Nature of Design
Design-build firm GenCon gives back to the community
through “Nature’s Classroom”
When Henry David Thoreau walked into the Massachusetts woods in 1845, it was to seek lessons from nature, to “learn what it had to teach.” Thoreau’s time at Walden Pond is familiar to most American high school students, who have read of his hardships, his triumphs and what he learned from the woods.
Now, schoolchildren at Bournedale Elementary School, about 75 miles south of Thoreau’s famous Walden Pond, have the opportunity to learn from nature as well, without spending two years in the woods to do it.
Teachers and parents at Bournedale Elementary, inspired by similar facilities and the opportunities they present for teaching, wanted to create an “outdoor classroom” for their students. In early 2015, they began reaching out for donations and for a construction firm to build the classroom.
It was an easy decision to reach out to Bob Gendron, President and CEO of GenCon, a prestigious local design-build construction firm with deep roots in the community. The fact that Bob’s wife, Gina is a first-grade teacher at Bournedale Elementary certainly didn’t hurt.
“I grew up in Bourne,” Bob says. “I live there, I own a lot of property there. I’m a part of the community and want to improve it any way I can. Of course, Gina got us involved in this project. She and her fellow teachers are all extremely proactive in fostering alternative education techniques like this outdoor classroom. There are a lot of private schools in the area offering something similar, and the teachers thought our elementary school deserved the same kind of facility.”
The Ball Starts Rolling
Once Bob became involved, the partnership between the school and GenCon got things rolling very quickly as community support for the project—known as Nature’s Classroom—grew.
As the project gathered momentum, donations to build the outdoor classroom began to come in. GenCon stepped up to cover the lion’s share of the cost on its own, providing both funding and manpower.
“In June 2015, our in-house architects started putting the project together,” Bob says. “As we were handling the construction, everyone thought it made more sense for us to control the process from a funding perspective. An outdoor classroom like this will usually cost somewhere between $75,000 and $100,000, effectively putting them out of reach for most communities. We decided to handle at least half the cost, and donated $50,000 while the community raised about $30,000 in donations. As a design-build firm, we were able to handle every phase of the project from conception through completion.”
He continues, “The conception stage lasted all of 2015, two or three months devoted to conceptual planning and getting the necessary permissions from the town. By spring 2016, we had begun the heavy construction and implementation phase, which took about four to five months. Including the delays for winter, the whole project took about a year. Our involvement led to a significant savings for the town, as we were able to leverage in-house architects, in-house construction managers, and in-house labor to make sure it was done right. In time, money and resources, we probably saved about 30 percent of what a classroom like this would normally cost by doing it ourselves.”
A Tool with No Standard Design
The outdoor classroom—and the alternative learning environment it provides—has taken root in education as a useful teaching tool, Bob says. When designing the education space for Bourne, GenCon architects did a lot of research online, looking at similar installations around the state. They also drew inspiration from Hidden Hollow at Heritage Museum & Gardens, an experience-based outdoor learning environment in nearby Sandwich, Mass., where Bournedale Elementary teachers used to take their students before Nature’s Classroom was completed. It features such play and learning stations as an oversized xylophone, a stage, stump steps and more.
“One thing we discovered about these outdoor classrooms is there’s no standard design,” Bob says. “Each instance is really a one-off design tailored to the community, and we tried to capture Bourne in Nature’s Classroom.”
Bob was intrigued by how the outdoor classroom concept helps both teachers and students. “You know, when you’re in school, you spend half your time looking out the window wanting to be outside,” he adds. “This lets the kids do that and still keep learning. Outside, they can focus more.”
GenCon Keeps on Giving
As this latest project demonstrates, GenCon has a long history of being part of—and serving—the local community, as does Bob himself. Founded in 1976 by Bob’s father, GenCon is a design-build construction management firm serving the northeast with a focus on fit-out work primarily serving health care clients. Currently at about 100 employees, the firm is headquartered in West Bridgewater, Mass., with additional Massachusetts offices in Cape Cod, South Boston and Lawrence.
“As a company, we’re health care specific,” Bob says. “We design community hospitals throughout the northeast area, both in original construction and renovation.”
The health care industry wasn’t GenCon’s original focus. Like many construction companies, GenCon has its roots in homebuilding.
“My father worked from midnight to 8 a.m. as a cop,” Bob says. “Then he built houses from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. As he started to get into his retirement years, we were still doing a lot of residential development before the market crashed about 10 years ago.”
“Our big growth spurt came after I took over as CEO in 2006 and we pivoted from new construction to become a niche firm for health care,” shares Bob. “I felt there was a void in the market. As the economy tumbled in 2007 and 2008, we were fortunate to find that health care niche and grow the business during the recession. That pivot to health care was a big part of our success and it’s still fueling us. We’ve grown significantly in the last 10 years, pretty much doubling in size every two years.”
GenCon’s history of growth and success has been a boon for the township of Bourne as well. The area doesn’t have a large year-round population, and many businesses must thrive on a three-to-four-month cycle of a larger seasonal population.
“I want to give as much back to the local area as possible,” Bob says. “I feel our area is an underserved and underfunded area of Massachusetts. Locally, I can see the results of what I do—you can give a dollar back to a town or a child, and you see the return of a dollar on a dollar. In terms of my community, I’m very active. I’m a member of the town’s planning board. I want to give back to the place that built me as a person. My father was a cop for 30 years in this town, working very hard every day. I think it’s important for people to give back to where they came from. If everyone gave back to where they came from, where they reside, it would make things a lot better on a local level.”