A Monument Worthy of the Man


By Susan Hines

On August 28, 2011, the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial was officially dedicated.

Nestled in the Tidal Basin, a reservoir between the Potomac River and the Washington Channel, the memorial to the civil rights leader King is visually linked with the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials. The King Memorial is the first on the National Mall dedicated to an African-American, and the third memorial to honor an individual who was not a president.

“There are a lot of firsts in this instance,” Dr. Ed Jackson, Jr., executive architect of the Foundation, points out.  “It’s the first time an African-American foundation has funded and built a memorial on the National Mall, and the first memorial on the Mall where the design was the product of an international competition with an international jury.” The King memorial will also be the first new construction on the mall to be delivered via design-build.

Monumental Task
Establishing a national memorial in Washington, DC, is an arduous task, requiring a level of dedication and determination that must be a labor of love.

In this case, the organizing force behind the memorial was the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, which lobbied Congress to authorize the memorial. Alphi Phi Alpha also established the nonprofit Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation in order to fund design and construction of the memorial. King, Jr. is the best-known member of the fraternity, which counts such illustrious Americans as W. E. B. Dubois, Jesse Owens, Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall, and Andrew Young among its brotherhood.

Asked by his fraternity to take on the task of overseeing design and construction, Dr. Jackson took several days to decide. “Alpha Phi Alpha spent 13 years getting the legislation [authorizing the memorial] approved,” Dr. Jackson told DBIA’s IQ. “What was it going to take to get site approval, design approval and to launch construction?” Valid questions coming from someone who recognized how difficult it is to get a consensus in Washington, DC—even under normal circumstances.

Ultimately, the memorial was 15 years in the making, a decade and half that Dr. Jackson looks back on as long but successful. “I never thought for one minute that it could not be achieved,” he says.

Dr. Jackson’s optimism is noteworthy. Getting site and design approval for a memorial of this stature in the nation’s capital requires several acts of Congress, presidential signatures, and numerous approvals by the commissions and agencies that oversee the Federal City.  The primary oversight bodies are the National Capitol Planning Commission (NCPC), the central planning agency for the federal government in the region; the United States Commission on Fine Arts (CFA), which approves the site and design of national memorials in accordance with the Commemorative Works Act; and the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), a District of Columbia entity that reviews all federal projects in the city.

Last, but certainly not least, is the National Park Service (NPS), the Department of Interior agency charged with approving the site and design, as well as assuring compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NPS is a major stakeholder because it is responsible for maintaining memorials on Department of Interior lands. Although the Foundation raised the money to design and construct the King Memorial, the National Park Service will serve as its guardian on behalf of the American people.

Characterizing this alphabet soup of agencies and approvals as a tangle of red tape marked by institutional redundancy and inefficiency would be superficial, to say the least. Memorials are built for posterity and the people of the future cannot represent themselves. It isn’t easy to navigate this system of checks and balances, but then, perhaps it shouldn’t be easy to erect a memorial and arrange for its maintenance on this nationally significant landscape.

The complicated approvals process, which extends into the construction phase, hardly seems to make national memorials good candidates for design-build project delivery. Yet, long before the final stakeholder sign off, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation decided to issue a design-build RFP.

The international design competition had been won by ROMA Design Group of San Francisco, California, in September of 2000. With that conceptual design and the approved site, the Foundation began a massive fundraising raising campaign and started ushering preliminary design through the approvals process. By 2006, the Foundation had received the permission to proceed with the final design—a milestone that triggered the decision to go with design-build project delivery.

“We decided to go design-build before we entered design development,” Dr. Jackson says. By sharing knowledge of site conditions freely among the design and construction players, by tapping the experience and expertise of designers and builders, the Foundation believed that cost and risk would be minimized while the project advanced on schedule.

Explaining the Foundation’s thinking, Dr. Jackson says, “We had a clear understanding of the memorial’s components and their juxtaposition to one another. We needed a cohesive team with all of the fabricators at the table.” He goes on to say, “In order to achieve excellence, the contractor needed to be married to process and he needed to be part of the process. Given the site conditions of building within the Tidal Basin flood plain, there would be unique challenges. The ability to use the expertise of the contractor early on in the process would help tremendously.”

