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Chicago's $1B Wanda Vista Project Leading The Way On Diversifying Construction Industry

When completed later this year, the nearly $1B Vista Tower in Chicago’s Lakeshore East neighborhood will be the tallest building in the world designed by a woman, and the third-tallest overall in Chicago. As it illustrates the growing diversity in the architecture profession, the Jeanne Gang-designed structure is making a similar mark in the realm of construction.

“I’ve never seen this many women on a project,” Melissa Tompkins said. She works for general contractor McHugh Construction Co. as project manager on the condo portion of the 101-story tower, which will feature nearly 400 residences and the 200-room Wanda Vista Hotel.  

“On previous jobs, I would frequently be the only female, so there’s been a big change in the last 10 years,” she added.

Standing: Assistant Project Manager Terez Sturrup, Assistant Project Manager Ashley Freeland, Assistant Superintendent Colby Egan, Safety Manager Rachael Dolecki and Assistant Project Manager-Concrete Services Shelby Griffin. Kneeling: Assistant Project Manager Alex Mantzoros, Project Administrator Andrea Dubinski and Project Manager Melissa Tompkins.

The greater diversity at Vista encompasses more than the design and management teams, according to McHugh Safety Manager Rachael Dolecki.

“I don’t know if it was planned this way, but there were far more females on the Wanda Vista project than any other I worked on, and that includes female ironworkers, laborers, operators and a couple of carpenters,” she said.

“There is not one trade working on the site that doesn’t have a female,” Tompkins added. McHugh President Michael Meagher said the company already had a number of women in leadership positions, including Chairman Patricia McHugh, and though employing a high percentage of women on the Vista development was not part of any plan, he also doesn’t attribute it to sheer luck.

“This was not happenstance. It’s our corporate culture and mindset, and honest to gosh, our hiring is based on capability, regardless of race or gender, and I think Wanda Vista is the best reflection of that. I’d like to think that we’re progressive and ahead of the times, but we are just picking the best people for the job.”

“The job numbers fluctuate, but about 5% of the workforce at Wanda is represented by females,” Meagher said.

Developers Magellan Development Group and Wanda Commercial Properties of China broke ground on the 1.4M SF skyscraper in 2016, and as a project manager, Tompkins, who also worked with McHugh on the Jeanne Gang-designed, 82-story Aqua, arranges schedules, checks the materials coming on-site to ensure quality, deals with subcontractors and works as a liaison between ownership, designers and construction workers. In some respects, she was made for such a job.

“When I was in high school, I was really good at math and science,” she said. That led her to Purdue University, where even though it was possible to pursue a design career, Thompkins was pulled in a different direction.

“I felt a need to understand the real-world applications of what I was studying,” she said.

Vista Tower, 375 East Wacker Drive

Her path was set after her first real experience in the field, keeping track of contracts and other documents for Bechtel at the Dresden Generating Station, a nuclear power plant near Morris, Illinois.      

"They definitely kept me busy," she said. 

Assistant Project Manager Ashley Freeland also opted for field experience. Another Purdue graduate, she got a degree in construction graphics and started off creating and analyzing 3D models, then joined McHugh about five years ago. Although she still helps the company build project models, now Freeland spends more of her time managing subcontractors at the Vista site, which has strengthened her knowledge of the overall process.

“At the end of the day, when you’re in construction, it’s great to have the experience of going out there and seeing everything firsthand,” she said. “Every day is something new, so it’s a gradual learning experience and the day-to-day is never typical.”

Dolecki took a different route to a construction management career. She started out as a laborer, and is still a proud holder of a union card. In a way, it was the family business. Her father was a union laborer for decades, and as a joke, she once asked him if he could get her a job on a construction site. He didn’t take it as a joke, and she soon had that card, and work as a flagger during the construction of the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

“I was the person you see on the street directing traffic,” she said. That job carries a lot of risk, and it helped Dolecki appreciate of the importance of on-site safety.

“People don’t like to slow down, and it’s become even more dangerous because people are now on their phone all the time. It’s a whole different ballgame out there.”

After several years, Dolecki started working as a deck monitor on construction sites, making sure tradespeople on higher floors operated safely. McHugh then paid for her to take OSHA’s six-month safety administrator certificate course.

That qualified her to help manage job sites like Vista, where for two-and-a-half years she went up from the first to the highest floors each day and back down again, constantly on the move, evaluating the weather and windspeeds, among many other tasks, and making sure tradespeople, many with decades of experience, followed OSHA guidelines instead of taking shortcuts.

“Sometimes the guys with the most experience are going to try to take shortcuts, but what’s going to get the job done fastest is not always the safest way,” she said. “You have to remind them not to get complacent.”

Melissa Tompkins

Correcting unsafe practices and ingrained habits never bothered Dolecki.

“A lot of it depends on how you approach the situation and the person in the field, and I have found that asking politely for people to change the way they do something is best. I don’t even get any mouthiness or lip back. That’s my approach, and it works for me.”

Treating everyone on the job site with respect also plays a part, she added, and being a woman never seems like a disadvantage.

“I learn from them just as much as they learn from me. I also think I carry myself well, and the guys give me respect because I give them respect. And having worked in the field myself, and having an understanding of what the work is, also definitely helps. They know I didn’t just come out of school without ever lifting a toolbelt. I’ve been in their shoes.”

Dolecki left Vista last summer, and now works on 740 North Aberdeen in River West, a 12-story residential building by developer Fifield Cos. where McHugh is the general contractor. But before leaving, she got to see the Vista building reach its full, 1,198-foot height, and even climbed to the very top, an experience she said helped validate the career path she chose.

“I got to see the city from a view that few, with the exception of tower crane operators, ever get to see,” she said. “I’m definitely not a person who can sit in a cubicle tapping on a computer for eight hours. On a construction site, everything constantly changes, and every day is different, with every phase of the project."  

She didn’t notice any difference in how the Vista job site functioned compared to ones with fewer women. 

“Everyone still had the job at hand to do,” she said.

Meagher believes the Wanda Vista project is a sign of things to come.

“I think as we see more working families where both partners work, you’ll see in our industry more diverse project leadership teams,” he said.   

“I’ve seen many more women get involved, although they are still a small percentage overall,” Freeland said. “There are some women who are not aware of these opportunities, so we need to reach out to people still in school, and let them know there are many roles they can play.”   

Dolecki also would like to see even more women join the construction workforce.

“It’d be nice to start evening it out.”