ENR Midwest's finalists for 2021 Project of the Year are 100 Above the Park, a stunning residential tower in St. Louis from architect Studio Gang and contractor Clayco; Locks and Dams 24 and 25 Miter Gate Anchorages in Winfield, Mo., a large-scale reconstruction of key locks and dams on the Mississippi River by Massman Construction; and Old Cook County Hospital, the bold reconstruction by Walsh Construction and SOM of the 1916 hospital known as Chicago's Ellis Island.

If there is one theme that stretches throughout the winners picked by our independent panel of judges —  Jen Tobias Hawkins, director of industry digital transformation at ViaTechnik; Laura Young, CEO of Griskelis Young Harrell; Ben Bunge, senior project manager at the Weitz Co.; Steve Zimmerman, associate principal at Wiss Janney Elstner Associates; Renato Gilberti, associate partner at BKV Group; William Haas, associate vice president at AECOM; Jeff Emrick, director of safety and compliance at Ozinga and Sam Mishelow, chief strategy officer at Meyer Najem Construction — it's that 2020 was the year of reconstruction, reuse and re-imagining existing buildings and infrastructure across our 11-state region.

Two of the project of the year candidates are reconstructions.the redevelopment of the historic 1916 Old Cook County Hospital into two Hyatt hotels, medical offices and a food hall by Walsh and SOM revived a historic building that set empty for 20 years. The other inventive reuses include turning the original Marshall Field’s flagship store in Chicago into offices, transforming a former Kmart in Waukegan, Ill., into a Cristo Rey College Prep school, converting a former Home Depot into a health care provider’s office and community center, the reconstruction of miter gates by Massman at a major Mississippi River lock and dam and renovating a former recycling center in Muscatine, Iowa, into a facility that takes expired food and other organic waste and turns it into fuel used in the operation of a water treatment plant. In Kansas, a historically significant former bank building became sustainable apartments. While not full reconstructions or renovations, the design teams that won for other projects this year added to a primate center's habitat at the Saint Louis Zoo and turned a water-control dam into a hydroelectric power source. Parts of an old power plant were even adapted into a new classroom building at Michigan State University.

While politicians talked about building back better, the designers, construction professionals, owners and preservationists of the Midwest can say they're already walking the walk. The Midwest never shut down to construction during the pandemic except for a brief period in the state of Michigan, but our winners show the construction industry in the heartland is already roaring back from the lockdowns. For many locales, that's meant reusing what you've got.

“Where there's a will, there's a way. I have yet in my career to come upon a historic building or an older building that could not be reused, that was so far gone that it couldn’t be made into something new,” says Bonnie McDonald, president and CEO of Landmarks Illinois, a statewide non-profit group dedicated to the preservation of historic and older buildings. “There's always a way to rehabilitate a place and to do so if you have the vision, the passion and the resources to do so. It's being able to get together that combination of things.”

Landmarks Illinois first listed Old Cook County Hospital on its most endangered historic places list in 2001, when then-Cook County Board President John Stroger favored demolishing it, and again in 2003, 2004 and 2005. The group has been working with developers to save it for 18 years. They spearheaded the effort to get the hospital added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006, opening the project up to state and federal tax credits.

While Old Cook County Hospital and the 100-plus-year-old Daniel Burnham-designed Macy’s State Street store were popular reconstruction/renovations with unified design-build teams behind them, the former Kmart in Waukegan, Ill., and an abandoned Chicago Home Depot were much more common — retail stores left empty by the continuing shift to online commerce.

“You take a community like Waukegan, there are generations of immigrant families that live up there and they've seen that Kmart close. It stays closed. It's this scar on the neighborhood that kind of embodies the lack of investment in the community,” says Juan Moreno, the architect behind the transformation of the Kmart store into Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep, a private high school in the Archdiocese of Chicago. “To tear it down would just pour salt in that wound, but when you take that former building and completely transform it, it starts to heal.”

Both Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois Morgan Park Solution Center offer examples of what former retail buildings can be to a community that’s underserved. The health care provider and a Pepper Construction-led team turned it into their Chicago office and a community center.

On the technology front, little Muscatine has only the third municipal-owned organic food waste recycling plant in the U.S. The Muscatine Organic Recovery Center takes expired and thrown away food and other organic waste, discharges it into a 35,000-gallon tank for blending and then the homogenized organic waste is turned into biogas to feed the same anaerobic digesters that clean the city’s municipal wastewater.

Initial plans called for a new facility, but an idle recycling center was already available next to the wastewater treatment plant. Yes, the Stanley Consultants-led team recycled a building too.

To hear more about the great reconstruction story of 2020, please join us December 2 at the Renaissance Chicago Downtown for our annual awards breakfast. We're back this year, too! We'll also be presenting awards to our contractor, designer and specialty contractor of the year and our 2020 legacy award winner.