A Better Way to Build: A History of the Pankow Companies

A Better Way to Build: A History of the Pankow Companies (ePDF)

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A Better Way to Build: A History of the Pankow Companies
Purdue University Press

Book Description

While architects have been the subject of many scholarly studies, we know very little about the companies that built the structures they designed. This book is a study in business history as well as civil engineering and construction management. It details the contributions that Charles J. Pankow, a 1947 graduate of Purdue University, and his firm have made as builders of large, often concrete, commercial structures since the company’s foundation in 1963. In particular, it uses selected projects as case studies to analyze and explain how the company innovated at the project level. The company has been recognized as a pioneer in “design-build,” a methodology that involves the construction company in the development of structures and substitutes negotiated contracts for the bidding of architects’ plans. The Pankow companies also developed automated construction technologies that helped keep projects on time and within budget.

The book includes dozens of photographs of buildings under construction from the company’s archive and other sources. At the same time, the author analyzes and evaluates the strategic decision making of the firm through 2004, the year in which the founder died. While Charles Pankow figures prominently in the narrative, the book also describes how others within the firm adapted the business so that the company could survive a commercial market that changed significantly as a result of the recession of the 1990s. Extending beyond the scope of most business biographies, this book is a study in industry innovation and the power of corporate culture, as well as the story of one particular company and the individuals who created it.

Readers will be also be interested in the online exhibition, "Advancing the Construction Industry Through Innovation," that provides access to oral histories and other materials brought together as part of the Charles Pankow Legacy Project.


Key Features:


  • There are many books about architects, but very few about twentieth-century “makers.”


  • Tells the story behind many iconic buildings, especially in the western half of the US.


  • Charles Pankow was a pioneer in concrete construction and the “design-build” system.


Book Reviews

“Charlie Pankow had an important impact on late-twentieth-century building development. His companies created a powerful niche market that kept his clients happy and the enterprise profitable. Pankow’s clients weren’t vainglorious developers seeking to create monuments for themselves. They wanted handsome, lasting buildings, delivered on time and at budget. And that Pankow accomplished time and again. Moreover, Pankow became as much an innovator in the systemic use of concrete as a building material as Gustave Eiffel had been in the late nineteenth century with cast iron.”

—Timothy Tosta, Partner, McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP


“Charles Pankow was an innovator who embraced the design-build concept, and he served as a champion of the approach while restoring the master builder to the commercial building site. He believed the contractor needed the ability to integrate cost- and time-saving construction methods. This book describes the ‘Pankow Way,’ a collaborative approach in which the contractor works effectively with the architects, engineers, and subcontractors to meet owners’ expectations. It is an interesting history of a company and the man who created a unique business culture, and I recommend it as a great read for engineers, architects, contractors, and business people.”

—Patrick J. Natale, Executive Director, American Society of Civil Engineers


“In the history of construction in the second half of the twentieth century, Charles Pankow stands out as the man who led the design-build revolution. Michael Adamson develops a fascinating portrait of a community leader, philanthropist, creative businessman, perceptive art collector, and major figure in the history of civil engineering. Read this book to learn about the visionary after whom the American Society of Civil Engineers recently named its prestigious competition in architectural engineering—and about the ‘renaissance man’ behind the vision.”

—Jeffrey S. Russell, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Wisconsin


“[This book] is a story of one man’s vision and the companies he created to carry out that vision. As a young architect I was taught that the general contractor was the opponent of good design. Author Michael Adamson shows how Charlie Pankow turned this idea on its head by reestablishing the historic partnership between design and construction. This is an excellent book for architects, engineers, and contractors. It shows how one visionary was able to turn an entire industry toward a better way of working together. I recommend it most highly.”

—Patrick MacLeamy, CEO, HOK Architects



“This is a great read—anyone and everyone in the architectural, engineering, construction, or development business should read this book. Design-bid-build as a delivery method is broken! Charlie Pankow saw this many years ago with his colleagues at Kiewit. Over forty years ago he embarked on the formation of the design-build/design-assist delivery method for construction. He succeeded in a way that no one could have ever predicted. I am pleased to be able to have the opportunity to review this book and to advise everyone in the industry to read it.”

—Charles H. Thornton, Chairman, Charles H. Thornton & Company LLC


“Michael Adamson chronicles the erratic genius of Charlie Pankow and the construction empire he built in defiance of management conventions. As a ‘Master Builder,’ Charlie believed in people, not management doctrine. He attracted platoons of individualists, self-starters whom he motivated and inspired. He taught them to cut costs and schedules, to develop stunningly innovative construction techniques, and to enervate centuries-old design-build methods, thrusting them onto the world of modern construction. If you want a gripping, bare-knuckled story about a man who successfully changed an industry, you’ve selected the right book.”

—Walker Lee Evey, Former President, Design-Build Institute of America


About the Author(s):

Michael R. Adamson, PhD (UC Santa Barbara, 2000), has taught history at a number of institutions, most recently at California State University, and is an independent historical consultant. His research focuses on California business and urban history, natural resource development in the West, and US foreign economic policy. In 2006-2007 and 2008-2009, he was a fellow at the Huntington Library, where he researched the career of Ralph B. Lloyd, a southern California oil man and commercial real estate developer in Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. His essays have appeared in American Sociological Review, Business History Review, Diplomatic History, Financial History Review, the Journal of American-East Asian Relations, the Journal of Urban History, Presidential Studies Quarterly, and several scholarly collections.