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Harbert at Home Around the World

Global builder BL Harbert can boast world-class Alabama projects, including a huge expansion at Mercedes.

Just 10 months after launching the project, Mercedes Benz workers at the Vance plant were moving into a new addition built by BL Harbert.

Just 10 months after launching the project, Mercedes Benz workers at the Vance plant were moving into a new addition built by BL Harbert.

What Alabama construction company has worked on the U.S. Embassy in London, Mercedes-Benz Logistics Center in Vance and Auburn University’s South Donahue Residence Hall — along with numerous other projects — at the same time? BL Harbert International LLC, the company formed in 2000 by Billy Harbert, whose family has worked in the construction industry in Alabama and around the world for more than 70 years.

With deep roots in Alabama, the Harbert family name has long been connected with high-quality construction — but not just in the state or the Southeast. Birmingham-based BL Harbert is sought after for major construction projects across the country and in almost every corner of the world. Currently, the company is building in Mobile for Airbus and in Asheville, N.C., for GE, in addition to other global projects.

Harbert, which had 2013 revenues of $732 million, employs more than 4,000 people worldwide and is currently working on projects in eight states and 13 countries.

“We are continuing to expand our footprint, with recent office openings in Nashville, Charlotte and Huntsville,” says company spokesperson Meg Ross. “By the end of the year, BL Harbert will be expanding its reach in the Carolinas with a new office in Greenville, South Carolina.”

Back home, here’s a roundup of some of Harbert’s recent and ongoing projects in Alabama.

Mercedes Benz Addition

Vance, Alabama
Completed: December 2013

In February 2013, when BL Harbert received the notice to proceed on a 934,000-square-foot addition to the Mercedes Benz plant in Vance, in addition to 1 million square feet of exterior concrete hardscape, “it was pretty daunting,” says Scott Watkins, who served as project manager for Harbert. “To be honest, when we first got the project and looked at the schedule on paper, we didn’t know how we would accomplish it, but we figured it out.”

Not only was the project massive, it needed to be completed in 10 months, before the end of the year. The project was challenging because of the client’s “very high expectations” and the extremely aggressive schedule — and complicated further by more than 56 inches of rain that fell while the project was in progress, Watkins says. In addition, there were numerous changes requested “on the fly,” as it was a design-build project, and the site’s massive size — the building is more than a third of a mile long  — added to its complexity. 

The project went so fast that when Watkins thinks back on it now, “it’s a blur,” he says. But exactly 10 months after launching the project, Mercedes Benz workers were moving into the new building.

“We are in the business of overcoming adversity and influencing outcomes,” Watkins says. “You always have to have a plan, as well as multiple backup plans.” He attributes the project’s success to the people on his team, from the top down. The team quickly built a solid working partnership with Mercedes Benz and great relationships with its strong subcontractors.

“It was up to us to cast the vision, and, once we got the buy-in needed, the project quickly gained the momentum it needed,” Watkins says. “We just had to steer it in the right direction. With projects this aggressive, you have to remain very vigilant and nimble. If you aren’t aware of where you are tracking in your plan you can easily get off track.”

The University of Alabama Ferguson Center

Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Scheduled Completion: August 2014

In recent years, BL Harbert has established a name for itself in the field of higher education construction. In 2013, the company worked on seven college campuses. One of its signature higher education projects is just a short distance from Harbert’s home office in Birmingham. Located in Tuscaloosa, the Ferguson Center project is a $26.4 million addition and renovation to the University of Alabama’s existing student union building. This includes a three-story, 75,000-square-foot addition and 43,000 square feet of renovations. The major portion of the project is adding to and renovating the university’s general merchandise, book and supply store, brand named the SUPe Store.

Because the existing building is more than 40 years old, this project required Harbert professionals to update all mechanical and electrical utilities for the existing facility “without ever disrupting the ongoing operations,” Ross says. “The SUPe Store portion required a phased turnover, which allowed the store to remain operational and never closed throughout construction. In order to overcome the challenge, Harbert planned and performed work during holidays, nights and weekends.”

In addition to the SUPe Store, the Ferguson Student Center houses several student life organizations and a food court. The project includes building a new career center, Student Government Association offices, student affairs office, dean of students office and an art gallery. New main entrances and a great hall, which connect to the university’s existing promenade, have already been completed.

“These entrances and great hall are the focal point of the new addition and provide areas for students and faculty to lounge during lunch or breaks in between classes,” Ross says. “During construction, the university added a new renovation to its existing promenade, which is scheduled to be completed prior to the building’s grand opening.”

Veterans Administration Clinical Annex & Parking Structure

Birmingham, Alabama
Scheduled Completion: 2015

On July 7, BL Harbert broke ground on the 50,000-square-foot Clinical Annex of the Birmingham VA Medical Center. The annex will streamline services provided by the Birmingham VA, providing a place to relocate primary care services and minimize congestion at the current facility. The new facility also will include a parking structure with 2,300 spaces.

Located near the Red Mountain Expressway between University Boulevard and 7th Avenue South in Birmingham’s medical district, the new healthcare facility is expected to help revitalize the area.

University of North Alabama Projects

Florence, Alabama
Scheduled Completion: 2015

Based on its expertise in higher education construction projects, BL Harbert has recently been awarded two large projects at the University of North Alabama (UNA) in Florence. Construction began on the UNA Science and Technology Building in May 2013 and is scheduled to be complete in January 2015. The $39 million project includes three separate buildings — a powerhouse, a tornado shelter and the main building, which is approximately 155,000 square feet, Ross says. The facilities include multiple lab areas, a grand ornamental staircase, two auditoriums and a fifth-floor mechanical mezzanine.

“BL Harbert has a great team, including the design team at Florence-based Lambert Ezell Durham Architects, that, combined with the knowledge from past projects and our work ethic have combined to solve potential challenges that have surfaced, as construction has progressed,” Ross says.

In July, UNA awarded BL Harbert another construction contract, to build two new residence halls on its campus in downtown Florence. The residence halls, which will have the capacity to house 764 students in two facilities, will include shared bedroom suite-style units with common areas for studying and gathering. Both facilities will include storm shelters to accommodate student residents. The first building is scheduled for completion in time for the fall semester of 2015, and the second will be completed by late 2015.

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.

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