In 2014, GH Phipps Construction Cos. completed the distinctive Science Pyramid at Denver Botanic Gardens (DBG). Many pundits in the industry said the complex’s exacting design would be too difficult to build. But Phipps got it done, and the multi-sided, multisensory structure, covered in hexagonal panels, won the Colorado Project of the Year from ENR Mountain States in 2015.
This year, the contractor has earned a new honor—Contractor of the Year for the Colorado, Wyoming and Dakotas segment of the ENR Mountain States region—and is back at work on DBG’s 24-acre campus. The 100,000-sq-ft Freyer-Newman Center for Science, Art and Education is the final piece of DBG’s 11-year-old master development plan. It caps a relationship between DBG and Phipps that dates back to the 1960s, when the company constructed the Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory, one of Denver’s most iconic buildings.
Over the life of the master plan, says Brian Vogt, CEO at the gardens, “the Phipps team has just been outstanding … they care deeply about the mission of the gardens, and they understand our institution.”
Even so, Kurt Klanderud, GH Phipps president, says the bid process was highly competitive for the current $39-million project, which broke ground May 15.
“When we went to the interview, everybody felt the pressure of ‘We have to get this, because we have to complete what we started,’” Klanderud says. “And ultimately when they selected us, there are very few projects that make you emotional when you get them. But it was just a big sigh of relief when we got the call that we were awarded this last job.”
It’s a busy time for the Greenwood Village, Colo.-based company, founded in 1952 by Gerald H. Phipps and ranked among the top 10 general contractors by ENR Mountain States with $296 million in regional revenue.
In addition to work on DBG’s new building, Phipps is building elementary and high schools in Colorado and Wyoming; a $70-million expansion of the Children’s Hospital Colorado North Campus in Broomfield, Colo.; and Lakehouse on 17th, a 12-story, $107-million condominium-and-townhouse development in Denver. The latter project takes Phipps, which hasn’t done a great deal of multifamily work, in somewhat of a new direction. Lakehouse’s owner, NAVA Real Estate Development, aims for the project to earn Colorado’s first WELL Building Standard certification.
The Lakehouse job also is Phipps’ first for NAVA, and the developer’s president, Brian Levitt, says his firm “sought to find the best construction team in the state to execute the project.” NAVA’s goal is for Lakehouse to be an exceptionally healthy place to live, and the company was particularly impressed with Phipps’ long legacy of health care work.
“They really know how to build in great detail, with great care,” Levitt says. “And that aligns well with trying to build a healthy building.”
Jack Mousseau, a partner at Denver’s MOA Architecture, has worked with Phipps for more than 20 years, particularly in K-12 and higher education. He says Phipps is known for its consistency and dependability, from preconstruction to placement of the final brick.
“You can just count on their teams to be quality people, technically very proficient, and they stay together,” Mousseau says. “And you can count on the quality of work. It’s going to be high-end … you just know what you’re going to get, and what you’re going to get is going to meet your owner’s expectations.”
Mousseau’s comments are echoed by architect David Pfeifer, a partner at Denver-based AndersonMasonDale.
“They are really noted for having a core group of extremely experienced superintendents—people that really know how to build buildings,” says Pfeifer, who has worked with Phipps’ crews for 25 years. “I experience that every time our firm works with Phipps. They’re focused on building buildings well.”
That’s welcome feedback for Phipps’ CFO Rhonda Kay, who also manages the firm’s IT and human resources. She says the company strives to hire people who are technically adept and also strong leaders. She says they excel at projects that are “complicated and sometimes messy.” She says the DBG Science Pyramid fits that description, and it applies to nearly any school or hospital project.
“To watch people from all walks of the company get passionate about solving a problem, and then figuring out how to do it, and then solving problems as we go along—that’s who we are,” Kay says. School projects, she adds, are especially difficult because their schedules are often compressed into three months, which Kay calls the company’s “summer crunch.”
“Every school is different, and particularly with remodels, you never know what you’re going to find,” she says. “We’re constantly having to problem-solve with what’s revealed when we start to pull walls down.” Hospitals, meanwhile, offer various challenges as well, including the need to work without disturbing patients.
Health care has long been a Phipps specialty. The company has worked with Children’s Hospital Colorado for 55 years, and according to Phipps’ website, during its history, the firm has built 15 million sq ft of health care facilities valued at nearly $3 billion.
The relationships with Children’s Hospital Colorado, Denver Botanic Gardens and telecommunications provider CenturyLink and its Colorado predecessors—a 65-year client—are emblematic of Phipps’ approach to working with customers, says Klanderud.
“I’m getting ready to go into my 29th year (with the company), and Mr. Phipps was alive when I started,” Klanderud says. (Gerald Phipps died in 1993 at age 78.)
“It was always about the relationship that you had with the client and being that trusted partner. We don’t look at clients as transactional in nature … we really look for clients that have those work programs where we can establish a relationship with them and continue to be engaged with them for years.”
Relationships with staff and the community also are important to Phipps’ leaders. Upon his death, Gerald Phipps, the son of U.S. Sen. Lawrence C. Phipps and a majority owner of the Denver Broncos between 1961 and 1981, bequeathed the company to its employees.
An employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) is now held by the 225 workers in the 450-person company who are not already covered by a union retirement program.
Klanderud is especially proud of the company’s efforts to benefit the greater Denver community. AGC Charities, the philanthropic arm of the Associated General Contractors, recognized Phipps’ program to contribute 1,952 hours of service to 60 local organizations.
The volunteer program was crafted to commemorate the firm’s 60th anniversary in 2012. Last year, the program nearly doubled its goal, with employees logging more than 3,800 hours for various causes.
With three offices in Colorado and a subsidiary in Laramie, Wyo., the company continues to grow. Klanderud expects 2018 revenue to top $360 million. Even so, he says, there are no definite plans at the moment to expand into new locations, and he cautions that the current building boom in Colorado won’t last forever.
“Someday,” he says, “Denver will tighten up.”
Meanwhile, out in the field, Phipps’ crews proceed apace on projects in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, laboring, as Kay puts it, “to build our clients’ dreams.”