Nosa Ehimwenman brought his two sons and daughter to 900 Randolph Street recently to show them what he, as president and CEO of Bowa Construction, has been working on.
“We just walked on the outside of the building and I said, ‘Dad’s building that,’ ” Ehimwenman said. “My daughter’s face was like, ‘You’re building that?’ ‘Yeah, I’m building that.’ I remember riding my bike through the city looking at these high-rises as a young Black kid saying ‘I would love to build one of those one day.’ Never thought it was possible, but now we’re doing it and that’s awesome.”
The $200 million-plus Fulton Market project Ehimwenman’s firm is working on in partnership with Related Midwest is billed as the city’s first high-rise with an African American Minority Business Enterprise co-leading construction. The 43-story building is being constructed using a new state incentive designed to boost affordable housing, with 80% of the 300 units at market-rate prices and 20% affordable.
Architect Ann Thompson, executive vice president of architecture and design at Related Midwest, calls the 550,000 square-foot building, set for completion in 2023, “precedent-setting” in look and community impact. The project also supports the work Ehimwenman and his firm are doing to diversify the construction industry and help other minority-led businesses grow.
Less than 7% of construction professionals are Black or African American, according to 2021 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly 33% are Hispanic or Latino and 2.1% are Asian.
Bowa, as a general contractor, has made it a point to expose youth of color to the construction and development world with its Bowa Gives initiative, an endeavor that brings its employees to South Side high schools to share details about jobs within the field.
“We’ve been exposing them to the industry, because when they think of construction, it’s ‘hammers and nails and guys running around sweaty,’ and no one wants to do that … that’s what their response is,” Ehimwenman said. “We want to get more African Americans, women and Hispanics into the industry, so we talk to them and try to guide them. Unless you’re born into a family of construction workers, construction may not be on the top of your list.”
Ehimwenman says his firm also brings in other firms owned by people of color to share the knowledge Bowa has developed on building capacity, sustaining growth and mitigating risks.
“That’s how you start changing the paradigm in our industry, and really start building wealth,” Ehimwenman said. “When you’re bidding jobs, some of these smaller subcontractors don’t have access to bonding relationships and are being charged 3-4% for bonding,” Ehimwenman said. “It’s about getting folks access to information so they can compete on a level playing field.”
Don Biernacki, executive vice president of construction at Related Midwest, agrees. While he said progress is being made to diversify the field, it’s slow, and the needle is being moved one project at a time. Biernacki said that’s what Hire 360 is about. The local nonprofit brings developers, general contractors and labor unions together to build a more robust workforce through training, create more opportunities across the city and county, break down barriers for youth to get into apprenticeship programs and help smaller businesses grow. Biernacki, board chair of Hire 360, said leveling the playing field means businesses like Related helping lower hurdles for smaller businesses.
Biernacki said when Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed recent affordable housing legislation, Biernacki saw 900 Randolph as the perfect opportunity to incorporate affordable housing to “improve the quality of housing and the quality of lives that are living there.” And at the core of the 900 Randolph endeavor is Midwest’s partnership with Bowa Construction.
“I always knew Nosa would be building a high-rise — from his passion, the way he talked about his craft, his vision and what he wanted for his company,” Biernacki said. “It’s very important to us, as we built this, to make a statement that was very different about our city and about our industry.”
The underutilization of minorities has been noted by National Association of Minority Contractors for years, said Wendell Stemley, president of the country’s oldest minority-owned construction trade association. The organization has been trying to level the playing field in construction contracting, particularly on taxpayer-financed projects.
“This trend cannot continue,” Stemley said. “We welcome a day that embarks on a course of action that ensures more equitable participation in our communities.”
Developing a relationship with Related Midwest has resulted in having partners and owners that want to see Bowa be successful, which Ehimwenman says is “life changing.”
“Not to speak negatively of our industry but when you are intentional and understand what inclusion means, you actually build capacity of African American-owned firms,” Ehimwenman said. “When you’re on a path with a developer that understands that path … having an organization like Related Midwest say ‘here’s a road map, let’s figure out how we get to that finish line,’ that’s how this high-rise happened.”
Hyde Park resident James Minor, 32, is a project engineer on Ehimwenman’s team. Minor came to the construction field with a sports management degree, joined Bowa in July 2021, and has been aboard the 900 Randolph project ever since. He fell into construction and said he hasn’t looked back; 900 Randolph is also his first high-rise. .
“The only thing I hate is not knowing about this field in college,” he said. “We’re not told about project managers, executives. All we know is the laborers, operators.”
Part of Minor’s job is working with subcontractors, getting shop drawings approved,ensuring that drawings are followed in the field, and making sure the correct products are installed.
“Not everyday is the same,” Minor said. “You’re doing both sides — office and field work,” Minor said. His advice to youth: Start looking at construction and reading about it. When Minor speaks to youth, he tells them about his job and how to become part of the field.
Related Midwest worked with a design team led by Morris Adjmi Architects for 900 Randolph. According to Thompson, Adjmi looked at the legacy and context in the West Loop, and landed on a look from the vocabulary of the “L.” The exterior will feature steel detailing with rivets and a street front with brick.
“You’ll see a building that at the street front feels very much like the West Loop … a more slender tower so that it would not block the views of other buildings and it allows more light in,” Thompson said. “As we got into the process, we started talking about how best to integrate affordable housing to a neighborhood that really needs more affordable housing.”
“It isn’t just about the architectural legacy — it’s about how we can impact this community, it’s about the social impact that a project can make,” Thompson said.
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