University of Wisconsin-Madison Engineering Professional Development

Overture Center

Case Study in Successful Project Coordination

Take a generous private donor's enthusiasm for building an exceptional cultural arts facility in his hometown. Combine it with healthy doses of civic caution and community pride. Add the capacity of arts groups to share a dream come true. And you have a project capable of moving like a train on tracks barely laid.

When crews broke ground on the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison, Wisconsin, in early 2001, the ink was still wet on the first construction drawings. The event, nonetheless, signaled an agreement among all parties to move ahead, fleet and fast. Two-thirds of the way through Phase I in the spring of 2003, construction of the 400,000-square-foot performance and visual arts facility offers a unique case study in coordinating a complex, fast-track project successfully.

Measuring Up to a Vision

State Street Entrance to Overture Center. Illustration by F.M. Costantino, ASAI.
State Street Entrance to Overture Center. Illustration by F.M. Costantino, ASAI.
Swift transformation of the Overture Center from breathtaking concept to heavy equipment and hard hats could be a grim tale of formidable delays and professional antagonisms. Instead, it is a chronicle of optimism firmly moored by a conscious resolve to foster a culture of collaboration. That idea influences every decision and, so far, holds the line against unproductive chaos.

Every member of the team assembled to design and build the Overture Center knows his or her stuff. Specifically, they know cultural arts center design. They know construction quality control and how to manage associated costs. They know Madison's civic sensibilities. Above all, they appreciate the material importance of project coordination. Their approach helps ensure that prestige and productivity blend ably on Overture with a single shared goal: to create a facility that measures up to its vision.
Overture Hall Lobby Entrance. Illustration by F.M. Costantino, ASAI.
Overture Hall Lobby Entrance. Illustration by F.M. Costantino, ASAI.

That vision mirrors community aspirations to keep the arts as a central element of Madison's vibrant downtown. Those aspirations received a material and emotional boost in 1999 when retired businessman and fourth-generation Madisonian W. Jerome Frautschi announced a gift to the city of $100 million to build the Overture Center for the Arts. One of the largest public arts gifts ever made, Jerry Frautschi's remarkable gesture set the tone for a generosity of spirit that set in motion the rapid march of planning, designing, and building that has come to define Overture.

The extraordinary donation propelled the project into motion almost at once. A private nonprofit Development Corporation was set up to build and own the new facility. The Corporation subsequently formed partnerships with the City of Madison and local arts organizations. In September 2000, the City created the Madison Cultural Arts District, a governmental entity that will manage the Overture Center and eventually own it.

So began a monumental project in two phases, the first due for completion in September 2004, the second, just more than a year later. The challenge of coordinating a project of this magnitude certainly starts and ends with the fact the turnaround time is tight. But building it right also requires working safely on a cramped downtown building site, adjusting to just-in-time construction decisions, and accommodating a significant construction waste recycling project.

On Time, On Budget

Overture Hall Lobby. Rendering by Cesar Pelli & Associates, Inc.
Overture Hall Lobby. Rendering by Cesar Pelli & Associates, Inc.
The fact Overture can claim to be virtually on time and on budget more than half way through Phase I is not to suggest superhuman effort. Face-offs among the designers, the contractors, and the many consultants—coupled with steady pressure from the owners' representatives—happen here as on any project. Construction drawings barely kept up with the crews in the field through the first 12 months. The need for exceptional precision regularly rules out standardized installations. Complex, time-consuming mockups are the norm for resolving details of function and aesthetics.

For these and other reasons, no one involved hesitates saying the agreement to build so complicated a project on a fast-track time line has splintered everyone's equanimity from time to time.

"Fast-track does not begin to describe it," contends Karl Kraemer, Construction Administrator representing Overture's joint executive architect group of Potter Lawson Flad, a partnership for this project between the Madison firms of Potter Lawson and Flad & Associates. "This project is traveling at more like hyper speed." He says the only way to maintain such velocity is for everyone to adapt and be flexible.

Tangible Expectations

Rotunda Entry. Rendering by Cesar Pelli & Associates, Inc.
Rotunda Entry. Rendering by Cesar Pelli & Associates, Inc.

