Alan Thibeault the Builder

“You’ve got to break some eggs to make an omelet.” 

Alan Thibeault, UNE’s assistant vice president for Planning, distinctively remembers the comment made by an individual speaking at a public forum who was expressing his opinion in support of UNE’s expansion to the other side of Route 9—a contentious move for the University back in 2009 when it, for the first time, attempted to permitnot one, but up to 10new building projects at one time.

Residents near the proposed construction zone were lobbying against UNE’s expansion efforts, claiming that the work would be a detraction to the community and that there were safety issues to consider as well.  Environmentalists were concerned that wetlands would be disturbed.

But Thibeault, the man charged with “making construction visions into realities” for the University, had consulted with the Department of Environmental Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers and remained convinced that the impact of construction would, in the long run, be considerably less if UNE created a dense building plan rather than erect new buildings piecemeal over the years in a cascade of university-sprawl.

After countless zoning and permit meetings, as well as municipal and residents meetings, Thibeault eventually cleared the way for UNE to “break the barrier of Route 9.”

“And what we ended up with,” he explained, “was an environmentally responsible construction of sustainable buildings with erosion controls and storm water management, and the preservation of 160 acres of environmentally sensitive land in exchange for the 10 acres of wetlands impacted by the construction.”

With the Harold Alfond Fourm, the Big Blue Turf, and Sokokis Residence Hall made possible by the expansion, as well as the preserved parcel of lands, which are used in a variety of science classes, for research and recreation, UNE students have a far richer educational and residential experience than they ever did before.

It was an impressive success for Thibeault, who started his UNE career nearly three decades ago as a campus grounds keeper. By “assuming more and more responsibility” and by “always asking questions,” Thibeault became further immersed in construction and renovation projects at the University. He estimates that at this point, he has been involved in the construction of 50-60% of UNE’s structures and has participated in the renovation of about another 20%.  “I’ve been in every crawl space, on every roof. I know these buildings inside out and upside down,” he said during an interview in his office—a  small room jam-packed with binders and paperwork that serve as testimony to both his longevity at the University and the detailed nature of his work.

Thibeault sees his role at UNE largely as a communicator and liaison. He meets with the users of a proposed facility—be it a renovated science lab or an ice hockey arena—and finds out the needs of those users. He then communicates these needs to architects, engineers, and construction managers to ensure that the final project will provide the users with what they require, while adhering to the University’s budget and design standards.

The task of communicating is, of course, made a great deal more difficult when language and cultural barriers stand in the way. Thibeault’s involvement with the creation of UNE’s new Morocco Campus has presented its own unique set of challenges. “We rely on drawings a lot to get our ideas across,” Thibeault said of his interaction with the architectural firm in Morocco. “Sometimes it’s easier to point to a picture of what you want rather than have the specific meaning of your request lost in translation.” The issues of a foreign measurement system and different health and safety standards for buildings have added other levels of complication to the construction process.

In addition to being the liaison between the users and the builders, Thibeault must also gain the permits and approvals necessary for the work, proving compliance with all environmental and municipal  procedures and codes. Often, there is a great deal of politicking involved in what he does, convincing city counselors, residential neighbors, and special interest groups that the proposed project is worth undertaking. He attends an endless number of meetings and fields dozens of phone calls from concerned parties before turning a proposal into a reality. 

The job has gotten easier in some respects, he admits. “We used to have rock fights at City Hall,” he joked. “But with each project that we do, people become more trustful. They see that we do what we say we’re going to do.  We deliver on our promises, and that builds our credibility with the public.”

There will still be differing opinions when it comes to University expansion issues. “There are always going to be the people who don’t like change,” Thibeault explained. “For example, there are people in Portland who aren’t used to seeing the new Oral Health Care Center on the Portland Campus. They’re used to seeing houses, and they want to continue to see houses.”

But the tradeoff in this case is that the University now has a $14.5 million clinical and dental simulation facility to support its new College of Dental Medicine. The Center includes an Urgent Care Clinic, the Delta Dental Comprehensive Care Clinic, a Dental Hygiene suite, a Dental Specialty Care Clinic, a Radiology suite, the Dental Simulation Center, and space for future dental residency programs. Once fully operational, between 12,000 and 15,000 patients from the Portland area are expected to receive dental care at the Center each year.

That’s an omelet worth making.