Gilbane Building Co. – Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons

In erecting its new 32-story office tower along the Milwaukee lakefront, Northwestern Mutual is not only positioning itself for growth, but also providing a lift to the entire city’s economy and building industry. 

As part of the project’s approval, the financial and life insurance company agreed to a host of requirements designed to bring Milwaukee’s small businesses together and create training opportunities for the city’s construction trades workers. “The project itself is historic for Milwaukee and the Midwest,” says Adam Jelen, senior vice president at Gilbane Building Co., the firm serving as the tower’s general contractor. Gilbane is also partnered with CG Schmidt for the construction. 

Work on the $450 million building began in late 2014 and is on track to be completed by the end of 2017, Jelen says. Foundation work was finished earlier this year and work began on the superstructure in late summer. The tower will blend the old and new by adjoining a two-block-long, three-story historic building known as The Commons. 

Portions of the 1912 structure will be preserved, although The Commons’ atrium will be replaced with a $7 million glass design running through the middle section of the old building with public space and casual dining. There will be conference rooms for employees to meet with civic groups and vendors, and a visitor center will share the story of Northwestern Mutual’s past and present with the public. All together, the Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons will comprise 1.1 million square feet.

“It’s a custom building that’s set to be timeless,” Jelen says. The curved glass façade will face the lakefront and sit alongside the city’s other architectural jewel, the sail-inspired Quadracci Pavilion of the Milwaukee Art Museum. When paired with the museum, Jelen believes Northwestern Mutual Tower will create a dynamic look along the city’s lakefront. “This building will reshape the skyline for Milwaukee, period,” he says.

The tower is being designed for Northwestern Mutual’s current and future employees. Floors will feature flexible layouts that can be easily shifted from individual quiet workspaces to larger, collaborative areas. The company’s expansion plans also factor into the philosophy behind the building. Northwestern Mutual Vice President and project leader Sandy Botcher says the company has found a growing preference among young professionals to work in an urban environment. By locating its state-of-the art offices along Lake Michigan, Northwestern Mutual hopes to enhance its ability to recruit top talent.

The project will employ nearly 1,000 construction workers and the finished building will preserve 1,100 downtown jobs while creating 1,900 new positions at Northwestern Mutual’s downtown campus, according to the company.

“The Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons will be a physical manifestation of Northwestern Mutual’s incredible, bright future,” Botcher says. “We view this as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create greater efficiency and a workspace that allows us to work more innovatively and collaboratively. We believe this is key to enhancing our ability to better serve our millions of policy owners and our financial representatives. We also wanted to create even stronger connections to the community we have called home for over a century and this building allows us to do that in many ways.”

Enlisting the City

The building is already reshaping the way the region thinks about construction. Last March, more than 250 construction workers helped to pour 10,000 cubic yards of concrete to form the tower’s foundation. Taking 27 hours, it was the largest continuous concrete pour in the state’s history, Jelen says. The work required 50 cement trucks to make 1,000 trips to three different concrete plants located in the region.

The foundation pour is an example of how Northwestern Mutual and Gilbane have coordinated with the city’s small businesses to create partnerships that support the project. Pulling off the 27-hour marathon required cooperation between four different companies that handled the rebar installation, concrete, site survey work and material testing.

Making sure small businesses had a role in the project has been an important part of the Northwestern Mutual Tower since the planning stages. The site sits in a tax increment financing district and, as part of the city’s approval, Northwestern Mutual agreed to several requirements designed to energize the local economy. Through the Resident Preference Program, Northwestern Mutual and Gilbane committed to using Milwaukee-based subcontractors and suppliers the city designated as small business enterprises (SBE) to perform at least 25 percent of the overall project costs and 40 percent of the total hours worked.

The project is on track to exceed those requirements, according to a report submitted by Prism Technical Management Marketing Services in September. Through March 2015, 46 percent of construction work and $98.7 million in contracts or commitments – representing 29.6 percent of the project’s total value – have been doled out to Milwaukee residents through the Resident Preference Program. “Our commitment from day one has been to build capacity and meet these requirements,” Jelen says. 

Coordinating what has become a truly citywide effort requires strong leadership and collaboration. Gilbane regularly communicates with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership and the city of Milwaukee’s Office of Small Business Development. Northwestern Mutual’s senior leadership is also involved on a daily basis. “This is an integrated team and we couldn’t achieve what we’re endeavoring to do without the seamless integration the client is giving us every day,” Jelen says.

More than 50 contractors are involved, alongside trade groups and government entities, making efficient planning and budgeting a necessity. Jelen says Gilbane is minimizing the scale of the project to better manage the work and stakeholders. That approach even trickles down to budgeting. Instead of being paid once a month, as is typical, Gilbane is paying its small business partners twice monthly to help those SBEs better manage the size of the project. Gilbane is also using building information modeling, lean scheduling, electronic documentation and web-based project management to improve coordination.

Managing Requirements

The Resident Preference Program restricted the pool of companies that can work on the project and required Gilbane to develop a new approach to determining how it divides up work, Jelen says. Breaking down the scope of work has made specific jobs more manageable for the marketplace and helped the project meet its small business goals. For example, Gilbane broke up the stone bids into five different packages to spread out the opportunity to multiple businesses and set up a shop in Milwaukee to assemble the tower’s main curtainwall using almost all Resident Preference Program workers. 

About 225 people are  working on the site, about 40 percent of which were unemployed or underemployed before the project began, Jelen says. The number of on-site workers will grow to about 600 as work continues. The ultimate goal is to provide local companies and workers with the tools and training needed to develop valuable job skills that will extend beyond the Northwestern Mutual Tower job. “This is much more than a business transaction; it’s about building Northwestern Mutual’s future while building significant capacity in both small business and workforce in the metro Milwaukee community,” Jelen explains.

It is a vision shared by Northwest Mutual. “We wanted to reinvest in Milwaukee not only by growing our own workforce in Milwaukee, but also by creating opportunities for small businesses and residents during the construction of the project,” Botcher says. “In fact, we’ve said from day one that it’s vital the community and our fellow businesses – especially local companies and Milwaukee workers – be a partner through all phases of the project. Those partnerships will serve as catalysts for job create and economic growth, and continue moving our community forward.” 

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