Recruiting professionals with the talent, resources, and experience to meet that challenge was uppermost. George Austin, President of the Overture Development Corporation, explains that before a single drawing saw paper, the core project group met and committed themselves to producing high-quality results on a tight timetable.

Representatives of Overture, along with acclaimed architect, Cesar Pelli, executive architects' Potter Lawson Flad, and J.H. Findorff & Son, the firm chosen as both construction manager and contractor, agreed that collaboration and good communication would underpin every process, every decision, and every step forward—with the emphasis on forward.

The schedule might be grueling, the process rocky on occasion. But, as Austin notes, everyone involved embarked on the project with tangible expectations.

Unique from the Start

Overture Hall. Rendering by Cesar Pelli & Associates, Inc.
Overture Hall. Rendering by Cesar Pelli & Associates, Inc.

Capitol Theater. Rendering by Cesar Pelli & Associates, Inc.
Capitol Theater. Rendering by Cesar Pelli & Associates, Inc.

Madison Art Center. Rendering by Cesar Pelli & Associates, Inc.
Madison Art Center. Rendering by Cesar Pelli & Associates, Inc.
Designed by Cesar Pelli as a provocative blend of new and renovated performance and visual art spaces, the Overture Center will contain a variety of venues for resident groups and visiting artists.

The design further emphasizes community access and daily activity. It is hailed for how concisely it meets the existing streetscape of State Street, Madison's signature pedestrian thoroughfare. The structure will fill one-and-a-half city blocks when complete, arresting the eye with a composition of modern lines and architectural elements that date back almost eight decades.

A 2,250-seat orchestra hall is the centerpiece of Phase I construction. An alcove behind the stage houses a movable custom-built pipe organ mounted on rails. Flexible rehearsal and performance spaces, community galleries, and open event areas fan out and up from the hall.

Phase II involves restoration of an iconic, 76-year-old performance hall into a graceful 1,000-seat theater, extensive renovation of a smaller thrust theater, and expansion of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The design emphasizes many distinct uses so no two spaces are alike. Austin describes how the designers, engineers, and builder often painstakingly work out a tricky detail, then never encounter a need to apply their solution again.

He notes that while the involvement of an architect of such high stature certainly raises the visibility of the project, Pelli is more than a name. He brings an ability to listen for and incorporate ideas from many sources, making Overture integral as a well-placed building, inspirational as a work of art. "It was this ability of his that helped set a tone for the collaboration we knew would be important," Austin says.

Making It Work

A key to the early success of Overture construction was the project team's determination to use lessons learned. Mike Huffman, a consultant in facility development, is on the job daily in his role as owners' representative. He says with decisions made so close to implementation, they knew it was imperative to establish an office close to the action.

Overture obtained space on the third floor of a bank building across State Street from the construction site to serve as a project office. It is the staging area for all scheduling and the hub of project communications.

An interior wall of the existing Civic Center is draped in plastic to protect it against the elements as new construction proceeds in September 2001.
An interior wall of the existing Civic Center is draped in plastic to protect it against the elements as new construction proceeds in September 2001.

Crews work on forming the 18-inch-thick, cast-in-place concrete walls of the main hall in November 2001.
Crews work on forming the 18-inch-thick, cast-in-place concrete walls of the main hall in November 2001.
For team members involved in daily activities, it is project central. "Having us all in one place improves the sharing of information and means my crews have much quicker access to answers," says Project Executive and Senior Project Manager Larry Thomas, a 40-year veteran who has managed hundreds of projects for Madison-based Findorff.

Construction Administrator Karl Kraemer—known as the "answer guy" to Thomas and company—camps out in the site office almost literally. He is the architectural contact on site, responding to design and materials questions and resolving complications. What he does not know himself, he quickly finds out. Kraemer also supervises a mountain of project documentation, complicated by an extraordinary level of detail on this project. He helped institute the use of customized process and procedure forms to track everything, from construction documents, change orders, and samples to safety data, submittals, and contracts. Such imposed order does not slow the demanding pace, Kraemer says, but it does contribute to effective project coordination. "We realized quickly that document control is critical to maintaining a high level of consistency."

Austin provides leadership by representing the donors' point of view, helping guide strategic decisions and keeping the project vision foremost. A former director of planning for the city, he negotiates with city officials about the impact of Overture on the downtown and smoothes the way for community support on many levels.

