The construction teams behind 24 projects that earned recognition as ENR Midwest’s Best Projects for 2022 gathered Dec. 1 in Chicago to accept their awards and celebrate their accomplishments.

A total of 64 projects were submitted for the regional contest. Thirteen were selected from across 16 different categories for Best Project recognition and 10 earned awards of merit. Two projects were recognized in the Excellence in Safety category.

Paul J. King Jr.’s address accepting the Midwest Legacy Award to the group of more than 100 was a highlight of the event. The award is given annually by ENR regional editors to individuals in their areas who have achieved a lifetime legacy of service, both to the AEC industry and to their communities.

Throughout his decades-long career, King has been a catalyst for positive change in Chicago construction and on jobsites nationwide.

As the executive director of the United Builders Association of Chicago, King helped organize the National Association of Minority Contractors. He also founded UBM Construction, which became the largest black-owned contractor in Illinois. King also started O’Hare Development Group, one of the first minority-owned developers in Illinois.


Photos by Jeff Scott Callen for ENR

Starting in the late 1960s, King stood up to a closed system that kept Black Americans out of building trade unions and federally funded projects in their Chicago neighborhoods. At the time, unions were 97% white.

Accepting the award, King reflected on how it takes a united effort to spur change.

“Critical to our success, as well as to so many other minority firms, was government intervention to address the effects of past discrimination against Black people,” he said. “Affirmative action, SBA set-asides, the U.S. Department of Labor rulings and an informed construction industry have produced a welcoming environment that was once closed to Black aspirants seeking jobs or contracts.”

He warned that the industry must stay on guard to ensure that positive changes are not lost.

“This is not a call for political or social violence, but a gentle reminder to remain vigilant and relentless in protecting the gains we have made and the promise of an even brighter, more inclusive future for us all,” he said.

Another top award went to Pepper Construction in Chicago for the Pepper Family Wildlife Center, which was named the Midwest’s Best Project of the Year overall and is in contention for the national Best Project award.

The $135-million project renovated and updated the 1912-era Lion House at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. The new center offers visitors natural and close-up views of the zoo’s lions, creating a more immersive experience.

“Lincoln Park Zoo is 153 years old,” said Dave Haas, project executive at Pepper Construction. “During that span of time zoos have evolved tremendously, and the buildings need to reflect that. Everything is unique about these projects.”

Designed from years of collected behavioral data, the expansion of the habitat includes intricate rockwork and climate-controlled features. During design, the team created virtual exhibit models to flag areas of concern and optimize solutions. By modeling the lions’ jump radius along with the rockwork, fences, trees and other design features, the team eliminated possible safety hazards.

“There is not a more challenging type of project you’re going to encounter,” Haas said. “The end user is a lion. How are you going to communicate with that? I think we took it to the next level at Pepper Family Wildlife Center. The zoo team spent several years collecting hundreds of hours of data about how the lions used their space previously and [to] understand their preferences to inform the design and construction of the new habitat.”

The team was gratified to be part of the project. “Watching the lions adapt to their new environment and use every nook and cranny of the 18,000 square feet of space was extremely rewarding,” Haas said. “It’s a great representation of what Lincoln Park Zoo is to the local community in Chicago and worldwide in terms of their global impact on conservation.”

“Awards like this bring focus to the impact the built environment can have on a community,” said Stan Pepper, chairman and CEO of The Pepper Companies.

“The Pepper Family Wildlife Center was the last of my parents’ remarkable collaborations, and we know that my dad is proud of the building and the memories that will be created there for generations to come,” Pepper added. “We are excited to see how the building is extending life for the African lion pride.”

The pride is growing at the wildlife center, which recently welcomed three new lion cubs, Pepper noted.