We didn’t set out to win awards when tasked with constructing Florida Polytechnic University’s Innovation, Science and Technology Building. We were too focused on the great puzzle before us: finding a way to erect this Santiago Calatrava design – with the centerpiece being incredible rooftop louver arms that would raise and lower each day like butterfly wings to shade the interior – on a strict academic year schedule and an immovable $60 million budget. Even more, there was the extreme precision the design required. There was no roadmap for a project like this. Still, the entire project team – Skanska, the architects, engineers and specialty contractors – was motivated by the opportunity to execute Calatrava’s design without compromise. If anyone could realize his vision, surely it was this team.
This week, a year after students moved into this 160,000-square-foot sculpture of classrooms, research and teaching labs, grand public spaces and offices, we learned that the IST Building has won Engineering News-Record (ENR) magazine’s highest honor: Global Project of the Year. This building, the founding structure of a new university dedicated to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, is “the most outstanding example of the risks and rewards – and the hurdles overcome – of designing and building internationally.” The entire team couldn’t be more honored and proud of this recognition. Days later, I’m still smiling from hearing the news.
All involved with the project learned a great deal. Here are a few highlights of our approach and of what this team created.
Work as a broader team: We pushed team members to break down the barriers that normally exist between designers and builders, and between construction trades. As I’ve described to ENR, I wanted each partner firm to work beyond contractual responsibilities to seek broader, shared solutions. This included having specialty contractors and design consultants participate early in the project in design-assist roles. All of us were a team that worked as one. How did we do this? By making the project personal. From the day anyone stepped onto the site, we let them know that through this special project, they had an opportunity to make America stronger and smarter. Florida Polytechnic students are going to challenge the limits of STEM just like we were challenging the limits of building. John F. Kennedy once spoke of the great outcomes that come from closely collaborating and never accepting average – that’s the approach we took at Polytechnic.
Don’t compromise the design: The biggest issue to world-renowned architects like Calatrava is that they’re worried their design is going to be compromised during construction. If anything, Skanska wants to enhance it, if we can. Understanding the complex geometry of the Polytechnic design – where nearly everything is on a radius – required my team to become one with it. That helped build trust between Skanska and the architects, and it enabled us to convey our understanding to the specialty contractors. At first, Calatrava’s design captures your curiosity, then it captures your heart, and then your soul. There are not many architects in the world about which you can say that. For us as builders, this is the type of project we dream about doing in our careers.
Collaborate to fly: The building’s identity is tied to the rooftop louver arms. Originally, the design concept for those wings was a pair of matched structural-steel elements – each with 47 arms – that would move via hydraulic equipment at each end. That approach proved unfeasible because of the extreme stresses it would have put on the building. The path forward became a series of charrettes over two years, which typified our teamwork approach. Out of those collaborations, the team proposed an alternative system of lighter aluminum louvers, each operating with an independent hydraulic cylinder at the base of each arm. Today those louvers rise to 12 stories above the ground to ensure the proper amount of light enters the building. This approach maintained the look and functionality that Calatrava had intended.
Be precise: Precision was fundamental, given that it would not be possible to cover any imperfections. The rooftop louvers – with a 1/16 of an inch tolerance – had to function. The interior concrete is exposed, including the dramatic concrete raker beams at both ends of the building that converge at oval skylights. Building information modeling (BIM) was part of the solution, and so was bringing in the best craft workers from across Florida. More importantly, we made sure everyone understood the effect that even the smallest deviance would have on other components. Our team’s mindset was to make sure all components were installed with zero tolerance, or the design intent would not be achieved. We convinced the craft workers that if any project was worth their best effort, it was this.
Building up the team: To me, building and motivating my Skanska team was just as important as constructing this magnificent structure. My approach is this: I discover what each person is best at doing that helps the project, and then I challenge them to develop those skills even more. I involve them with as much as they can handle. I motivate them every day. I reward them. I compliment them as much as I possibly can, and I have their back at all times so they can do what I need them to do.
Safety above all else: From everything I’ve shared so far, you might think that delivering this showpiece project was our team’s highest priority. If so, you are wrong. You can build the most beautiful, the most perfect building in the world, but if someone gets hurt doing so, the end result doesn’t mean anything. For the IST project, our most important target was achieving an Injury-Free Environment®. We managed that goal on a daily basis, starting with the safety orientations we provided to some 1,200 workers. In those sessions, we made it clear that our top priorities are safety, jobsite cleanliness and quality – and really, those three items are intertwined. We reached our target, with no lost-time incidents over the 750,000 hours it took to build the project.
Moving ahead, the IST Building demonstrates how Skanska is committed to challenging the limits of design and construction. We want to continually find more effective ways of providing safe work environments, efficiently delivering high-quality projects, realizing the architect’s intent, and maximizing what the client can obtain for a given budget. I’ve spent 12 years building for Skanska, and I’m prouder than ever to be part of one of the world’s premier builders – especially when I get to be part of projects that shape the future of America, like this one.