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Women In Construction: McHugh's Keri Woodring

Women have been making inroads into larger roles on construction sites, both as tradespeople and site managers, positions that always seemed a natural fit to Keri Woodring, a project manager with McHugh Construction, who became fascinated with construction at an early age.

But she has met plenty of skepticism along the way, especially near the beginning of her 20-year career in construction. 

“When I met people and told them I was in construction, many were like, ‘what, no, why would you do that?’" she said. "That’s changing.”

Keri Woodring atop the Curio Hotel at Navy Pier.

“I always enjoyed building things, and helping my dad with construction and home improvement projects,” she said.

That eventually led Woodring, who was raised in Fremont, Indiana, a small town in the far northeastern corner of the state, to Purdue University and an engineering degree. And throughout her 20-year career in Chicago, including 16 years with McHugh, she has always worked with women, even in the early days.

“It was something women were breaking into,” she said.  

Resistance to women on the job site hasn’t completely evaporated. Woodring said there frequently seems to be a phase where she has to prove herself to the still male-dominated construction sites.

“It’s a normal thing on every project,” she said. “I do feel like when you’re a woman, many of the guys don’t take you seriously, but after a while, you get into a rhythm, and since it’s all about getting the job accomplished, they find women are capable of doing what the guys do.”  

Woodring is on the verge of completing her biggest job, the construction of the seven-story, 222-room Curio Collection by Hilton hotel on Chicago’s Navy Pier. Developed by Maverick Hotels & Restaurants, the $95M project will open later this year.

As project manager, Woodring is on-site eight to 12 hours a day, acting as a go-between with ownership, the architectural team and tradespeople, as well as troubleshooting problems and overseeing the proper installment of finishes, building infrastructure and hundreds of other details.

“Every day is different, but my ultimate responsibility is to bring projects in on time and under budget,” she said.

Woodring needed all those skills to help reconstruct Chicago’s historic New York Life building, built in the 1890s and designed by skyscraper pioneer William Le Baron Jenney, into The Gray Hotel. One of the earliest examples of steel-frame construction, the 14-story tower at 39 South LaSalle St. once occupied a place on Preservation Chicago’s most endangered list.

But instead of meeting a wrecking ball, a McHugh team, armed with architectural and design plans from Gensler, New York-based Parts and Labor Design and Los Angeles-based Beleco, gut-rehabbed the structure, and by 2016, it became one of many aging downtown office buildings to get a second life as a boutique hotel.

Architectural plans are only the first step in any renovation, and it is up to project managers like Woodring and construction tradespeople to turn those visions into reality, a difficult task with a building from the dawn of the skyscraper age.

The Gray Hotel, 39 South LaSalle St.

“It seemed like every time we opened up a wall, we’d find something unexpected,” Woodring said. “It might be a column we didn’t know was there, or some asbestos that you would have to mitigate.”

Construction teams restored its many historic features, including the gray marble lobby and terra cotta and granite facade, and cut a hole in the roof to add an overhead retracting skylight for a top-floor lounge.

Confronting the unexpected is normal for a project manager. A few years ago, when McHugh was running the $26.5M project that replaced the pier’s giant Ferris wheel with the 525-ton Centennial Wheel, twice the weight of the old wheel and 50 feet taller, the senior project manager left, and the company tapped Woodring to take over.  

“I got the luck of the draw,” she said.

Although she had never built a Ferris wheel before, that job was mostly about logistics, both making sure construction teams could safely operate in the midst of crowds drawn by one of Chicago’s top tourist attractions, and correctly maneuvering heavy equipment on a pier with a limited load capacity.

“All the skills of a project manager are transferrable, and it’s a set of skills that a lot of women already have, because it’s all about looking at the details, reviewing the drawings and managing the people.”

Women are still in the minority on job sites, both as project managers and tradespeople, but she expects their ranks to keep growing, especially if schools that specialize in STEM education, such as Purdue, continue doing outreach to women, who, like Woodring, got started young.

“A lot of girls are already hanging out like I did with their dads and moms doing construction,” she said. “There is also less of a stigma about it for women.”

Although Woodring is about to finish up the biggest project of her career, she said whatever comes next doesn’t have to be on the same or larger scale.

“My career as a project manager has never been about the size of the project, for me it’s about the challenge.”