Build projects better. Employ great people. Diversify perspectives. If you tried to distill any top contractor's motivators down to eight words, that might do it!
At GLY, we've had great success with staff members who've migrated from engineering and architecture careers into construction. This has benefitted all of our goals, while helping a lot of people find their true paths.
For this blog, we wanted to explore why people choose to switch careers and how their expertise helps us build projects better. I talked to three, all of whom joined GLY about five years ago:
Senior Project Engineer Laura Ovsak, AIA, RA, worked as architect for five years with a focus on mixed-use and hospitality projects.
Design Engineer Matt Alvarado, AIA, RA, spent 11 years in architecture, much of that working on GLY projects such as Lincoln Square and a number of Amazon locations.
Project Manager Erik Evenson, PE, served as structural engineer for 11 years on a variety of new construction and renovations.
From left to right: Senior Project Engineer Laura Ovsak, Design Manager Matt Alvarado, Project Manager Erik Evenson
Laura, Erik, Matt and I talked as a group, then followed up individually. Here are highlights from some great discussions.
Stephanie: What attracted you to construction?
Laura: As architect, I spent many hours developing drawing packages detailing things only to find out later about construction challenges like material availability. But with the GC team in the field, I could develop solutions that meet design intent, budget, and constructability. I felt like those solutions were collaborative and hands-on, and what really drove me—not sitting behind a screen.
Erik: I'm a builder at heart—a doer, a fixer, and a thinker. My background started in carpentry and precast concrete. College taught me to think big and I set a goal of becoming a licensed professional engineer. After designing structures for years, I realized my passion was fast-paced, innovative thinking, and hands-on work. And as a bonus, construction lets you learn about every scope, not just your single discipline.
Matt: From the onset of my career, I've been attracted to how things get built and why. In architecture, design and theory [and black turtlenecks] are taught in school but practical knowledge of materials, sequencing, and detailing isn't learned until the first few years on the job. I attribute my passion for the technical side of architecture to my mentor. His ability to figure out details that could actually be built was astonishing. That led me to construction. Being in the field solving problems is where I belong.
Stephanie: What "extras" do you bring to your role due to a design background?
Erik: First is helping designers and field crews see from each others' perspectives. I try to understand what each side needs and bridge the communication gap.
Second is the ability to provide fully baked solutions when issues come up. For example, on one project some rooftop mechanical equipment was going to cause too much steel deflection, causing axillary challenges to other scopes. I worked with the installers and gave the structural engineers a fully calculated structural solution to approve rather than just a theoretical idea. This likely saved multiple days to the critical path.
Matt: Understanding architectural drawings is essential to communication from office to field operations. I excel at removing the background noise and providing a clear, concise narrative of the work that needs to be done. Sometimes less is more.
My 11 years in the architectural world allows me to ask myself how I would answer questions if I were the architect. When I take off my hardhat and put on my black-framed glasses I can see holistically what the issue is, what can be done about it, and the areas any proposed solution can impact. The final bridge is writing an RFI to bring it back together so the architect can understand and trust us as their teammate.
Laura: I see the world in 3D. With models and visual aids, I'm able to uncover things that might be missing from the drawing package far before they're problems in the field, saving time and budget for the owner.
Building codes are another thing. Having pushed many buildings through permitting, I'm aware of a lot of high-risk code items. We can catch these early and help facilitate the design intent. On a recent project, code questions arose about new door hardware that was going to require extensive retrofits. I was able to determine that code provisions allowed a solution with far less retrofitting, translating to big schedule savings.
Stephanie: What else do you bring to your work that you want to mention?
Matt: 1. Trust from the design team. Trust needs to be earned, including by defending the design intent when needed. 2. Problem solving. A give and take and knowing what areas can or can't be pushed leads to a streamlined process and keeps the field moving. 3. Accountability. Office and field staff need to communicate effectively. Involving foremen early and incorporating their insight leads to buildable work packages, shared ownership, and great performance.
Laura: I'd say my availability to quickly generate visual aids, and my expertise with a lot of modeling programs.
Erik: I have a "do it right now" attitude. Construction is fast-paced, and you need to continuously finish the race. I'm outgoing, confident, and cost-driven. I feed off the rush of solving challenges with large teams, and most of all I love mentoring those around me.
Stephanie: What's next? What are you learning?
Laura: I'm being a sponge, soaking up as many lessons and spending as much time in the field as I can. It's about honing my skilling and broadening my experience. We'll see where that takes me.
Erik: Construction has brought new knowledge opportunities in every scope. Now that I'm in project management, I'm learning the finer points of cost controls and owner interface. Ultimately, I want a seat at the senior decision-making table.
Matt: I see myself working in the design-build arena as owners use it to help tighten their schedules. Having the contractor and architect work together can be the most efficient solution. My background in architecture will help us find what's missing and drive constructable solutions.
Stephanie: Any advice for current architects and engineers considering construction careers?
Erik: If you like fast-paced, innovative thinking and are interested in developing good communication skills, you'll be highly successful and find your work rewarding.
Matt: The contractor side is 100% different. You're held accountable, and if you're falling behind it's drinking from a fire hose to catch up. But I'd never go back. Come get your boots dirty and build something great!
Laura: Meet with someone who was on the A/E side and is now in construction—it may bring some things up for you. It really solidified what I was interested in. I wasn't aware of the construction management path in high school. The GC world ties it all together for me, and I've found a passion in it.