The Who's Who in Building & Construction

Renovating for a Higher Purpose

Renovating for a Higher Purpose

The following content is featured in the San Diego & Imperial County Spring 2016 edition of The Who’s Who in Building & Construction.

Renovating for a Higher Purpose

Team Effort Empowers Special Needs Members of Chula Vista Community

Chula Vista, a South Bay community in San Diego, is tucked between the scenic San Diego Bay and California’s coastal mountain foothills. Currently, renovations are underway to restore one of the district’s oldest facilities dedicated to helping individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Arc of San Diego is spearheading this effort, transforming The Sol and Ruth Gerber Family Center to ensure the continuation of life-changing programs for adults with special needs.

The Arc of San Diego serves over 2,500 children and adults with disabilities each year throughout San Diego County. The nonprofit’s mission is to empower these individuals so that they achieve their life goals. The organization fulfills this purpose by providing independent living and group home services, vocational training, job placement assistance, family-centered early education programs, and other modes of support.


The site, formerly known as the Starlight Center, opened in 1956. Last year, it was renamed The Sol and Ruth Gerber Family Center in honor of a generous $1 million donation made by the family of Sol and Ruth Gerber, who had been longtime supporters of The Arc of San Diego.

The Sol and Ruth Gerber accessible kitchen

A custom-built, state-of-the-art commercial kitchen will be accessible to all individuals at the Center. The kitchen is laid out as a training area with room for multiple training/work stations.

“The original site was in extreme disrepair, consisting of many buildings dating back to the early 1940s,” says Richard Coppa, Vice President of Infrastructure and Facilities and CIO at The Arc of San Diego. “Because of the conjoined layout of the facility, navigation of the site was extremely difficult for non-ambulatory individuals.” Once complete, the expanded center will be safer and more easily accessible to clients and staff, and modern equipment and technologies will enhance program offerings.


Two San Diego-based firms—obrARCHITECTURE inc. (obr) and Cannon Constructors South Inc. (Cannon)—partnered with The Arc of San Diego to lead the construction effort. “We are working as one integrated team, which gives us the ability to treat this project essentially as design-build,” says Coppa. “This strategy allows us to be flexible to meet performance needs, and also promotes faster project delivery and cost savings.”

Arc facility Chula Vista adult training programs

The Arc facility in Chula Vista is being expanded to meet a growing demand for vocational and training programs for adults with disabilities. Eight classrooms are being added to the 30,000-square-foot center.

Architect Christopher Bittner, a Partner at obr, says it has been worthwhile for his firm to work with nonprofits in San Diego. “To be able to team up with organizations like The Arc of San Diego on projects is extremely important and rewarding to our firm,” shares Bittner. His colleague, Tom Remensperger, Cannon’s San Diego Regional Director, concurs. “This is different. This is really fun. You run across people who use these facilities or have family or friends who are involved, and you’re happy just making it a better place for them.”


Renovations, which started in April 2015, are expected to be completed by the end of this year. Throughout the $4.6-million, three-phase effort, the training facility has to remain operational to ensure that its license remains intact.

While design and construction are underway, building crews have the opportunity to interact with the center’s staff and special needs individuals. “Our team members on-site have become friends with the residents, the trainees, and the people who work there. Our team likes this interaction, and also the opportunity to improve the lives of a truly exceptional class of people,” shares Remensperger.

“The center will give participants enhanced recreational and socialization opportunities.” – Jennifer Bates Navarra, Vice President of Marketing and Development, The Arc of San Diego

With the tight timeframe, a tightly controlled construction schedule is being used to maintain smooth operations. Renovations are coordinated to take place in predetermined zones each month so that facility activities can remain uninterrupted in other areas. One of the methods used to support this effort is a live communication tool that links together change management, cost control and accounting efforts. This instrument displays data in a real-time format, enabling users to immediately access and update information within the shared system. Also, as a way to help the center’s staff and clients avoid construction areas within the building’s interior, crews installed a special elevator on the outside of the facility to safely transport people between floors.

Once finished, the building’s new layout will provide more direct access to facilities, which is especially beneficial to those who use wheelchairs or other walking assistance devices. “One of the main goals was to make the journey from the front entrance to the dining hall a lot shorter. Now, there’s direct access to the dining hall,” says Bittner. “Also, having large gathering spaces allows for a lot more interaction and more freedom of movement.”

The enhanced 30,000-square-foot space will offer a wider range of services and innovative, activity-based classrooms to engage participants in special interest programs. Significant improvements include:

  • Eight training classrooms
  • A state-of-the-art computer resource lab
  • A custom-built commercial kitchen, with room for multiple instructional stations
  • A multi-purpose community room, which also serves as a dining room and as a space for hosting events
  • Offices for management and administrative staff, with an adjacent waiting area for guests
  • Multiple outdoor activity areas and gardens for recreation and physical fitness
  • Handicap-accessible elevators
  • An expanded parking lot equipped to handle multiple large buses and vans

Bittner and his team also added high-efficiency lighting, a cool roof and other features to cut down on facility operation costs. He classifies these measures as simply good design. “When offering best practice solutions involving sustainable element, good design is naturally green design,” he says.

