Although Cornerstone General Contractors is at the top of its game, this project is its best one yet

In Washington State, 2003, opportunities in the public works sector boomed in the Seattle and Greater Eastside area – this surge is what brought Cornerstone General Contractors (Cornerstone) to life. At the time, a great deal of lump sum bid projects emerged in the school sector, many of which Cornerstone was fortunate to win. “Since the beginning,” shares Marcus Comer, Project Manager, “our bread and butter has always been in public works school construction. We have continued to expand into public safety facilities, like fire and police stations, while maintaining our focus on schools.”

The management team is a closely-knit group of gentlemen. Marcus learnt his skills through the business in the trades and through the various roles in construction management, alongside his two brothers and their father. Kurt Belanger serves as the Superintendent and has been with Cornerstone for seven years. He started as a sub-contractor for the business, and joined full-time in 2015, when the group was in search of civil engineering expertise. Lastly, but certainly not least, there’s Patrick Kaerstner, who has only ever known Cornerstone. For the past five years, he has contributed as the Project Engineer.

These three gentlemen sit with Construction Today to discuss their latest pride and joy: the Ferndale High School project. “We got involved when the development was ready to break ground. Our entire team is pivotal in steering the direction of the project from start to finish,” shares Marcus.

“We took on an existing high school site, involving construction right next to the current building. The new footprint was essentially on their old football stadium. The gym wing is a pre-engineered metal building, as is the next phase we are starting, which is their future CTE technology building. The academic wing utilized a standard steel structure. We broke ground on those two components in the summer of 2021. In August of 2022, the gym wing was turned over for use to make way for the existing gym demolition and new bus loop.

“This past December, we handed over the academic square footage. So, in just over 18 months, we turned over 150,000 square feet of space. Now, we are starting abatement and demolition of the existing structure to make way for the final portion of the footprint, storm improvements and parking area. Throughout our time there, we have also been developing a new football stadium that has a massive storm detention system beneath two-thirds of the field that we will turn over next fall and will wrap up construction in January 2024,” says Marcus.

Overcoming challenges
For the three gentlemen, the uniqueness of this project was the myriad challenges the team needed to overcome. For instance, the water table is four feet below the existing grade which required a combination of fill and geopiers under the foundations and slab. “We had to be creative with the utilities as well, because we couldn’t do our typical trenching as the water would not allow for this,” shares Kurt. “Another challenge to the contract has been the chaotic weather patterns. We had some flooding up here last winter, and extreme winds. One thing about schools is the delivery date can’t be extended, so we had to push through the difficult conditions, or figure out how to navigate those conditions. We were constantly adapting to meet our scheduled deadline. The biggest challenge we faced was a week of awful weather that forced us to shut down because the crane couldn’t operate in almost gale force winds,” explains Kurt.

Marcus shares that this project stands out because of the impact it had on the community. “Everyone is always excited about getting a new school, but Ferndale was a long time coming, and the community was very involved. We had a major handover where we got to see students, staff, and teachers use the building. It’s great to see the positive impact our work has in bringing these designs to fruition and functionality to the end users.”

Exceptional relationships
Whether it’s market or site conditions, or phasing complexities, the Cornerstone team draws from previous experiences to tackle project challenges. However, what makes the company the best fit for any project is not only its expertise, but also its company culture. “I would call our team exceptional,” says Marcus. “We’ve been involved in this type of work for a long time, so we’ve gained a huge amount of experience, and know how best to pull it off. We have a diverse group of individuals who have come up through the field as carpenters, and sub-contractors, and bring a vast amount of talent to our work.”

The four pillars that form the culture at Cornerstone are ‘grit, owning it, quiet excellence and caring like family’, according to Marcus. In bringing the conversation to a close, he highlights that the leadership team has seen great improvements in its capabilities when the business returns to these core values. While growth for Cornerstone is important to the company, they all agree that relationships will continue to buttress the company’s foundations and push the business forward. “When we build schools, we don’t work for the district alone, we work for the community. As such, we don’t only think about the school, we think about the long-term impact that these schools have on future generations. Additionally, we nurture our relationships with our clients, so that the next time prospective work crops for the next work, they already have us in mind for the job.

“Some of the challenges over the last two years have had some severe impact on even basic materials availability, and I think delivery mechanisms are still catching up in construction. Furthermore, many projects had been postponed or slowed, so we were fortunate that the strategy to start Ferndale sooner than originally planned, helped in procuring a lot of what we needed without too much impact. Of course, we needed to seek some alternatives such as sourcing a different switchgear for electrical. This ability to be agile is tied in with the relationships we have formed with our reliable vendors and sub-contractors. I believe our ability to maintain and build on those relationships is what allows us to be exceptional,” Marcus concludes.