Jim Grossmann RISE Construction Management

Rising along with the multi-unit residential market

Spotlight on Jim Grossmann and RISE Construction Management

Boasting a vibrant economy, good quality of life, rich history, and many other attributes, the Boston area is among the country’s most desirable places to live. That has led to a wave of new arrivals and with it, an enormous demand for housing. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council projects that more than 400,000 new housing units, mostly in Boston and surrounding urban areas, will be needed by the year 2040.

One of the companies seizing on the demand and helping to address the urgent need is RISE Construction Management. The general contractor is focused primarily on small and medium-sized, multi-unit, residential projects. Launched about three years ago by construction industry veterans, the firm is taking a unique approach to the market it has targeted.

“We bring the sophistication of a large company, but scaled down to a comparatively small firm,” says Jim Grossmann, co-founder and partner. “And we are committed to the building trades. We build 100% union and leverage that expertise in the middle market.”

Housing, it turns out, has long played a significant role in Grossmann’s life and career arc.

Growing up in East Boston, his family lived in the Orient Heights Projects, a Boston Housing Authority development. Starting at age 14, he worked for his cousin, a homebuilder, and learned the basics of carpentry and construction on the job. When he was 17, the BHA was renovating the Orient Heights Projects. Grossmann responded to a call for Section 3 workers, which gives low-income residents an opportunity to participate in construction projects in which they live. As a condition of the job, he joined the carpenters union.

Although still a teenager, he was part of the crew that renovated all 1,200 units of the East Boston development. After high school, he continued to work with the carpenters while pursuing a degree in accounting at night. The numbers just didn’t add up, however.

“I did an internship at Massport auditing payrolls and thought, ‘I cannot do this for the rest of my career,’ ” Grossmann says. “By my fourth year, I hated accounting.”

With his degree in hand, he returned to construction and got a job as assistant superintendent at Suffolk Construction, one of the region’s largest general contractors. Instead of working with spreadsheets and payrolls, Grossmann was working with people, which was much more to his liking. He spent most of his time in the field at construction sites for projects such as Manulife’s headquarters in Boston’s Seaport, the Mandarin Oriental Boston, and One Dalton, the high rise building that houses the Four Seasons hotel and luxury condos.

“Personal interactions are what fuels my passion,” Grossmann says, explaining why he enjoys the construction industry. He admires the individual craftsmanship involved, but he notes the work requires people to have good interpersonal skills and to work together collaboratively. “The plumbers have to work with the electricians and other trades. That’s what I love about this business.”

Grossmann spent the first 16 years of his tenure with Suffolk shepherding projects in and around Boston. But the locally based company, which performs some $4.5 billion of work per year, has satellite offices around the country and builds about 50% of its projects outside the region. For his final five years with the GC, Grossmann served as its national COO. In that position, he oversaw all the company’s projects, including the Encore Casino in Everett. But he also spent a lot of time on the road. Grossmann’s travels took him to Florida, for example, where Suffolk handled the construction of two Hard Rock Casino Hotels. (Interestingly, the hotel in Fort Lauderdale is shaped like a guitar.)

After a half decade away from his home, Grossmann realized he missed Boston and its people. He also decided it was time to try something new. With his partner, Brian Anderson, he founded RISE.

While he was away, Grossmann gained a new perspective and appreciation for the building trades in Boston.

“I mean this sincerely. I have traveled and seen workforces across the country. I truly believe the best trained and safest workforce is right here in Boston,” he says. “They are so good at what they do, it’s not even close.” What is it that distinguishes the workers in this region? “The unions,” Grossmann affirms. “We respect our workers here.”

The training is exemplary, he notes. But it’s more than that. “You need leadership that cares about their workers. There is a culture within the building trades here where everyone has everyone else’s back. That doesn’t happen without great leadership,” adds Grossmann.

That’s why a union workforce is among the tenets that RISE embraces. “It allows us to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace,” says Grossmann.

RISE has carved a unique niche in other ways. In recent years, market dynamics created many projects that soared past the $100 million threshold in and around Boston, and GCs raced to scoop them up. Grossmann reasoned that left a gap in the middle market–jobs that range from $20 to $75 million–which is where RISE has focused its attention.

Sullivan Square project RISE Construction Management
Among RISE Construction Management’s projects is Sullivan Square, a proposed mixed-use development in Boston. It would include 851 housing units as well as hotel rooms and office/lab space.

Specifically, the general contractor mostly pursues relatively small, mid-rise, wood podium residential projects such as the 341-unit Allston Square, the 55-unit Nevins Hill in Brighton, and the 149-unit 35 Braintree Street in Allston. Historically, jobs such as these have been the province of open-market shops that use a low-skilled workforce. RISE, on the other hand, sees union subcontractors such as Local 12 as a partner. A few years ago, the local established a residential division to handle the kind of projects that RISE targets.

Why is the contractor committed to a union workforce? Partly, Grossmann says, it traces back to his personal experience as a member of the carpenters union. He appreciated the way he was treated, including earning a living wage and getting proper health care and benefits. But mostly, Grossmann sees it as sound business practice.

“We get a highly experienced and, frankly, better workforce,” he says. “We are able to provide an institutional-grade, high-quality product built to high standards in this market. It speaks to our ability to deliver.”

The young company must be doing something right. It has experienced phenomenal growth, rising from $14 million of revenue in its first year to $50 million in its second. Grossmann projects it will generate $150 million this year and looks to be $225 million in 2023.

As for the future, RISE is exploring the higher education market with projects such as dormitory renovations at Harvard University and some small projects at Northeastern University. It is the same middle market approach, but with institutional buyers, says Grossmann. Likewise, it is dabbling in healthcare by replacing an MRI unit at New England Baptist. But the company’s bread and butter remains residential projects.

