1,000 kids coming and we can’t afford more portables, so it’s gotta be done.’”

Koch said one of the biggest changes over the years has been the number of students that the schools are being built to accommodate – it has essentially doubled at the elementary level, to around 600, while secondary schools are typically built for around 1,500 as opposed to 1,000, he said – and, that schools are being built taller.

Then of course, there has been the move to ‘green’ initiatives, as well as “much more sophisticated” mechanical and electrical systems and more complicated building envelopes.

And let’s not forget technology – schools today have far more than overhead projectors and a Cathode Ray Tube television hooked up to a VHS machine or cable. There’s WiFi, smart TVs and mobile-device integration to factor in, at minimum.

An unexpected storm to weather has been the COVID-19 pandemic. It “really hammered us” in terms of delays due to supplier issues, Koch said.

Fortunately, while there were a few COVID-19 cases on the Grandview site that “affected the schedule a little bit,” the project never had to shut down due to an outbreak, Koch said.

“We were very lucky,” he said. “Somehow, we got through it.”

And now, as he has with every new school he’s been part of, Koch knows exactly where he’ll be when students return to class next Tuesday: taking in the opening of his favourite school, of course.

“The last one is always my favourite,” he quipped.

The district received the keys to the 1,500-capacity building on June 30, and Koch is looking forward to seeing it in play; that everything works out the way it was designed to.

“We don’t build it for ourselves, we build it for our kids,” he said.

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