The Empire State Building

1931 (completed)

For individuals of a certain generation, mention of the Empire State Building may evoke the image of Ray Harryhausen’s animated giant, King Kong, clinging to the needle at its summit and swatting hapless biplanes out of the air, with Fay Wray alternately screaming and fainting at his feet. The fact that the movie was released less than two years after the completion of the building is suggestive of how rapidly the edifice became regarded as an icon of world architecture. More remarkable still is the speed at which it was completed. Construction began on St. Patrick’s Day - the 17th May 1930. A year and 45 days later, on the 1st May 1931, it was officially opened, when President Hoover flicked a switch in Washington DC, and the lights came on. At 1454 feet, with 102 stories and 1.2 million square feet of rentable space, the building has been honoured by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. The fact that it was completed in approximately seven million man-hours suggests that, like its antique counterparts, it is a monument to the human facility for co-operative enterprise. It also represents a major evolutionary shift in the history of project management.

The project was financed and overseen by Empire State Inc. – a group including former General Motors Executives John J Raksob, and Coleman and Pierre Du Pont. Other members of the group were Banker Louis G Kaufman, and Alfred E Smith – former Governor of New York, who provided the public face of the corporation.

There was intense competition at the time to produce the world’s tallest building. Rivals for the title were the Chrysler Building, and 40 Wall Street. This undoubtedly added a degree of urgency to the design and execution of the project. More significant, however, were the constraints imposed by the building’s owners. They stipulated that the project should reach completion no later than the 1st of May. Real estate practice at the time operated an annual lease arrangement commencing on the 1st of May; failure to meet this deadline would result in the loss of a year’s revenue in rent. Consequently, in a departure from orthodox building practice, the project definition and process design were primarily responsive to estimations of costing and duration.

The firm of architects contracted to the project, Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, had already contributed to the construction of a building of similar design and function – The Reynolds Tower in Winston Salem. Lessons learned in the course of that project offered a basis for improved practice – both with regard to the efficiency of its construction, and the subsequent fitness of the facility for use. However, Empire State Inc. realised that if they were to translate the those lessons to a project on the scale of the Empire State, and at the same time operate within the prescribed parameters of time and cost, it would be necessary to discard the custom of transferring control of the project design to the architects. Richard Shreve, of Shreve Lamb and Harmon was candid in conceding this necessity, admitting that the project demanded “ability, experience and organization beyond the scope of a single professional unit, [and] would, if undertaken by the architect’s office, involve a duplication of effort and loss of time too expensive to be tolerated in an operation requiring large capital investment”. Consequently, Raksob and the Du Ponts assembled a group of key stakeholders and contributors, including the architects, general contractors Skarret Brothers and Eken (a firm renowned for the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of their practice), as well as mechanical engineers and elevator consultants. Crucially, this team also included rental agents, meaning that the project definition and design were not only influenced by traditional input with regard to practical issues of structural design, but were also supplemented by value-based judgements from the perspective of post-construction occupancy. A further factor of key significance relates to the fact that Raksob and the Du Ponts shared a background in automotive construction. Their approach to the project was thus to regard it as short-term manufacturing process – adopting a production management philosophy influenced by innovations pioneered by Henry Ford in the first decade of the C20th. Emphasis was placed on work structuring, or ‘process design’ – the Building Committee generating no fewer than seventeen theoretical models, before deciding on a process design which satisfactorily embraced the elements of engineering, supply, resourcing and assembly. Determination to embrace these aspects within a single value-driven process signalled Empire State Inc.’s commitment to an adaptive, iterative approach, in which efficiency of practice was facilitated through ongoing intercommunication between working groups, enabling elimination of waste in relation to materials, work structure and man hours.

It is interesting to reflect that the approach adopted to the Empire State Project anticipated by some 20 years the philosophy developed by Japanese manufacturing industry in the mid C20th. It is arguable that American consultants, such as W.Edwards Deming and Lowell Mellen, who contributed to the rejuventation of Japanese industry in the aftermath of World War II, introduced project management concepts indirectly learned from the Empire State enterprise. The positive consequences of these ideas is most conspicuously evinced in the rise to prominence of the Toyota car company, under the leadership of Taiichi Ohno. Toyota’s commitment to ongoing improvement – or Kaizen – was based on a determination to reduce ‘waste’ from the manufacturing process. To this end they defined the concept of waste under three separate headings:

