At 32 stories, the Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons is designed to strike a grand pose on the Milwaukee skyline for generations to come. Size and scale of the project notwithstanding, the imprint on the community may actually be larger.

General contractor Gilbane Building Co., in partnership on this project with C.G. Schmidt, is on target to complete the 1.1-million-sq-ft tower by the middle of 2017 for planned occupancy by the end of that year, says Adam Jelen, Gilbane senior vice president. The tower sits on a podium that spans two downtown blocks.

“That size of project for Milwaukee is unprecedented,” says Jelen, “but what’s more impactful and really our mission has been from Day 1 is to make a difference in the small business community and in the workforce in the inner city of Milwaukee.” The largest construction project in the Wisconsin city in the last 40 years, the $450-million Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons is fulfilling commitments to Milwaukee to use small business enterprises for 25% of the project costs and to employ city residents for 40% of hours worked.

Accomplishing the latter “is the most rewarding thing in my career,” says Jelen, who becomes emotional when speaking of the underemployed workers who, based on their experience with the Northwestern Mutual headquarters project, are now “graduating” to full-time jobs. He recently presided over a ceremony in the Great Lakes city to honor 70 of the Resident’s Preference Program (RPP) workers and the organizations that facilitated their unique offsite work program.

“We’ve done something that’s never been done to my knowledge to this size and scale in the entire country,” says Jelen. Upon an analysis to determine the largest project component that could be taken off site and “put the city of Milwaukee to work,” he explains, “the $70-million curtain wall contract that we have for the tower is being fabricated and assembled in an out-of-service building in the city limits by 100% underemployed workers.” More than 100,000 man-hours and 386,000 sq ft of glass later, the workers are wrapping up their customized portion of the project.

“That whole shop, including the HR manager and the quality manager, are all RPP workers,” says Jelen. “So, we’ve trained an entire workforce that could go on to have many jobs other than just construction, although some of them have already gone on to other trades such as electrician, pipefitter, pile driver and laborer. Our real mission is to make sure that every one of these individuals continues on to build a family-sustaining job well beyond this project.”

Toasting Milwaukee

A rust-belt city that has seen a resurgence in urban development in the face of recent social unrest, Milwaukee is about more than the beer for which it is often associated, says Northwestern Mutual.

The life insurance giant is committed to seeing its hometown prosper, says John Schlifske, chairman and chief executive officer. “We believe it is a great time to live and work here,” he says. “We’re backing that belief with new investments in our infrastructure … and in the strategic philanthropic contributions we’re making to enhance education and help strengthen Milwaukee and its neighborhoods.” When construction is complete, the company will employ 3,000 in the city’s core. “From Day 1,” says Sandy Botcher, head of Northwestern Mutual’s downtown campus development project, “we said we needed the community and our fellow businesses, especially local companies, to be a partner in this process.”

Jelen says it’s been “an honor” for Gilbane to play a role. “This is definitely a game-changer for Milwaukee,” he says. “Our No. 1 objective together from the start was to build not necessarily a project, but rather to build a community.”

The curtain wall program “couldn’t have been done without a historic collaboration,” says Jelen, noting the parts played by the project owner, unionized labor and the city’s training arm, as well as general contractor Gilbane, curtain wall component prime Benson Industries, Portland, Ore., and a local firm, Dewey Metal Products. Safely away from the live downtown building construction site on which the tower enclosure was recently completed, Benson set up the curtain wall fabrication and assembly shop in a vacant building in Milwaukee. That shop would go on to produce more than 2,750 of the 11-ft by 15-ft curtain wall panels weighing 2,500 lb each.

“People talk about integrated project delivery and collaboration,” says Jelen. “To me, this is what the ultimate collaboration is when everyone comes together and says, ‘We’re going to make a difference and do something different.’ But it couldn’t have been done without the foresight back in 2014 … and I can tell you everybody was a little skeptical if it would work.”

Wave of the Future

On the whole, the Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons project has racked up 1.5 million worker hours with no lost-time injuries, “a huge feat” considering the 40% underemployed workforce requirement, says Jelen. He credits a custom safety program with onsite coaching and mentoring.

If he has his way, the Milwaukee experience will not be “a one and done” for Gilbane. “We don’t want to check boxes,” says Jelen. “We want to truly make a difference.”

Where and when applicable, “we’re definitely looking at doing more of this workforce analysis and looking at those offsite opportunities to bring them into the communities on our projects,” he says. “We see great opportunity as a result of what I would call this innovation.”