Adam Miller, president and founder of Summit Design + Build, discusses today’s competitive construction market and future trends with Crain’s Chicago Custom Media.
What differentiates your firm from others in Chicago’s design and construction industry?
Adam Miller: Summit gravitates toward the more complicated, hairier projects and has a wide range of experience across major markets such as food, manufacturing and distribution buildings; apartments; office and retail build-outs. Where others might shy away from a complex, innovative concept, we thrive on it. Our range of material, structural and functional knowledge gets imported into each project and provides tremendous value to our clients early on. For example, we turn a client’s napkin sketch into a conceptual budget—one that’s realistic, not generic. Or if a client already has plans, we help them reduce cost and improve function from that point to completion. We also recently added key members to our senior management team to help us grow our project portfolio and start a division dedicated to office and interior build-outs. As certain markets and project types slow down, we’re positioned to move into areas that are heating up because our experience is so diverse.
What’s your latest project in Chicago, and how is it shaping the city’s skyline?
AM: Much of the work we’re doing is shaping the West Loop/Fulton Market neighborhood we’ve called home for over a decade, and which is now experiencing a huge wave of development. We’re proud to have been at the forefront with the conversion of so many historic brick and timber loft buildings into a new mix of luxury apartments and condos, creative offices, hotels and critically acclaimed restaurants and retail boutiques. It’s been exciting to see our clients’ projects thrive: 401 N. Morgan, City Winery, Thirteen13 Randolph Street Lofts, Little Goat, Brooklyn Boulders, Threadless and WeWork Fulton Market. We love the neighborhood so much that we decided to expand our own offices here, and will remain part of the skyline by breaking ground by this fall.
How does your firm incorporate innovation into its projects?
AM: Every project we do merits thinking “outside the box.” When working with Method on their manufacturing and warehouse facility, innovation meant finding a way for the overall building design to support the addition of a 2-acre rooftop greenhouse, both structurally and functionally. It required our team to collectively use all of our design build knowledge and consider a variety of design criteria because the greenhouse vendor had yet to be selected. For adaptive reuse projects, innovation means finding new and different ways to transform old, out-of-date buildings into new and vibrant facilities that will last the next 100 years. On recent projects we’ve incorporated new products like cutting-edge lighting, more efficient heating and cooling systems and different skin structures such as wood cladding, metal panels or fiber cement façade panels. These products are frequently more cost-effective while providing the same aesthetic and function.
How does your company leverage technology?
AM: Cloud-based project management software allows us to streamline project communication and documentation while tracking real-time data and critical tasks. It’s especially useful for our out-of-state projects and owners. Instead of having to travel to the job site, owners simply log in to the system to review photographs, meeting minutes and the latest set of project documents. Every dollar allocated and every step of the project is trackable. We also use Building Information Modeling in certain cases to coordinate complicated mechanical and electrical systems and to understand project logistics from the very early stages of the project.
What role does sustainability and building “green” have in your practice?
AM: We’ve completed numerous LEED-certified projects, including Testa Produce’s LEED Platinum freezer/cooler distribution center in the Chicago Stockyards and Method’s LEED Platinum manufacturing and warehouse facility in Pullman. These experiences enable us to show clients how they can save money and build long-range efficiency even into non-LEED buildings. Several of our staffers are LEED accredited, and some are also pursuing WELL Accredited Professional status, a newer certification that aims to create buildings and spaces where people perform and feel their best.
What makes a project successful?
AM: Success is when my client tells me, “My business is better off for having built this.” That means we spent their time and money wisely while guiding them through a very complicated process.
Success goes beyond building a space on time and within budget. It’s about what happens after we turn over the space. Business is better. People are happy working there. For us, it means building spaces where people and business thrive.
What building trends do you see in the immediate future in Chicago?
AM: Apartment construction is slowing, and there’s more demand for student, senior and affordable housing. Developers are considering more luxury condominium developments. Projects of magnitude are investing more time in preconstruction, and engaging us earlier in the process. Commercial construction is on the rise. Office leads the way as building owners are now realizing that these spaces are not just a place for people to work in. The more you can offer—restaurants, lounges, fitness centers, roof-decks—the more attractive your building is. We’ve experienced a surge of developers interested in buying buildings in the West Loop/Fulton Market. Developers know there’s tremendous return on investment, but they’re uncertain about the best use of the space. They call us to walk the building to help them imagine what’s possible or how to make their vision work within their budget.