- Muda – non-value-adding work

- Muri – oveburden

- Mura – unevenness in workloads

On this basis they identified seven aspects of wasteful procedure:

i) Transport (moving products that are not actually required to perform the processing)

ii) Inventory (all components, work in process, and finished product not being processed)

iii) Motion (people or equipment moving or walking more than is required to perform the processing)

iv) Waiting (waiting for the next production step, interruptions of production during shift change)

v) Overproduction (production ahead of demand)

vi) Over Processing (resulting from poor tool or product design creating activity)

vii) Defects (the effort involved in inspecting for and fixing defects)

Clear parallels may be drawn between these definitions, and areas of potential waste addressed by the Empire State contractors. Waiting was minimised by reduction of intermediate inventory via efficient sourcing and transport of materials, enabling the introduction of just-in-time and pull systems. The success of these systems is demonstrated by the way the sourcing and deployment of steel was handled: the construction required 57 thousand tons of structural steel; delay in manufacture, shipment, or on-site access to this resource would have compromised any possibility of meeting the stringent deadlines imposed in process design. It was thus necessary to ensure a smooth and predictable supply of steel to the site. To this end Skarret Bros and Eken sounded out a number of steelyards, to establish whether they had the desire and capacity to meet demand. Steel erection was let out to the company Post and McCord, who took it upon themselves to modify plant layout and manufacturing processes to satisfy the demands imposed by the general contractors. Assured of a reliable flow of steel, on-site designers were able to detail a number of floors simultaneously as discrete work units – providing drawings to the construction teams immediately prior to fabrication (‘just-in-time’). Within hours of receiving the drawings, fabrication was able to commence - the construction teams pulling newly arrived pre-formed girders to the appropriate levels. Similar practices were established for limestone and concrete. Skarret Bros and Eken dispatched Expeditors to quarries as far afield as Germany, Italy and Belgium to verify capacity to supply; rail and Atlantic Shipping routes and timetables were studied, and a limestone milling, shipping and construction schedule accordingly formulated. A ready supply of concrete was facilitated by the installation off two on-site concrete plants. Workflow was further expedited by the practice of storing additional pre-fabricated items at strategic staging points on the site and pulling them to the appropriate location so that they could be installed precisely as required.

Movement of materials was facilitated by the provision of a system of derricks and hoists for vertical movement of materials and large machinery. Horizontal movement was enabled by four overhead monorail systems, and narrow rail loops for each floor, with carts capable of holding eight times the amount of material possible in a single wheelbarrow. The efficiency of this systems is illustrated by the way in which the issue of bricklaying was tackled: 10 million bricks were required to be laid; eschewing the conventional practice of dumping them on the pavement and moving them by wheelbarrow, Skarret Bros designed hoppers where larger consignments of bricks could be held and released as required to rail carts, which then conveyed them to the appropriate floors.

With regard to the issue of construction management, the general contractors were confronted with the challenge of overseeing four major work streams: steel substructure, concrete floor construction, exterior metal, and limestone cladding. This involved co-ordinating the efforts of contributors from 60 construction trades. They achieved this by dividing work into discrete units, each assigned to a multi-disciplinary team overseen by a Pacemaker, whose task was to ensure that the completion of the unit accorded with a prearranged timescale, and to foresee and report on likely delays, and/or completion ahead of schedule. This made it possible to adopt a dynamic self-modifying practice, allowing on-site construction to go forward in an organic and holistic manner.

The Empire State Project succeeded through the innovation of envisioning and designing the project as a short-term self-regulating manufacturing process, evolving organically and dynamically to meet the requirements of value and schedule. It stands as a confirmation of the way in which ostensibly separate commercial and industrial concerns may cross-fertilise in the establishment of core project management principles adaptable to a wide range of co-operative human endeavour.

It is perhaps not overly fanciful to draw comparisons between the processes displayed in the conduct of a major human enterprise of this type, and the behaviours we observe in other species in nature – for example, the movements, organisation, construction and production efforts of termites, ants and bees. The clear understanding of function and purpose possessed by each labourer, each sub-team, and each supplier, and the communication between these bodies in many ways mirrors the behaviour we observe in the most successful colonies. This in turn suggests that the evolution and refinement of project management practices in some part necessitates a re-evaluation and deeper understanding of instinctive co-operative animal survival behaviours.