Milwaukee’s largest construction project in 44 years is complete. Standing at 550 feet and 32 stories tall, occupying the length of two city blocks, the Northwestern Mutual Tower & Commons collectively holds 1.1 million square feet of space – the state’s largest volume of office space in one structure.
Milwaukee-based Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. invested a total of $450 million in the project and created 2,600 construction-related jobs – many falling into the hands of Milwaukee residents.[gallery type="slideshow" size="full" ids="438865,438860,438862"]
“The company embraced the idea of growing the Milwaukee community through growing its workforce,” Department of City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux said. “The Tower & Commons is a showplace not only for Northwestern Mutual as a company, but it is a showplace because it is an architectural jewel and it was built by men and women from our city.”
Hines, a Houston-based global real estate investment and development firm, was the project’s development manager from beginning to end – from analyzing the site and determining the structure’s size, to hiring and managing the design and construction teams, to eventually, handing over the keys to Northwestern Mutual.
“This is a signature project and something that the city should be proud of for a long, long time,” said Brad Soderwall, a managing director at Hines. “It’s humbling to be part of such a significant effort.”
When it was time to build, Northwestern Mutual hired Providence, Rhode Island-based Gilbane Building Co. and Milwaukee-based C.G. Schmidt Inc. to lead construction as the general contracting team, managing more than 100 direct subcontractors throughout the process.
Adam Jelen, a senior vice president at Gilbane, said development partnerships for large construction projects are often dependent on the firm’s culture but at Gilbane, partnerships are highly valued.
Prism Technical Inc., a Milwaukee-based consulting firm, was responsible for connecting the project’s team with small business enterprises and Residents Preference Program workers interested in construction opportunities. Northwestern Mutual was required to hire those firms as a condition of the $54 million in tax incremental financing provided by the city.
“I look at the Tower and Commons project as a tipping point as it relates to inclusion on projects,” said Lafayette Crump, chief operating officer at Prism. “It really showed what could happen when you have a committed team and you treat diversity and inclusion as just as significant a part of the project as anything else.”
Northwestern Mutual’s need for a new downtown office structure arose when maintenance costs of the former East Building grew too high. The company announced the structure would be demolished and soon after, plans were made for a new building in its place – the Tower & Commons.
Prior to demolition, the East Building, which housed a cooling plant that air conditioned the historic South Building, was decoupled from the neighboring structure and a temporary cooling plant and emergency generator were installed on the South Building’s east side.
Rogers, Minnesota-based specialty contracting and waste management firm Veit & Co. Inc. lad the demolition of the 16-story East Building, deconstructing it floor-by-floor, starting from the top – a method that was chosen instead of implosion, which could have caused flying debris and dust clouds, or possible harm to surrounding buildings.
More than 90 percent of the materials deconstructed from the East Building were reused and recycled.
After the yearlong demolition process, the construction team broke ground in August 2014 and prepared the site for Wisconsin’s largest-ever concrete pour – 10,000 cubic yards over a 27-hour period – that created a concrete mat foundation. At the building’s completion, 35 levels of concrete hold its core.
By mid-2015, crews began to erect the steel frame for both the Tower and the Commons and cranes were installed to reach the tower’s growth. The construction site buzzed with almost 500 workers daily.
Meanwhile, Portland, Oregon-based Benson Industries Inc. leased an 83,000-square-foot space in the Century City Business Park on Milwaukee’s northwest side to serve as a manufacturing site for 70 Residents Preference Program workers hired to make the tower’s exterior glass curtain walls.
“This project took that work and it put it right in the neighborhood where those RPP workers live,” Marcoux said. “It is a very tangible way of saying that the city is everybody and it has an opportunity for everybody.”
About 100,000 hours of work produced the 386,000 square feet of glass construction crews wrapped around the building, four floors at a time, working from east to west. Covering the exterior allowed workers to construct interior walls and floors and install air circulation systems.
By December 2016, the curtain wall was complete and a sign reading “Northwestern Mutual” was installed at the top of the building. Construction crews then focused heavily on interior projects and began landscaping the surrounding areas, including the Northwestern Mutual Gardens, a 4.6-acre green space that is open to the public.
As the summer comes to a close, Northwestern Mutual employees are beginning to move into the new building.
“Right now, the project has reached its substantial and final completion and we are just wrapping up some odds and ends,” Jelen said. “But we will continue our partnership with Northwestern Mutual and will continue the longstanding relationships with our trade partners here in the metro area. It’s not about building a one-time project, it’s about longstanding relationships.”See the rest of the Special Section on the Northwestern Mutual Tower & Commons here.