During college, Todd Miller had little direction until the summer he worked framing houses for a family friend. The beautiful views of California’s Folsom Lake, seen from the jobsite, captivated Miller. And assembling the building parts in a preordained sequence, which triggered fond memories of playing with Legos as a kid, was rewarding. “I loved following instructions,” he says, of both home building and the toy.

That experience, plus encouragement from an older sister working in construction management, prompted Miller to major in construction management with a minor in business at California Polytechnic, San Luis Obispo. The major combined his fascination with finance, spreadsheets, puzzle pieces and the outdoors, says Miller, vice president of operations for the Northwest division of Howard S. Wright (HSW), a Balfour Beatty company.

Miller calls his work stressful yet fulfilling, which could have been the mantra of the HSW design-build team, led by Miller, that overhauled the city’s ailing Portland Building. Designed by the late Michael Graves, the landmark is considered the building that solidified the postmodern movement in architecture. 

The icon in Oregon’s biggest city was built with too small a budget. The concrete exterior wall developed serious leaks around the punched windows a few years after the 1982 opening. In 2015, after many failed fix attempts, the city decided on a $195-million makeover rather than razing the building. The program called for a high-performance envelope, a seismic retrofit, rebuilt or replaced antiquated mechanical-electrical-plumbing systems and a gut remodel of the depressingly dark interior. 

The project had a lot of moving parts—Miller’s forte. His decade managing complex health care projects in high seismic zones, which had to be well-documented to satisfy state regulators, came in handy on the Portland job. In fact, California hospitals by comparison made the “Graves building seem easy,” Miller says. 

Wary of design-bid-build contracting for such a complex high-profile job, the city asked for permission from the state to use design-build delivery with progressive contracting. “The city could stop us at certain milestones if we were off schedule or budget,” says Miller. But it also offered financial incentives for good performance. 

To further assure success, Kristin Wells, the city’s strategic analyst and planner for facilities, added the owner-contractor-designer collaborative behaviors of Lean Integrated Project Delivery to the mix. The building, though virtually empty thanks to COVID-19, was substantially complete on time in December 2019. And it came in an estimated $10 million under budget, says Wells.

In addition to the collaborative delivery model, Wells credits Miller and Carla J. Weinheimer, the principal for architect DLR Group, for the job’s success. She calls Miller “wickedly smart” and able to put things together, including high-performing teams. Miller’s integrity “is a breath of fresh air,” she says. “He was always looking at what was best for the project.” 

One example was his decision to overclad the landmark concrete exterior with a modern curtain wall, rather than restore it to its original inadequate state. Two big obstacles: “Our proposal for the overclad blew the budget by $6.5 million,” says Miller. Also, the replica would require a nod from the city’s landmarks commission. 

Undaunted, the team found the money, mostly by salvaging more systems and using stairs and elevators instead of hoists. And DLR Group convinced the commission to allow the replica rather than a pure restoration—permission rarely given for a landmark.

Erica Ceder, DLR Group’s senior project architect, attributes the positive outcome of the makeover to the project’s three core team leaders, including the client: “Todd Miller is logical and thinks sequentially. Carla Weinheimer is passionate, articulate and design-focused. And Kristin Wells is good at managing others and finding common ground” during disagreements. 

The collaborative delivery model is likely to be used on other city jobs and in other cities that have taken notice, says Wells. To help replicate it on other construction, she is writing a project playbook. 

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