When it came to time to issue the design-build RFP, the Foundation sought out the best of the best, canvassing the Washington, DC area for firms with extensive experience on the Mall and sending the RFP to just 5 or 6 firms. “Think of it in terms of going to trial: When you are in a challenging role with a large number of stakeholders, the best approach is to take the most knowledgeable and experienced experts in your defense to the table,” Dr. Jackson says. “If your life or career is held in abeyance, you want to have the best defense.”

A shortlisted group of responders presented to a panel which scored the teams based on presentations and proposals. The team with the highest cumulative score was the joint venture McKissack & McKissack (architecture and construction management) / Turner Construction Company / Gilford Corporation (civil engineering) / Tompkins Builders, Inc. (MTTG). Asked about her reaction to winning such a prominent project, Deryl McKissack, PE, PMP, President and Chief Executive Officer of the firm leading the design and managing construction, says frankly, “I had goose bumps the first two years.”

She points out that McKissack & McKissack had significant design-build experience, both as a joint venture partner and as a project team member. Many of those projects had been carried out for federal owners. One of particular significance was the Lincoln Memorial restoration. There, the firm provided design-build and program management services for physical security barriers, roadway relocation, and historic restoration to the memorial.

The joint venture’s proposal strategy was in line with the Foundation’s desire for the best the city’s A/E/C community had to offer. Sam Condit, AIA, then Executive Vice President and Managing Principal of McKissack’s Washington office, says, “Selection was based on qualifications and price. We were fortunate to have people at McKissack who had worked on the World War II Memorial. We didn’t have anyone (on the MTTG team) who had not done a project of national significance on the Mall.” 

Condit, who now serves on the firm’s board of directors, points out another important selection criterion: Past performance navigating the approvals process. All of MTTG’s subs—on both the design and the construction side—had appeared before NCPC and CFA in the past, many on memorial projects.

Landscape architect Sheila Brady, FASLA, of Oehme, van Sweden & Associates (OvS) is a prime example of the kind of sub-consultant the team sought out. The Washington-based firm was the landscape architect for the World War II memorial. As principal-in-charge on that project, Brady appeared before NPS, CFA, and NCPC many times.

Dr. Jackson praised OvS’s response when the commission raised concerns about the trees specified for the site. Not only did the firm completely revise the plan for the tree canopy but also, Dr. Jackson says, they were able to, “Embrace the change and sell it to Fine Arts.”

OvS knows the drill and, to a certain extent, can anticipate what CFA may or may not want. Whatever momentary frustration results from the approvals process, Brady, like other MLK team members, takes the long view. Of her numerous encounters with CFA over the years, she says, “Looking back, you realize how necessary the process is. They make such valid comments. After all, these are brilliant people you are interacting with.”

The project award was announced by the Foundation in early June 2007. MTTG’s proposal established a twenty-month construction schedule. If the memorial was to be completed by the 48th anniversary of King’s famous speech, then the design phase would have to receive final approval by the fall of 2009.When the Department of Interior issued the construction permit on October 29, 2009, McKissacks’s Lisa Anders took on the responsibility of ushering the design-build team through the construction phase. She made unifying the members of the joint venture a top priority. “We were four different firms with four corporate cultures. We needed to look at this project as an MTTG project,” Anders says. With twenty years of construction management experience, she set the tone by branding everything from trailers to shirts with MTTG, and consistently emphasizing that, “When we are here on this job, we are MTTG and we work like one company.

“In order to design-build successfully, you have to have to foster great relationships between owner, designers, contractors and subs,” she says. “Everyone must work together with the same goal in mind.  According to Anders, the constant reminder of King’s values—justice, democracy, and unity—helped the team put aside differences and “function seamlessly.”

A high level of integration was absolutely necessary to maintaining the schedule. The notice to proceed with construction came with a variety of conditions that would require returning to the United States Commission on Fine Arts (CFA) for approvals. “From the day we were engaged, we had a 20-month construction schedule,” Anders says. “No one knew how many commission reviews we would have to do, yet we’ve maintained that schedule even though we went to CFA more times than anticipated.”

Of course, expecting the unexpected is key on all construction projects. After all, she says, “No set of construction documents is perfect when you get on site, and existing conditions can always cause problems. We were able to move through everything on schedule with virtually no change orders.

