Empire State Building – A Lesson in Project Management

 

Delyan Ivanov


 

One of the historical landmarks of New York City is the Empire State Building. A 102-story massive Art Deco skyscraper, its process of building and completion can be a valuable lesson as successful project.

The building was the brain-child of John J. Raskob, the vice-president of General Motors, who wanted this new building to exceed the height of the rival car manufacturer’s Chrysler Building, still under construction when the plans were released on August 29, 1929. The program given to the architects called for a tight schedule of completion one and a half years after the start of the project.

Empire State Building was designed by William F. Lamb from the architectural firm “Shreve, Lamb and Harmon”, which produced the building drawings in just two weeks, using its earlier designs for the Reynolds Building in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the Carew Tower in Cincinnati, Ohio as a basis. It is interesting to note that every year the staff of the Empire State Building sends a Father’s Day card to the staff at the Reynolds Building in Winston-Salem to pay homage to its role as predecessor to the Empire State Building. The building was designed from the top down. The general contractors were The Starrett Brothers and Eken. The construction company was chaired by Alfred E. Smith, a former Governor of New York and James Farley’s General Builders Supply Corporation supplied the building materials. John W. Bowser was project construction superintendant. It is worth mentioning that the project required 3, 400 workers, and according to official accounts, five of them died in accidents before the building was finished.

From a certain point of view, such a large-scale project was scheduled to be completed in an unrealistic amount of time. But the Empire State Building in New York City was completed in one year and 45 days, ahead of schedule, whereas official timetable pointed out that the project was to be completed in one year and a half. The total cost for the project was $40,948,900. The Building alone cost $24,718,000. Upon the completion of the skyscraper, it effectively became the then-tallest building in the world, surpassing its rivals, the Chrysler Building and 40 Wall Street.

But those are just the bare, dry facts. I would now like to speculate on why the project was completed successfully in such a short amount of time, with barely any hindrances in the process of its construction.

As with everything else that humans do, we would first like to go to the core, and that is the project planning itself. Obviously, the project developed extremely rapidly, with before-mentioned William Lamb delivering the drawings for the buildings in just two weeks, heavily inspired by the Reynolds Building. We couldn’t exactly say that plagiarism was the cause for his fast work, but in my opinion, a project of this magnitude should be more carefully planned out, instead of passing out a more detailed sketches of an already-existing construction. Also, we could delve in the matter for the building’s rapid construction by looking at the workers that worked on it. Most were immigrants from Europe, along with hundreds of Mohawk iron workers, many from the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal. And as far as speculation goes, the conditions for their working contracts could not have been all-in-all, pleasant.  For this matter, I believe that Lewis Wickes Hine’s photos of the construction at that time speak more clearly about the regulations enforced on the workers than words.

Nevertheless, whatever we may think, the facts speak for themselves. The Empire State Building is a clear example of a successful project, becoming the then-tallest building in the world after its completion, finished ahead of schedule and with minimum casualties prior its construction. The symbolic day on its opening in March 1, 1931, will always remain in history as the day the most iconic building of New York was completed.

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