Building Common
Contractors, community help bring
public projects to fruition
By Vanessa Orr
As part of the Anchorage Museum expansion, Davis Constructors & Engineers installed nine new columns threaded through the existing structure. The heaviest beam weighed 30,000 pounds.

Davis Constructors & Engineers


ccording to the Associated General Contractors of Alaska’s (AGC) 2021 Construction Spending Forecast, construction spending this year is expected to total $4.3 billion, with 52 percent ($2.2 billion) of that money spent on private sector projects and 48 percent ($2.1 billion) spent on public sector projects. While a large part of the public sector funding includes national defense projects and highway and road construction and improvements, it also encompasses community-based projects that include school replacements and renovations, regional housing initiatives, behavioral health and other medical facilities, and spaces dedicated to the arts.

Putting together something that the public will use—and that they or the government often fund—requires the expertise of multiple different stakeholders, from municipalities and local governments to architects and designers to the contractors that build the facilities, bringing the vision to fruition.

What Makes Public Projects Different?
The main difference between a private and public construction project is often how the project is funded: private projects are commissioned and paid for by private institutions, businesses, or building owners while public construction projects are usually built using public funds. These projects might also have to follow certain rules—such as how apartments are apportioned in publicly funded housing—that are determined by the state or federal government.

“Any large project with public funding needs to be competitively bid and awarded,” says Pearl-Grace Pantaleone, business development and marketing manager for Cornerstone General Contractors. “Whether it is design/bid/build, design/build, or construction management/general contractor, there is typically a combination of qualifications and pricing in a proposal response from both designers and builders. For public projects, there is generally a formal request for proposal from the client and sometimes an interview/presentation is required to land these contracts.”

There is often a substantial amount of public input surrounding the process as well. In addition to working with the owners and investors, those working on a project must be open to user feedback, whether from stakeholders or end-users.

For example, in 2015, Cornerstone General Contractors was awarded the Wasilla Public Library renovation through a competitive Best Value (qualifications and pricing) process. Construction of the new 25,000-square-foot library included the main library, a teen area, children’s library, business center, three large private study rooms, staff offices, forty public-use computers, an outdoor amphitheater, and ninety parking spaces.

“The project was funded solely by the city of Wasilla through a ‘sunshine tax’ that the people of Wasilla voted for, so the community was well informed about the project make-up since they had been romanced with information to get a ‘yes’ vote on the tax’s implementation,” explains Cornerstone General Contractors Superintendent Tony Link. “When out in the community wearing a Cornerstone hat or jacket, I would get inquiries about the project, with people usually voicing their excitement for its completion.”

“As a museum, we have a sensitive environment and systems, a public building, and many objects to protect, so having a contractor who could be responsive to very specific operational needs was critical. ”
Julie Decker, CEO
Anchorage Museum Association
Davis Constructors & Engineers use "life-sized" LEGOS to create temporary walling during building expansion construction
One of the major innovations Davis Constructors & Engineers used to help separate Anchorage Museum expansion construction activities from the public and create clear paths for movement and egress was the utilization of plastic building blocks similar to LEGOS. Davis procured 8,000 “life-sized” LEGOS to construct temporary construction walls throughout the Atrium, Discovery Center, and Alaska Gallery, significantly decreasing waste, increasing reuse, and maximizing installation durations.

Davis Constructors & Engineers

In addition to the 2013 voter-approved 1 percent hike in the city sales tax, funding also came from the Friends of the Wasilla Library, the State of Alaska, the Rasmuson Foundation, and the Foraker Group. The Mat-Su Borough donated the four-acre parcel through a transfer to the City of Wasilla.

Public process was an integral component of the Anchorage Museum Expansion, a privately funded project undertaken by Davis Constructors & Engineers in 2016 that included the renovation of existing museum space as well as the addition of a new wing.

“The design process included a committee of stakeholders that embraced meetings to design a museum with a focus on the North as well as the overall visitor experience,” says Davis Constructors & Engineers President Luke Blomfield, who served as senior project manager for the museum expansion. He adds that the expansion needed to connect to the museum’s mission-critical goals, which revolved around telling the story of the North through art, design, history, science, and culture.

The design of the new Rasmuson Wing also required an immense amount of coordination between the construction company and government agencies.

“Because the two spaces that cantilever out over the Anchorage Museum’s property line into the right-of-way of the sidewalk, one on Sixth Avenue and one on A Street, it was necessary for us to coordinate with the federal government, the Municipality of Anchorage, and the Alaska Department of Transportation to get the necessary permits,” says Blomfield.

As with any project, contractors must account for functionality, longevity, efficiency, and maintenance for the end-user, says Pantaleone. “Our mission is to give people the best construction experience every time, and collaboration and clear client objectives make this successful,” she says.

In 2019, Cornerstone completed Elizabeth Place for the Cook Inlet Housing Authority, a mixed-income development in downtown Anchorage. The project included thirty-eight units of affordable housing for those earning 50 to 60 percent of the area median income and twelve market-rate units. Among the thirty-eight affordable housing units, fifteen are fully equipped for people with sensory and mobility impairments; ten units are set aside for those who are otherwise differently abled; and four are set aside for people experiencing homelessness. In addition, the development features 2,680 square feet of ground-floor commercial space.

Keeping the Doors Open
One of the difficulties of working on public projects is that—in many cases—the current building needs to be kept open to serve the public.

The Gladys Wood Elementary School project, completed in 2017, included new construction of a 50,000-square-foot school in Anchorage to serve 375 students. The current school needed to remain in operation while Cornerstone General Contractors increased the building size by 8,200 square feet and made parking lot and playground accessibility improvements.

