The Johns Hopkins Gazette: August 14, 2000
August 14, 2000
VOL. 29, NO. 43


The Man With the Plans

Steve Campbell oversees the university's all-time biggest building boom

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

On yet another overcast day in Baltimore, construction and excavation crews on the Homewood campus meander through muddied stretches of earth, weaving around pools of rainwater that dot the landscape like craters on the moon.

Seemingly, around every bend are surveyors peering through transits and people in hard hats hauling I-beams and laying down brick upon brick. Overheard is the cacophony of pounding sledgehammers, the roar of massive metal machines scooping up piles of dirt, the thunderous engines of giant trucks and foremen shouting out instructions that only the well-honed ear could comprehend.

To some, all this activity and upheaval going on behind chain link fences is an inconvenience and an inevitable eyesore, but not to Steve Campbell, director of university planning and project development. On his daily walks across campus, inspecting the various construction sites, he sees things through the proverbial ruby-colored lenses. To get a sense of where he is coming from, here is a man capable of finding the innate beauty of a retaining wall and exposed rebar.

As director of university planning and project development, Steve Campbell manages new construction everywhere from Homewood (the student arts center, pictured) to the Nanjing campus.

"I'm like a kid in a candy shop," Campbell says during a recent tour of the Homewood campus. "I am an architect, so I love all this. I think there is nothing prettier than a construction site with big piles of dirt and large vehicles."

As for the din of noise, well, he says, he likes that too.

"[The noise] tells me what state of the work is going on. It's like quarterly chimes on the clock," says Campbell, whose voice and cadence bear a sharp resemblance to Norm Macdonald's of Saturday Night Live fame. "Believe me, it's much better than not hearing anything but the pitter-patter of rain. Then I know we are in trouble."

Campbell has the good fortune, as he views it, of overseeing the largest boom in capital construction projects the university has known in its 125-year history. On the Homewood campus alone there are several new major buildings planned or in the process of being built, in addition to the Great Excavations project, the ambitious six-month implementation of the open space portion of the new master plan.

However, Homewood is certainly not alone in its efforts to expand. At the present time nearly every university-affiliated campus has new facilities either planned or nearing completion. The only period in Hopkins' history that comes close in terms of construction activity is the late 1940s, when a significant portion of the Homewood campus was built out. But that work, Campbell notes, "didn't happen all at once."

Campbell's role in all this growth is basically twofold: that of client representative, the client being the university, and that of a project executive. He is the one who assembles the various architects and contractors and gives them their "marching orders" to get things built, whether it be a new edifice like the student arts center or an addition to an existing building.

Currently, Campbell says, he is the busiest he has ever been. His day planner is full of meetings with foremen, design teams, project donors, university administration and trustees. When he is not in the conference rooms, Campbell often can be found in a hard hat roaming around the various construction sites. Even when not at work--and especially, he says, when he is accompanying his 17-year-old daughter on college visits--his thoughts often wander back to Hopkins.

"I am on 24/7 these days, from Internet connections to cell phones," Campbell says grinning. "Everyone has my home phone number. Whether I am physically here or not, I feel like I never leave the place."

Further evidence of his current workload is his office in the Greenhouse, utterly brimming with blueprints, sketches and diagrams. The most recent addition to his collection is a bound volume of plans for a potential renovation of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies in China. The volume is just one more item he has to pore over and decipher--the text being in unfamiliar Chinese--before his scheduled trip to Nanjing in September.

Also on the drawing board are projects at APL and at the Bologna Center in Italy.

"My role is to interpret expectations and translate them into something that we can actually build," Campbell says. "I have 20 years of experience in construction, and there is some judgment I need to apply to all these various projects."

A graduate of the School of Architecture at the University of Maryland at College Park, and a recent recipient of a Hopkins MBA, Campbell came to Hopkins in 1988 to take the position of associate director (and later, director) of design and construction for the School of Medicine. He worked there for nine years, overseeing such projects as the Bunting-Blaustein Cancer Research Building. In February 1997, he became head of design and construction at the Homewood campus. Just two months later he was asked to take on the post of interim executive director of the Office of Facilities Management, a position he held for three and a half years. (In July, Larry Kilduff joined the university as executive director of facilities.)

When Campbell first learned that an anonymous donor had proposed fast-tracking the open space portion of the master plan, there was a bit of shock on his part, he says. The request was to complete the work in three months, and he, along with others, had some reservations about the plausibility of such an endeavor.

"We couldn't just say no. We had to realistically respond to the donor," Campbell says. "We had to do our homework and take a detailed look at the individual roadblocks that might prevent us from completing this."

Some of the concerns were the availability of bricks, the shortage of labor and the reality that Homewood is a "living organism" that operates at all times, even during the summer months, when the bulk of the work would be scheduled.

The issues eventually were worked through, but these weren't the only concerns regarding a project of this scale. Campbell, who serves as chair of the open space coordination group, knows that radical change in an environment inevitably creates areas of conflict.

The open space coordination group, formed in February, meets every Monday at 7 a.m. The group deals with such issues as tree preservation, storm water runoff and campus circulation, both pedestrian and vehicular.

"There were a lot of folks who were actually shocked by the [proposed] level of activity and not just a little bit scared that so much was being torn up and we might be damaging something," Campbell says. "So we met with archivists, arborists, community members, all of whom had specific concerns about what might be lost during this level of construction."

Part of the fun of his job, he says, is playing such a key role in the implementation of the master plan.

For this project alone 150 drawings had to be compiled and submitted to city planning agencies for approval, permits obtained, detailed PowerPoint presentations sent to the donor, and an army of contractors assembled. In addition, a survey of the entire campus had to be done to locate existing underground utilities and fiber optic and telephone lines.

"This is just a huge undertaking," Campbell says. "There is virtually not a square inch of campus that we haven't torn up or don't plan to."

Of tantamount concern to Campbell during all this construction is the safety of the crews, staff, students and faculty. The prospect of a crew digging up a high-voltage line or someone wandering into a construction site is something he takes very seriously.

Luckily, he says, there have been no incidents so far, a testament to the professionalism and skill of the various crews, the blanket presence of Homewood and Broadway security, and the efforts of the Office of Communications and Public Affairs in updating everyone on the progress of the work.

When asked to elaborate about the beauty he sees in a construction site, Campbell says he is able to see beyond the work in progress and envision the final product. His vision for the Homewood campus in particular is a lofty one indeed.

"We are going to be the finest urban campus in the nation," he says matter-of-factly. "I believe that. It is not a line. This place was really close to achieving greatness, and all this work will just push us over the top."

However, much work still needs to be done. He mentions the upcoming Hodson Hall construction, the work on the plaza in front of Levering Hall and the demolition of Merryman Hall.

"That is the nice thing about Hopkins," he says. "There is just a never-ending series of things to work on."

Weather permitting, of course.