Arc facility Chula Vista adults with disabilities

The Arc facility in Chula Vista is being expanded to meet a growing demand for vocational and training programs for adults with disabilities. Eight classrooms are being added to the 30,000-square-foot center.


Besides receiving life skills support and job training at The Sol and Ruth Gerber Family Center, clients with disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome also have a safe environment to engage in leisurely pastimes.

Starlight Center prior to renovation

Formerly known as the Starlight Center, the site was in extreme disrepair – with some buildings more than 70 years old. Prior to renovations, individuals who depend on walkers and wheelchairs had trouble navigating tight corridors, such as the hallway shown in this photo, which leads to a community room and classroom spaces.

“The center will give participants enhanced recreational and socialization opportunities, as well as new outdoor areas for relaxing, gardening, and other fun activities,” says Jennifer Bates Navarra, The Arc of San Diego’s Vice President of Marketing and Development. “Individuals receiving support from our organization can express themselves through art and music, or simply socialize.”

Approximately 210 people either participate in the adult day program, or earn a paycheck through vocational training opportunities offered at the center. Many work at local businesses or volunteer in the community, such as at the Chula Vista Library and at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Senior Volunteer Patrol Program.

While a paycheck is a hard-earned reward for any person, construction and design professionals who work on nonprofit projects don’t necessarily do it for the money. This is certainly the case for the renovation’s two design-build leaders, who each have intriguing back stories.


Remensperger, who graduated from the University of California at Davis with degrees in civil engineering and economics, has worked in construction for 42 years. He has been involved in over 150 renovation projects valued at over $450 million in San Diego. When speaking about his chosen profession, which doesn’t quite fall in line with his collegiate studies, Remensperger admits that he never wanted to sit in an office and design. While he likes fixing things, solving problems and crunching numbers—he truly always wanted to build.

The Sol and Ruth Gerber Family Center after renovations

Once renovations are complete, The Sol and Ruth Gerber Family Center will be safer and more easily accessible to clients and staff. Expanded hallways and double doors installed throughout the building will provide added clearance to assist those with mobility challenges.

The father of three is a first-generation building professional in his family, and his legacy will continue through the lives of his two sons, who chose to follow in their dad’s career footsteps. One is employed locally as a construction manager, and the other works as a contractor at Cannon.

“You run across people who use these facilities or have family or friends who are involved, and you’re happy just making it a better place for them.” – Tom Remensperger, San Diego Regional Director, Cannon Constructors South Inc.

The San Diego office that Remensperger manages, which opened in 2013, has 25 staff members. The general contracting and construction management firm specializes in multi-family renovation and remodel projects. Though the branch hasn’t been in operation for very long, it already secured two Ruby Awards in 2015 from the San Diego Housing Federation.

When asked to describe his company’s team environment, Remensperger says that it is a place of “sharing and working together,” and explains that this type of workplace attitude is vital in today’s age. “Communication is a consistent, key component of every project. Our team’s ability to communicate professionally and with understanding helps us provide a steady level of top-quality services to our clients,” he says.


Bittner and his partners, Garrick Oliver and Anney Rosenthal-Hall, established obr in 2008 in San Diego. The architecture team has worked on a little bit of everything over the last eight years, from designing a backyard deck for a homeowner to creating a $28-million charter school. The group’s diverse portfolio includes work in residential, commercial, civic and education markets, and project types such as cultural, historic preservation, bar and restaurant, recreation and nonprofit.

Cannon Constructors South Inc team

The Arc of San Diego has nearly 1,600 fulltime and part-time employees, and 200+ volunteers dedicate their time to the organization each year.

“We have a very interesting office, and we like to say that we are very serious about our work, but not so much about ourselves—there’s at least one daily paper ball fight in the office!” reveals Bittner.

Like other busy professionals in the industry, Bittner and his crew put in some long hours, but they also take the time to build relationships with each other. “We have a whole outing program for our staff. We go on bike rides together, we have picnics, we go to Padres games—and we often go out for happy hour. We even take the office on a trip every year, like to Tahoe, Napa and San Francisco,” he says.

Sol and Ruth Gerber Family Center - Arc of San DiegoAt the young age of three, Bittner—who loved building with his toy Legos—told his dad that he wanted to be an architect when he grew up, and that’s exactly what he did. In 1997, he received his Bachelor of Architecture degree from the NewSchool of Architecture and Design (NSAD) in San Diego. Bittner, a former faculty member, is an enthusiastic supporter of his alma mater, and still participates on juries to critique students’ projects. In 2012, NSAD honored his contributions by naming him Alumnus of the Year.

Bittner, who is also an artist, describes art and art appreciation as being an important part of his firm’s culture. He and his partners have even integrated an art gallery within their North Park neighborhood office. Each month, the studio showcases a local artist’s work, and in exchange, a piece of art is donated to an art auction event that is hosted each November. All proceeds from the auction go directly to obrEDUCATION, a nonprofit founded in 2012 by obrARCHITECTURE in collaboration with Young Audiences of San Diego, a national provider of arts-in-education services.

“We go out to public schools and use art, science and math to teach art and architecture to elementary-age children. This provides them with early access to an architectural education,” explains Bittner. This hands-on, experiential learning complements instructional techniques, helping students transform ideas into reality.

For Bittner, painting a picture of possibilities for others brings opportunity to others.

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