“Charlie Pankow had an important impact on late-twentieth-century building development. His companies created a powerful niche market that kept his clients happy and the enterprise profitable. Pankow’s clients weren’t vainglorious developers seeking to create monuments for themselves. They wanted handsome, lasting buildings, delivered on time and at budget. And that Pankow accomplished time and again. Moreover, Pankow became as much an innovator in the systemic use of concrete as a building material as Gustave Eiffel had been in the late nineteenth century with cast iron.”
—Timothy Tosta, Partner, McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP
“Charles Pankow was an innovator who embraced the design-build concept, and he served as a champion of the approach while restoring the master builder to the commercial building site. He believed the contractor needed the ability to integrate cost- and time-saving construction methods. This book describes the ‘Pankow Way,’ a collaborative approach in which the contractor works effectively with the architects, engineers, and subcontractors to meet owners’ expectations. It is an interesting history of a company and the man who created a unique business culture, and I recommend it as a great read for engineers, architects, contractors, and business people.”
—Patrick J. Natale, Executive Director, American Society of Civil Engineers
“In the history of construction in the second half of the twentieth century, Charles Pankow stands out as the man who led the design-build revolution. Michael Adamson develops a fascinating portrait of a community leader, philanthropist, creative businessman, perceptive art collector, and major figure in the history of civil engineering. Read this book to learn about the visionary after whom the American Society of Civil Engineers recently named its prestigious competition in architectural engineering—and about the ‘renaissance man’ behind the vision.”
—Jeffrey S. Russell, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Wisconsin
“[This book] is a story of one man’s vision and the companies he created to carry out that vision. As a young architect I was taught that the general contractor was the opponent of good design. Author Michael Adamson shows how Charlie Pankow turned this idea on its head by reestablishing the historic partnership between design and construction. This is an excellent book for architects, engineers, and contractors. It shows how one visionary was able to turn an entire industry toward a better way of working together. I recommend it most highly.”
—Patrick MacLeamy, CEO, HOK Architects
“This is a great read—anyone and everyone in the architectural, engineering, construction, or development business should read this book. Design-bid-build as a delivery method is broken! Charlie Pankow saw this many years ago with his colleagues at Kiewit. Over forty years ago he embarked on the formation of the design-build/design-assist delivery method for construction. He succeeded in a way that no one could have ever predicted. I am pleased to be able to have the opportunity to review this book and to advise everyone in the industry to read it.”
—Charles H. Thornton, Chairman, Charles H. Thornton & Company LLC
“Michael Adamson chronicles the erratic genius of Charlie Pankow and the construction empire he built in defiance of management conventions. As a ‘Master Builder,’ Charlie believed in people, not management doctrine. He attracted platoons of individualists, self-starters whom he motivated and inspired. He taught them to cut costs and schedules, to develop stunningly innovative construction techniques, and to enervate centuries-old design-build methods, thrusting them onto the world of modern construction. If you want a gripping, bare-knuckled story about a man who successfully changed an industry, you’ve selected the right book.”
—Walker Lee Evey, Former President, Design-Build Institute of America
Enterprise and Society Advance Access published July 29, 2013
Michael R. Adamson. A Better Way to Build: A History of the Pankow Companies. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2013. xxv + 470 pp. ISBN 978-1-55753-634-1, $45.00 (hardback).
It is refreshing to come across a book about an American builder for a change. Much has been written over the years about the professional side of the design and construction industry, the architects and engineers, but the men and women who transform their designs into reality have been largely ignored. Not only is this a book about Charles Pankow’s life and career and the companies he founded but
it also focuses on his mission to change the way that buildings were designed and built.
Pankow was born in 1923 and graduated in 1947, after military service, from Purdue University with a degree in civil engineering. After two years with a structural engineering firm, he moved briefly in 1950 to the Austin Company and then joined the Peter Kiewit Sons company a year later, one of the largest of America’s contractors to the
present day. His short stay with Austin may well have influenced his future approach to design and construction. Austin was founded in 1904 and, by the time Pankow joined them, had refined its business model to become the leading most respected firm in the country offering owners design-build services.
The 1950s and 1960s, the period during which he started his career and established his own company, was a turbulent period in the construction business. Adjustment to the postwar economy came quickly and with it came a renewed belligerency by the unions, which even the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act was not able to tame. This was followed
by an uptick in inflation in the 1960s, which was particularly acute in construction. By 1969, construction prices had increased 81 percent faster since 1949 than the consumer price index. All these increases were passed along to the owners who eventually revolted. The Construction Users Anti-inflation Roundtable was formed in
1969 with a focus on improving productivity in the industry. In construction, it is only when the owners rise up that change occurs, and change indeed began to happen and continues to this day. In particular, a search began for alternative methods of project delivery to improve on the traditional linear design-bid-build approach.
It was in this milieu that Pankow began his own company, Charles Pankow Inc.(CPI), in 1963 after twelve years with Kiewit. This period is well described in the book. It is at Kiewit that he gathers around him a competent and dedicated team, develops commitment and experience in working with reinforced concrete, and senses that the introduction of the contractors expertise before designs are finalized can
bring about huge savings in cost and time. In particular, Pankow and his team developed skills in the use of slip-forming concrete cores in buildings and the use of precasting and pre- and posttensioning.
In 1962, Pankow splits with Peter Kiewit over the Los Angeles Music Center and realizes that Kiewit is primarily a civil contractor with little interest in the building market. With his new company, Pankow concentrates on private sector commercial projects to be
built with concrete and targets a 15 percent profit, high for contractors at that time. CPI establishes itself through the 1960s mostly in California and also in Hawaii where a highly successful office was set up in 1965. In 1971 CPI, who had been building offices and condominiums for developers, drifted into development by transforming
into a merchant builder with its own account. Unlike many builders who are tempted into this field, Pankow was very successful. His company profited, and he established his fortune.
As Design-Build grew in popularity as an alternative project delivery
system in the 1980s, Charles Pankow Builders Ltd.(CPB), as the company was then called, was very supportive in promoting its use. In 1992, they joined with other like-minded companies and consultants in forming the Design-Build Institute of America. Rik Kunnath ofCPB became its second chairman in 1995. The book continues the company history up to the time of Pankow’s death in 2004. He had assembled in his closing years a substantial art collection. This was sold at Sotheby’s in 2002, and the returns used to fund the Charles Pankow Foundation, the only nonprofit dedicated
to building innovation.
The author, Michael Adamson, uses individual projects, well illustrated from company archives, to reinforce the story line and to interpret technical advances. The book is very well researched with close to one hundred pages of notes, references, and appendices. Charlie Pankow did not leave behind any personal documents, diaries, or
memoirs. Adamson has relied heavily on oral histories of employees and colleagues and company archives that still exist. For a historian, his grasp of building technology and the framework of design and construction is to be applauded. In addition, his treatment of the main character is well balanced and fair-minded. Pankow comes across as
leader, not a manager (there never was any company organization chart), who was authoritative and retentive. He had, however, a clear vision implemented via the “Pankow Way,” stressing honesty, service, and fair dealing. Overall, this is an excellent book that fills a needed void in construction history—if only there were more!
Charles Pankow’s sons did not follow him into the company, as is common in many American construction firms. But CPB has continued, and this year is proudly celebrating its fiftieth anniversary.
Brian Bowen Georgia Institute of Technology