“That’s the beauty of design-build, it gives you an opportunity to react in a more collaborative manner -- not only on the design side, but also on the build side,” Anders explains. When the team presented to CFA on an aspect of the project that required additional approval, she says, “We worked together to address their comments, react quickly, present to the Foundation and, with their approval, go back (to CFA) the next month with solutions so we could move forward.” Quick turnaround was important because the commission met the third Thursday of each month, and submissions were due the first Thursday of each month—giving the team just two weeks to attempt to resolve an issue and move on.

During the build out, keeping the subcontractors involved and informed was important to moving construction along in tandem with the approvals process. “We worked closely with our subcontractors to let them know we can do this (aspect of the job), but we can’t work on it before we get approval,” she notes. An additional advantage she cites: “We could vet the design with construction before moving forward.”

Anders contrasts the teamwork and collaboration achieved on this project with a traditional design-bid-build delivery. “In a design-bid-build scenario, the contractor would stop working on an element that required approval and wait until the designer figured it out,” she says. “And when the designer got it back to the contractor, the contractor would say, ‘Well this isn’t going to work,’ and then there would be all this back and forth, with the owner in between, trying to get what he wants and satisfy the stakeholders, too.”

Like everyone else interviewed for this article, Anders highlights the important role the Foundation played, not just in raising 120 million dollars to fund the project, but also as a facilitator of the design-build process. “The owner was key to managing the stakeholders,” she says. “I think it is a great example of how approvals can be done and how important the owner is to that process.” The owner and the design-build team consistently appeared together and worked together to explain design and construction solutions to the commission.

In looking back, “the success of a design-build depends on the success of the design-build marriage,” reflects Dr. Ed Jackson. “Design-build would not work with animosity or silos: It works if everyone identifies with the goals and objectives and everyone keeps an open mind. As an owner, I was able to play an active role (in that process).”

While the team managed design and construction, Dr. Jackson managed the stakeholder process. “If we were going before the commission, I tried to use as much leverage as I could,” he says. And he never hesitated to call on his team for back-up. For example, when the inscription walls were before the commission, Dr. Jackson says, “I brought in Nick Benson, the stone carver. He could easily make our case before the commission. If we had waited to acquire subs and contractors later in the process, that expertise would not have been there.

“The whole notion of the ‘master builder’ is not that of an individual but a team—the design-build team,” Dr. Jackson elaborates.  “The owner is able to extract the expertise and knowledge base that each (team member) has acquired over years in the industry. Tapping those sources of knowledge is an asset to the owner, one that the owner should seek in every scenario.”

The expertise of the entire design-build team was on full display the spring day I made a visit to the memorial. Although construction was still in progress, the quality of the design and the workmanship was evident everywhere I looked, from the carving of King’s inspiring words on the inscription walls to the consistent joinery on the paving stones. As I pass through, the “Mountain of Despair,” a pair of massive stones that part to reveal the “Stone of Hope” from which King’s image emerges, I have an unobstructed view of the Jefferson Memorial.

Thanks to the labors of the Foundation, the design-build team, and the review agencies, here on the Tidal Basin, King and Jefferson face each other as equals. The memorial to the man who made the then outrageous claim that human equality was a fact is matched in quality and significance by a memorial to the man who pushed America closer to making that ideal, that dream, a reality. It makes me proud of my country, despite, or maybe because of its complicated past.  And that is exactly what memorials are supposed to do.

A previous version of this story appeared in DBIA’s Integration Quarterly. It is reprinted with permission.

The Author:
Susan Hines was Director of Public Relations and Information at the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA.) In addition, she served as the editor-in-chief of DBIA’s Integration Quarterly. She came to DBIA in 2009, from the nationally known landscape architecture firm, Oehme Van Sweden & Associates. Prior to that, she spent seven years at the American Society of Landscape Architects, first serving as founding editor of the e-newsletter LAND Online, the blog, The Dirt, and later working as a staff writer/editor at Landscape Architecture magazine.
She is a recipient of ASLA’s Bradford Williams Medal and a former Andrew W. Mellon Fellow with the Frederick Law Olmsted Papers Project.

Tags: Design-Build, More, Projects in Review

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