Well, it's that time of year, time to look back but also ahead at what's in store for the Midwest construction industry. With that in mind, we've compiled a “watch list” of regional issues, cities and firms we'll be profiling in the Feb. 2 edition of ENR Midwest.

Herewith, a preview:

Great Lakes

Not a good year for the Great Lakes. Algal blooms have become a rite of summer in Lake Erie. First come the rains, then phosphorus-laden river discharges, followed by blooms, some toxic, that spread tendril-like across large swaths of water. This year's outbreak proved mild relative to 2011 and 2013, but due to location deprived 500,000 residents in and around Toledo, Ohio, of tap water for several days in August. It proved a tipping point in the conversation about conservation, and whether improvements made under the Clean Water Act of 1972 are unraveling due to culprits ranging from agriculture to global warming to sprawl. Although the Obama administration began to address the issue in 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued more aggressive plans to restore the Great Lakes just weeks after the Toledo ban, with initiatives including clean up of contaminated rivers and harbors and reductions in phosphorus fertilizer runoff. Involving 15 agencies and eight Great Lake states, the five-year program is the largest of its kind in U.S. history, according to EPA.

The Industrial Sector

Manufacturing in Chicago is an old heavyweight slugger, punching below its weight,” or so concludes “Revival in the Heartland: Manufacturing and Trade in Chicago,” a July 2014 report issued by HSBC and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “The same holds true for manufacturing across the Midwest,” according to Richard C. Longworth, author of the report. Longworth and others variously attribute the region's woes to outsourcing, the tech revolution and a shift to the sunbelt, particularly among foreign-based manufacturers. Among the exceptions is Southeast Michigan's “automation alley,” home to a burgeoning defense industry, and metro Detroit, where manufacturing accounts for 18% of the region's economy. However, California's Silicon Valley has begun challenging Detroit automakers in the manufacture autonomous cars, connected vehicles and eco-friendly powertrains, among other potential high-growth ventures. To boost Midwest competitiveness, the Obama administration in 2014 selected Chicago and Detroit as as sites for federally funded manufacturing institutes, with Chicago focusing on digital manufacturing and design, the Detroit on advancements in lightweight metals. The Detroit Institute will be led by a consortium of 60 companies, nonprofits and universities, and the Chicago Institute by 73 such interests. Both will match $70 million in funding from the Department of Defense.


Now that the Midwest is participating more fully in the nation's economic recovery, regional builders are more fully immersed in a challenge confronting builders nationwide: labor shortages. According to an October study by Arlington, Va.-based Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), 2 million industry workers lost jobs during the nation's economic downturn, many of whom subsequently secured employment in oil, gas and trucking. Although shortages are most acute in the Southeast, where 86% of contractors indicated difficulty locating qualified workers, the region is followed by the Midwest, where 82% of contractors indicated similar difficulties. Among other remedies, AGC recommends increased funding for vocational education and construction-focused schools such as City Colleges of Chicago's (CCC) Dawson Technical Institute, which specializes in career development in bricklaying, concrete masonry, carpentry, welding, plumbing, fire protection, electrical, highways and construction management. Dawson also provides training for community members to participate in the construction of CCC projects, such as the $251-million Malcolm X College School of Health, whether they are experienced or not. For Malcolm X, carpentry trainees engaged in a five-week module rooted in mathematics, tools of the trade and safety, including a 10-hour OSHA class. A subsequent five-week module focused on transit levels and other measurement tools, as well as skills required to execute and interpret working drawings, construction documents and other blueprints.


With all eyes on Chicago, where commercial construction has surged to its highest level since 2008, industry observers may be overlooking a boom of comparable magnitude farther up Lake Michigan's shoreline. Milwaukee has been primed for growth for some time, the beneficiary of $2.6 billion in public and private development over the past decade. Today, a handful of projects under way account for nearly another $2 billion. Milwaukee's Zoo Interchange upgrade, begun last year, is valued at $1.71 billion, the half-completed Hoan Bridge upgrade at $270 million and Northwestern Mutual Headquarters, begun in August, at $450 million. More – much more – is proposed, planned or in the pipeline, including a 2.5-mile streetcar line, a pet project of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett; a sports arena for the National Basketball Association's Milwaukee Bucks; a new downtown transit center; and the Couture, a 44-story apartment tower overlooking Milwaukee's lakefront. What accounts for the activity? “We believe in Milwaukee,” Northwestern Mutual CEO John E. Schlifske remarked in 2012, upon announcing plans to locate the company's new headquarters downtown. It's a sentiment that's spreading.

PositiveEnergy Practice

Even its acronym – PEP – suggests that PositivEnergy Practice, a Chicago-based enterprise committed to environmentally responsible design, has energy to spare, whether executing projects worldwide or mapping a more sustainable future for its home town. The five-year-old firm, launched by Chicago's Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, prefers a broad canvass, having leveraged a “decarbonization plan” AS&GG developed for the city of Chicago to map similar blueprints for other cities and countries. In Chicago, PEP is providing technical support for further expansion of Mayor Emanuel's Retrofit Chicago's Commercial Buildings Initiative, for which 16 building operators have committed to at least a 20% energy efficiency improvement within five years. Encompass, a free on-line tool developed by PEP, draws from a database of 280,000 energy models to represent Chicago's commercial buildings and allow owners and operators to negotiate the steps required to achieve greater energy savings. The White House in 2012 recognized firm president John Tolva as a “Champion of Change” for his innovative approaches to community building.