Restoring a Milwaukee Gem

By Patrick Cotter, PMP

From Disaster to Divine

Monday, May 18, 2020: Disaster Strikes

On the weekend of May 16-17, 2020, downtown Milwaukee’s Public Service Building (PSB) suffered severe steam damage after heavy rainfall infiltrated the tunnel system housing the piping used to distribute steam across the city. Millions of gallons of rainwater entered the tunnel system, damaging conduits and pipe insulation that caused the system to fail in two critical spots – one of them being the basement of the PSB. As a result, steam pressure blew off the access door to the basement, manhole covers were blown off along downtown streets, and steam and water affected all levels of the building. Steam permeated through the HVAC system, causing elevators, electrical equipment, carpeting, furniture, ceiling tiles, light fixtures, historical marble, ornate woodworking, and much more to take on insurmountable damage. It was nothing short of a disaster.

After a week of pumping water from the building, it was time to plan the rebuild and restoration. The big question on everyone’s mind was, “where do we even begin?”. Not only had the PSB suffered incredible destruction, but the temperature inside had risen well over 100 degrees and created humid conditions, ideal for mold. There was an extra level of difficulty to repair historical building materials and preserve architectural features. Lastly, the steam event occurred during pandemic supply chain conditions, which really complicated planning. Assembling the right team that could quickly assess the damage and begin the process of rebuilding was absolutely critical.

Wednesday, October 19, 2020: Mobilize, Mitigate & Manage

Cotter was enlisted in October of 2020 to bridge the gap between the contractor JH Findorff & WEC Energy Group, and manage the detailed tracking necessary for the insurance claim. This required extensive inventory tracking for every item in the building and multiple damage assessments coordinated with subject matter experts and legal consultants. Our role included implementing detailed cost reporting, establishing a change management process, and improving the accuracy of monthly cost forecasting for a proactive approach. Beyond the insurance claim tracking, the time and money needed to now rebuild the PSB needed to be considered.

The initial cost to restore the building was estimated at over double the expected cost. The team was also operating against a time constraint; the building needed to become fully operational sooner rather than later. This building not only served as the headquarters for a major utility but also as a meeting spot for local community businesses and town halls. The next challenge was to find a way to soften the financial blow without compromising quality or delaying the schedule. The clock was ticking and the Milwaukee community needed this project to succeed.

It wasn’t without trial, but the team was able to find alternate solutions to this staggering amount with aggressive value engineering. By re-deploying 630 workstations, private offices, and conference room furniture from Chicago’s AON Center & Green Bay offices, we realized significant savings. Other tactics like prioritizing cleaning over costly replacements helped to reduce expenses. By December of 2021, the PSB had re-opened its doors and it was back to business as usual.

“The restoration of the Public Service Building was an incredible feat for the team. It was an unplanned project due to a weather event, but WEC quickly pulled together a well-rounded team that was competent, collaborative, and solution-oriented. It was a “once in a career” type project and I’ve been fortunate to be a part of the solution and continue to learn from this project.”

Courtney Gosewisch, CCP

Project Controls Specialist

December, 2021:  A Job Well Done 

The opportunity to restore such an architecturally and historically rich building to its former glory was a challenging, but highly rewarding mission for the entire project team. We could not have succeeded otherwise. We overcame numerous obstacles along the way – always as a team. The Findorff and WEC Energy Group team dove in and drove an efficient and action-oriented response. The ultimate success of this project was due to the calibre of expertise brought on-site,  consistent collaboration, and a transparent communication process.