By David Pittman –
$2 Billion UA Building Boom
The numbers tell the story – over the past 21 years the University of Arizona invested $2 billion to design and build about 80 different projects.
Robert Smith is the man who’s overseen that unprecedented campus growth and expansion.
Remarkably, every one of those projects was completed within budget and without any major claims or litigation. Yet Smith’s exemplary record of accomplishment at the university goes far beyond that. His is a beautiful legacy of design excellence and construction quality that permeates the entire UA campus.
You might conclude the university was lucky to have come across this guy. But to hear Smith tell it, he’s the fortunate one.
“I think I have the best job in Tucson,” he said. “To be able to work with so many brilliant people, to interact with students and see them grow, to work in architecture on so many different kinds of projects and watch a beautifully designed building take shape that further transforms the campus – I feel great about what we do.”
Smith graduated from the UA in 1976 with a degree in architecture and became a founding partner in the Stichler Design Group, a San Diego architectural firm that grew to 50 employees in eight years. Smith later led a $500 million medical building program at the University of California, San Diego, where he oversaw development of a major new hospital campus.
He returned to Tucson and his alma mater in 1994 as director of facilities, design and construction. In 2010, he became the interim senior VP for business affairs in charge of finance and operations. Once a new senior VP and CFO was hired in 2011, Smith took on his current role as VP for business affairs.
He’s in charge of campus operations, facilities, risk management, parking, transportation, planning, design, construction and the development of the new downtown Phoenix Biomedical Campus. The campus operations pieces of UA controlled by Smith include about 550 employees.
Southern Arizona general contractors who have worked with Smith praise him as a gifted, creative and dependable straight shooter with high ethical standards they can count on.
“Bob Smith is a very intelligent, diligent, honorable and truthful person,” said Brad Lloyd, VP of Lloyd Construction Company. “He says what he means and he means what he says. He is a major reason the university building program has achieved such great success.”
Kurt Wadlington, project director at Sundt, described Smith as a “sophisticated professional” who develops “a strong collaborative team” on every project. “He always strives for design excellence and construction quality. He has definitely elevated the building program at UA.”
Wadlington said Smith is “amazingly flexible and resourceful” in adapting to unexpected construction challenges and tightened construction budgets.
“Construction and design can sometimes be very complicated, particularly when you’re working on projects as large as those often done at the UA. But despite all the challenges involved, Bob Smith has reacted and adapted to oversee successful project after successful project. He never settles for anything less than his resources will allow. In his quest for building excellence, he has left a huge legacy.”
Lloyd and Wadlington credit Smith for his insistence that local construction firms be used at UA to the highest extent possible.
“Bob has not only done an amazing job in shaping the university campus, but he has also been a strong and consistent force in making sure local architects, engineers, contractors and enterprises were involved in building those projects,” Lloyd said.
Smith said there are many excellent architects and contractors in Tucson and Southern Arizona with great knowledge of building needs in the Sonoran Desert. While construction of high-tech lab and research facilities sometimes requires hiring non-local specialty firms, Smith said about 75 percent of all subcontractors used on UA projects are local businesses and the percentage of the local workforce employed on each project is even higher.
A fourth-generation Tucsonan, Smith, 61, is from a true pioneer family. His great grandfather was a farmer and rancher who led a wagon train from east Texas to Tucson in the late 1800s.
“I grew up in a blue-collar family,” Smith said. “All my uncles and my dad were in construction. My dad was an electrician. I learned a great deal from him and my family about the value of hard work, ethics and loyalty. I was the first person from my family to go to college.”
During his distinguished career at UA, the school has become a national leader in sustainability and environmental stewardship. UA has the greatest solar power installation capacity of any university in the nation and the most buildings in Arizona to achieve LEED Platinum Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
The university is also a leader in restoring and preserving treasured historic buildings, such as Old Main, the first building on campus, and Herring Hall, a landmark structure built in 1903.
Under Smith’s guidance, UA successfully pioneered and refined new alternative project delivery methods that are now common today.
For instance, the UA Student Union was the first public project in Arizona to use the “design-build” project delivery system. UA has since successfully used design-build and construction-management-at-risk project methods to construct some 50 buildings.
Smith also worked with construction industry leaders to develop and promote a new state procurement code implemented around the turn of the 21st century. He said those new rules have dramatically improved how buildings can be constructed.
“A lot of states are still burdened with the requirement of doing hard-bid, low-bid work – which forces the hiring of the low bidders regardless of whether they’re best qualified to do the work,” said Smith. “Then, if you come in over budget on the bids, you have to redesign and rebid. You can’t fast-track projects because everything has to be done one step at a time.
“Under the new procurement laws, you can use alternative approaches that allow you to select the best team members (general contractor) based on qualifications, rather than just the low bid that day. Then they go out and low bid all the subcontracted work through prequalified subcontractors – which makes sure you have qualified people on the project, meeting our goal of providing the most cost-effective construction work possible.
“It also permits construction to begin before all the design is done because the contractor is working with you throughout the design process, giving you input on the cost and the phasing. The result is the contractor, architect and owner work together as a team, rather than having a more adversarial relationship, which was prevalent before the changes.”
UA has received about 80 architectural, interior, landscape, sustainability and construction excellence awards, including:
- The first Southern Arizona recipient of a National American Institute of Architects Award for the Meinel Optical Sciences Building – plus 15 statewide AIA design excellence awards
- Three “Dream Team Owner of the Year Awards” from the Cornerstone Building Foundation
- Two “Arizona’s Greatest All-Time Architectural Achievement” awards for the Optical Sciences building and the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre
Smith has received individual awards for design innovation, advancing the building industry and lifetime achievement from the Alliance for Construction Excellence, the American Society of Cost Estimators, the Alliance of Construction Trades and the Tucson Construction Industry’s Good Scout Committee.
“We don’t design and build buildings for the purpose of getting awards – but we appreciate it when it happens,” Smith said.