Huffman monitors things day-to-day for the owner and, informally, for the resident groups. An operational expert versed in the language of design and construction, he collaborates closely with Thomas and Kraemer. Along with Thomas, Huffman also communicates with local business people and vendors about planned disruptions and parries brickbats from outside when project work snarls traffic on narrowed streets or fells some favorite trees.

Meetings and Mind Readings

The facade of a landmark building due to be incorporated into the main structure stands supported from behind in February 2002 after demolition of the building itself.
The facade of a landmark building due to be incorporated into the main structure stands supported from behind in February 2002 after demolition of the building itself.
Weekly meetings of cross-functional project groups convene at the site office. These sessions embody the concept of teamwork and make sure things run smoothly. Proximity to the building site is a time-saver. Key players review "hot issues," schedule out the work, and review submittals with all resources nearby. Architect Anne Gatling Haynes, representing the Pelli Group on the core team, might be on the phone from her Connecticut office if needed or participate in person for the sessions. At least once a month, representatives of the entire team, as many as 40 people, meet in Madison to review project progress and address broad-based issues.

Moving fast continues to be the greatest challenge, along with adjusting the team's mix of formal and informal working styles to the demands of the project. In her view, says Haynes, the partnership formed under such pressure flourishes.

"We had to get underway and learn to work together all at the same time, and it was tough. Having the involvement of an experienced team and people with the local connection made it easier." She also believes the early connection between design firm and contractor paid off. "They understand what we are after because they were part of the conversation from the start." She adds, "Larry Thomas and Findorff knew in advance what some of the challenges would be and now they're able to anticipate many questions in advance."

The impact on smooth project coordination is apparent. The alliance between disciplines gives all parties a kind of intuition about issues likely to concern the person across the table.

Every member of the Overture team describes this commitment to collaboration as genuine. "Experts in all areas are part of the team identifying the issues, and the whole group is involved in agreeing what to do—even when to compromise if necessary," says Haynes.

An example of the project’s complexity of form, individual balcony seating areas take shape before the concrete is poured in April 2002.
An example of the project's complexity of form, individual balcony seating areas take shape before the concrete is poured in April 2002.
"Not the typical arms-length relationship," explains Flad & Associates' Ralph Jackson about the juxtaposition of designer and contractor on Overture. "However, on this project, it meant the contractor could offer constructability and cost comments in the early stages and clarify the pinch points beforehand."

All agree Findorff's joint role as construction manager and general contractor has been a plus for the project. Thomas says he can expedite a lot of work—concrete/masonry, carpentry, structural steel, drywall, and other installations—thereby keeping the cost of changes down. Importantly, he notes that control over so much allows him to change sequence and increase or decrease crew size on short notice. "With construction drawings and design details coming down to the last minute, being in a position to do this is important."

Mad Scramble for Drawings

Smart moves in organizing a collaborative team could not make up for what Thomas says is the biggest mistake, underestimating the time to produce and coordinate construction drawings.

Changes to the landmark facade include a glass rotunda dome and rebuilt mansard roof, shown in progress in December 2002.
Changes to the landmark facade include a glass rotunda dome and rebuilt mansard roof, shown in progress in December 2002.
Cesar Pelli's collaborative process produced many variations on the major design elements to establish the overriding scheme for Overture. From that came more than 20 site layout options and multiple versions of individual components for consideration by constituent groups. As details were decided, the architectural group at Potter Lawson Flad got busy generating the initial batch of precise working drawings so the construction crews could start on schedule.

Jackson describes the effort as a "mad scramble," requiring 30 people working full time initially to translate the design into usable documents issued as needed. Jackson, Huffman, and Kraemer agree the pattern of finalizing detailed drawings one step ahead of the construction crews may be irrevocable on Phase I. They are determined things will be different in Phase II with drawings completed well in advance.

Constant, Real-time Communication

A view of limestone and brick being installed on the main hall exterior in January 2003 emphasizes how the bulk of the building steps back to preserve a three-story prospect from the street.
A view of limestone and brick being installed on the main hall exterior in January 2003 emphasizes how the bulk of the building steps back to preserve a three-story prospect from the street.
Members of the Overture team groan half in jest that there are times when communication—especially email—is too good. Yet they admit that electronic communications and digital photography make coordinating the project possible. With timing so tight and the design team scattered across the country, keeping everyone informed or directing a query in real time is important. Findorff routinely provides email progress reports, with photos, to the entire team and an Overture board of directors.