“Although it seemed like it was your standard project for the school district, it was a complex renovation, and our school district project manager made this job run smoothly,” says Link. “Our team’s ability to function effectively with limited laydown, staging, and storage ensured a smooth construction process.”

Because it was taking place in an occupied school, construction required extensive coordination to minimize impacts to students, staff, and the public. “This included working with school administrators to orchestrate construction efforts around academic and afterschool activities and to plan for systems transfers or temporary utilities so that the changes were seamless,” adds Pantaleone.

Davis Constructors & Engineers faced the same hurdle when working on the Anchorage Museum Expansion, as the museum’s galleries and event spaces needed to remain open during construction. This was quite a task, considering that the project expanded the amount of space dedicated to the museum’s collection from 3,000 square feet to 25,000 square feet, which required the removal of more than 800,000 pounds of concrete to make way for the new addition. The addition itself weighs 2.2 million pounds and is supported by 1 million pounds of new steel, including nine new columns threaded through the existing structure.

According to the project summary, Davis crews were comingled throughout the back-of-house space with museum archivists, collections, operations, and other staff. Construction methods were influenced by the project’s adjacency to millions of dollars of irreplaceable works of art, and the crew was often tasked with coordinating moving, storing, and resetting these priceless objects.

“Work was conducted under, over, and through the existing museum, which remained open and full of sensitive works of art,” says Blomfield. “We had 30,000 objects to protect from any kind of vibration or disruption. To be able to auger micropile under an existing building, stay operational, and not have to move the museum collection was a pretty remarkable feat.”

All told, the Anchorage Museum Expansion required Davis to coordinate more than 3,000 deliveries of supplies, attend 2,040 hours of meetings, and spend more than 42,000 man hours to construct the addition.

View of busy downtown Anchorage during construction and sidewalk and street managing
Davis Constructors & Engineers had to manage extremely tight space constraints: sidewalk to sidewalk construction in busy downtown Anchorage. Its team coordinated and managed all road and sidewalk closures and received zero negative comments or complaints from the community during these closures.

Davis Constructors & Engineers

While the museum was closed to the public for six months in 2005 during its previous expansion, resulting in a loss of revenue and visitor numbers, the 2017 expansion resulted in no loss in viewership or visitor counts as the construction firm and the museum worked together to ensure that only small portions of the museum were closed or disrupted at any given time.

One of the major innovations used to help separate construction activities from the public and to create clear paths for movement and egress was the use of plastic building blocks similar to LEGOs. Davis procured 8,000 of these ‘life-sized LEGOs’ to construct temporary construction walls throughout the Atrium, Discovery Center, and Alaska Gallery.

“In contrast to temporary construction walls that have to be framed, drywalled, and painted for each phase, we incorporated this LEGO wall solution into the project, which significantly decreased waste, increased reuse, and optimized installation durations,” says Blomfield.

 Concrete crews work in synchronization to complete the floor decks at the Anchorage Museum Expansion
Concrete crews work in synchronization to complete the floor decks at the Anchorage Museum Expansion.

Davis Constructors & Engineers

“Work was conducted under, over, and through the existing museum, which remained open and full of sensitive works of art. We had 30,000 objects to protect from any kind of vibration or disruption. To be able to auger micropile under an existing building, stay operational, and not have to move the museum collection was a pretty remarkable feat.”
Luke Blomfield, President
Davis Constructors & Engineers
The museum, and the public, benefited from the firm’s innovative approach.

“As a museum, we have a sensitive environment and systems, a public building, and many objects to protect, so having a contractor who could be responsive to very specific operational needs was critical,” says Julie Decker, CEO of the Anchorage Museum Association, on the success of the project. “Davis was a collaborator in addition to a contractor, working closely with us, the architects, and the subcontractors to ensure a project that was on time, on budget, well managed, and that allowed us to stay operational throughout.”

Projects on the Horizon
In December 2020, the Municipality of Anchorage purchased the Best Western Golden Lion Hotel with the intention of converting it into a drug and alcohol treatment center. The $9.3 million purchase was paid for with proceeds from the sale of Municipal Light & Power; the remainder of the $15 million budget is being used to prepare and convert the building for its new purpose.

While renovations at the hotel are expected to be minor, the Anchorage Assembly also approved $12.5 million in CARES Act funds over the summer to purchase three other buildings for homelessness services, including the Bean’s Café soup kitchen and an America’s Best Value Inn & Suites. The third site has not yet been determined.

On the education front, the AGC forecast notes that previously authorized state funds are expected to stimulate construction work in 2021, including work on the Eek and Bristol Bay schools and school replacements in Atmautluak and Aniak. Spending on Southcentral earthquake repairs and replacements includes Houston’s school and several Anchorage schools, most notably repairs at Gruening Middle School and Eagle River Elementary School.

Roughly $140 million is expected to be spent on other federal government projects, including those supporting government entities (including tribal governments) and nonprofit organizations. This includes more than $35 million in funding to Alaska’s regional housing authorities to build housing units and to rehabilitate existing homes. Another $280 million in state and local government expenditures is anticipated in 2021 for projects such as solid waste transfer stations, bulk fuel storage upgrades, water and wastewater treatment facility upgrades, community development initiatives, public employee professional housing, and renovations and repair to state buildings.

This spring, a new $6.2 million, 44-unit apartment complex will be constructed in Anchorage through an agreement between The Anchorage Community Development Authority, a municipal corporation, and real estate developer and property management firm Debenham Properties. The Block 96 Flats complex will include studio and one-bedroom apartments. Construction will break ground in May and is expected to be complete in summer of 2022.

Chris Arend