“We Built Chicago”


Long-established contractors describe how they have survived, adapted, innovated and thrived through decades and centuries

Chicago Construction News staff writer

Chicago has a rich construction history, tracing to city’s earliest years, the Civil War boom, the Great Fire, and its development as a center of commerce, industry and culture. The construction industry legacy includes several long-established local contractors who have survived several economic cycles, changing technologies and building practices.

Many of the early family-owned businesses continue as thriving enterprises today.

Representatives from these long-established Chicago builders participated in a joint event on June 5: “We Built Chicago,” organized in conjunction with the Fifth International Congress on Construction History and sponsored by the Builders Association of Chicago, the AGC chapter representing the Chicagoland area, along with co-sponsors the Mechanical Contractors Association, Associated Steel Erectors of Chicago, HACIA, Chicago Building Congress, and Fox Valley AGC.

Dan McLaughlin (left)  with Dave Pepper
Chicago Builders Association executive director Dan McLaughlin (left) with Dave Pepper, CEO of Pepper Construction Company at the We Built Chicago event

Pepper Construction Group chairman and CEO David Pepper, in opening remarks, explained the industry’s local history “in a city that respects family and history and hard work.” He is qualified for the task as the Pepper family has been part of Chicago’s construction business for almost 90 years. Today, his company has the major Wrigley Field renovation contract, connecting the city’s sporting heritage to the present-day baseball team.

Pepper said hundreds of general contracting and subcontracting firms helped Chicago rebuild after the 1871 fire decimated the city. They innovated then, and earlier.

Chicago carpenter Augustine Taylor pioneered mass-produced pre-fabricated two-story stud wall construction in the 1830s. In 1856, engineer Ellis S. Chesbrough drafted a plan for a citywide sewer system, but this required existing buildings to be raised to a new grade, six-feet, two inches higher. Some 90 buildings were raised.

Pepper outlined other innovations including:

  • Erecting skeletal metal frames to build the first skyscraper in 1885;

  • Using compressed air to create deep caissons to anchor newer, taller buildings in bedrock.

  • The introduction of the single-bid-single contract system – and a new type of builder – the general contractor, when George Fuller went into business in the late 1880s.

“In 1885, this young man persuaded an architect to give him the right to control all the contractors in building the old Opera House,” Pepper said. “Almost unnoticed, George Fuller developed the single-bid, single-contract system” and became the first true general contractor.

There have been other innovations, including the 1893 World’s Fair, where the fair’s Palace of Fine Arts building still stands today as the Museum of Science and Industry.

And several national trade associations trace their roots to Chicago, including the National Association of Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Contractors, and the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC).

After Pepper’s presentation, panelists including Fred Berglund, president, Berglund Construction (1911); Martin Ozinga IV, president, Ozinga Concrete Company (1928); and Bruce Lake, president, James McHugh Construction Company, (1897) described their own company’s stories, and then answered audience questions.

Some of the questions – and answers – included:

What is the secret to making a family business successful?

“Pray a lot,” Ozinga said. “A lot of family businesses don’t succeed because they don’t get along at Christmas. We pray a lot together. You have to like what you do. We care about each other. Our family is at the core of the business and we treat our larger team like family too.”

ozinga truck

If your founding generational grandparent could come back today, what do you think their reaction would be to where your generation has taken the business?

Frank Berglund answered: “I think he would be surprised to find the disappearance of the handshake agreement. It would be difficult for him to be stuck in the world of bureaucracy and litigation we now have to contend with on a daily basis.”

Meanwhile, Bruce Lake from James McHugh Construction Company – the longest-established business panelist – offered observations about the industry’s progress in enhancing safety standards, proper measurements about issues such as dust and mould, and the introduction of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) in the 1970s.

“OHSA is a good thing,” he said. “They are part of the regulation the construction industry needed. We are so much safer than when I came into the business. We are so much safer than our forefathers.”

Pepper and Dan McLaughlin from the Builders Association looked ahead and suggested the future will be influenced by three main areas:

  • Public Private Partnerships will become increasingly important “and will be essential for any substantial construction projects to take place;”

  • The idea of sharing resources as well as liability will become commonplace out of necessity.”

  • Technology will move from experimental trends to a constantly changing standard.

  • BIM is just the beginning,” Pepper said. “Our future construction workers will need to be educated and savvy about technology. (And) the need for sustainability and high performing structures will keep evolving as our resources decrease.”

You can learn more about the event and the International Conference on Construction History, at this link: http://www.5icch.org/programs/we-built-chicago/


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