Thomas additionally prepares and circulates extensive quarterly reports that cover every aspect of the project, from design development to scheduling and suppliers.

Such relentless but crucial communication continues down the line. Austin says the dynamic system of addressing issues early and sharing information widely is a universal standard for Overture. "Regardless of their role, team members are committed to a quality product and use regular communication to reinforce that message within each of their groups."

Recycling Construction Waste a Success

Designing and building so complex a structure racks up enough challenges without adding one as demanding as recycling on the job site. This pilot effort, however, appealed to the donors as a worthwhile demonstration of how waste materials from a building site can be recycled in a downtown location with limited space.

In an area of the country where environmental concerns loom large, the Overture's construction waste reduction and recycling approach has generated both kudos and useful data. "The owner decided it was the right thing to do, a way for this project to respond to the community," Project Manager Thomas explains. "We don't let this effort get in the way of steady progress, but we are building as green as possible. This is for the future."

Huge insulated glass panes—the largest in the world—are installed in April 2003 on the Overture Lobby exterior. Each 9- by 17-foot pane weighed 2,300 pounds.
Huge insulated glass panes—the largest in the world—are installed in April 2003 on the Overture Lobby exterior. Each 9- by 17-foot pane weighed 2,300 pounds.
Results from an 11-month period well into the effort indicates the waste reduction project has achieved a 52 percent recycling rate, exceeding the original goal of 35 percent. Containers on site are used to separate concrete, wood, metal, various paper products, and plastics. New materials like the Styrofoam bead board that padded exterior limestone panels on their trip from France and rebond polyurethane foam used to package huge glass panes in transit go back into packaging other goods. Drywall scraps are ground up to become fertilizer.

"Saving money was not a goal, but even that is good news," says Thomas. From April 2002 to February 2003 alone, organized recycling trimmed more than $20,000 from the cost of handling site refuse.

Donors' Perspective Sharpens Focus

Construction of a privately funded public building carries its own set of complications, not the least of which is balancing diverse community interests. Uniquely, Jerry Frautschi and his wife, Pleasant Rowland, remain intimately involved with ongoing decisions for Overture. They are the last word on many items, even 24 months into construction, and occasionally visit the job site to view progress and lend encouragement.

The donors' desire for high quality and innovation is a project set point. While it may be responsible for any number of last-minute adjustments, every member of the team appreciates the serious, knowledgeable perspective they bring to every discussion.

In May 2003, an informal performance area takes shape on the lower level, open to the Rotunda entry and dome above.
In May 2003, an informal performance area takes shape on the lower level, open to the Rotunda entry and dome above.
"Their close involvement has helped shape how all of us view this project and influences every aspect of it for the good," Ralph Jackson says.

Having such a strong single voice simplifies the process in many ways, Anne Gatling Haynes observes. "They help us see beyond the moment and stay focused on the project in its entirety."

An Education in Coordination

Every building is an education, Larry Thomas says, referring to what he learns on each project about the people and activities that occupy a building he helps build. The sentiment goes double for the Overture Center for the Arts. Only partially complete, this project already offers benchmarks for effective project coordination. It is and has been an education, rare and demanding. So special, say those working to make it a reality, no one would trade the experience for a moment.

Performance spaces are designed for fanfare. There promises to be plenty of that with the Overture project even before opening night.


Images used by permission of the Overture Foundation.

Tricks of the trade in project coordination and case studies like this are featured in courses for architects, engineers, construction managers, and owners offered by the Department of Engineering Professional Development at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Learn more by visiting our Courses. Or call 800-462-0876.

Additional Sources (links exit this site): Overture Foundation*, Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel*, WasteCap Wisconsin*

Written by Mary Maher

This article is based upon work supported by the University of Wisconsin–Madison Department of Engineering Professional Development. It is for general information and distribution. It is not intended to provide specific solutions or advice for specific circumstances, which should be sought from appropriate professionals.


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