The economy may appear a bit wobbly now, but Grossmann believes Boston’s residential market, fueled by demand, is robust and fairly recession proof. “We have about 2,000 units in the pipeline now, and we are actively pursuing more,” he says. “That’s the foundation for our company.”

Telling stories with buildings

– Spotlight on David P. Manfredi and Elkus Manfredi

The construction industry is highly collaborative and requires many interdependent players in order for buildings to get built. Within our own ranks, Local 12 plumbers need GBPCA contractors to provide the projects and the infrastructure so that they can work–just as the contractors rely on the plumbers to get the work done. The plumbers, in turn, have to work cooperatively with other building trades as part of an integrated, team effort.

Comparing building projects to movies, which by their nature also require a great deal of collaboration, general contractors are like film directors. They oversee the process and orchestrate the subcontractors (who are the cast and crew in this analogy) to bring buildings to life.

But it all starts with architects. They are the ones who conjure buildings in the first place. They write the scripts, if you will, and tell the stories of what buildings will be. One of the region’s most prominent and visionary firms is Elkus Manfredi Architects, led by David P. Manfredi, CEO and founding principal. Its vast portfolio of projects, which includes some of the Boston area’s most noteworthy buildings, also spans across the country and beyond.

David P. Manfredi Boston architect
David P. Manfredi
Photo: Ben Cheung

At first glance, it might come as a surprise to learn that Manfredi originally pursued English Literature. It was only after earning a graduate degree in the subject that he made his way to architecture school.

“I took a circuitous path,” Manfredi says, noting that his father was a carpenter and home builder. He remembers coming home as a young child from his dad’s construction sites covered in mud. Throughout high school and college, he swung a hammer alongside his father. That influence eventually led Manfredi into the industry.

But, he believes, his passion for literature still plays a part in his chosen profession. “We are storytellers,” says Manfredi, characterizing architects. “Telling the narrative of how we design, persuading people of our ideas, is a big part of what we do.”

Another reason that Manfredi shifted career paths is that he truly enjoys engaging with others, both within his firm and with the engineers, clients, contractors, subcontractors, and others who work on his designs. Whereas literature is typically a singular, and sometimes lonely, pursuit, architecture demands camaraderie and collegiality. So instead of focusing on literary works, Manfredi weaves three-dimensional stories with his design projects.

Design diversity is among founding principles

After working together with Howard Elkus at The Architects Collaborative in Cambridge, the two formed Elkus Manfredi Architects in 1988. (Elkus passed away in 2017.) From the start, the two decided that they didn’t want to be pigeonholed into a building type. They were too curious about the entire design spectrum and eager to tackle a variety of projects. As a result, the firm has produced landmark life science campuses, office buildings, hotels, residential complexes, retail projects, academic buildings, houses of worship, cultural institutions, and more.

While they never wanted to be a single-purpose firm, Manfredi says they always wanted to be a single-office firm. Their work can be found in Los Angeles, Florida, Chicago, Houston, and elsewhere, but it all emanates from one base.

“We’re here in Boston. This is where we live as well as work,” says Manfredi. “We’re committed to the city.”

Boston is also home to many of the firm’s signature projects, including the Pier 4 mixed-use office building, the 14-acre Boston Landing development and the adjacent New Balance headquarters on the Mass Pike, and the restoration of the Paramount Theatre. Elkus Manfredi projects outside of the region include The Grove, an urban retail and entertainment destination in Los Angeles; the vast, multi-use Miami Worldcenter development; and The LINQ Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Among the projects that Manfredi considers to be the firm’s most significant is The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

New Balance headquarters at Boston Landing
Photo: © Robert Benson

“The work we’ve done at the Broad Institute is really important to me, because the work they do is so important,” Manfredi says, citing its breakthrough genomics research. The building is designed to be flexible so that the Institute can be agile and adapt to the rapidly evolving science. “In some very small way, we were able to support what they are doing,” he adds.

Other projects Manfredi singles out include the new corporate headquarters for MassMutual on Fan Pier; the 44-story residential apartment tower, The Alcott, set to open later this year in the West End; and multiple life science projects, including research and development hubs for Pfizer and Novartis.

Collaborating with mechanical contractors

GBPCA contractor Cannistraro has worked on many projects together with Elkus Manfredi including Vertex Pharmaceuticals’ global headquarters in the Seaport and the InterContinental Boston hotel on the waterfront. President John C. Cannistraro, Jr. admires the scope of its design portfolio.

“David’s firm is unique in its range of talent. On the one hand are these massive commercial projects. In the other is the pencil that designs building restorations which are more mystical and spiritual,” Cannistraro says. Among his favorites is Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. “I did not work on that one but find it more peaceful that way when I visit and look up in wonder.”

Cannistraro says that the working relationships between subcontractors and architects have been evolving. Mechanical contractors, he says, are sometimes brought in during the pre-construction phase to help shape the design of a project. The pandemic, Cannistraro believes, has accelerated the trend. The calamity has enabled those in the construction industry to reconsider the ways that they work together and has made them more open to new ideas and processes.

Cathedral of the Holy Cross
Photo: © Robert Benson

Manfredi agrees with Cannistraro’s assessment, noting that increased collaboration has allowed the construction industry to do things more accurately and faster than ever before. He also says that subcontractors, architects, and other building trades are more dependent on one another than ever before. 

“We start it, and it ends up with subcontractors. By the time the building gets built, we’ve all had our hands in it,” Manfredi says. “It’s all positive–all for the good.” Citing Cannistraro’s massive, new pre-fabrication plant in the Seaport, he notes that “it helps them offer better coordination, higher quality, and better durability. That’s good for all of us.”

Respect for the trades

Manfredi’s regard for the building trades can be traced back to his father, the home builder. “I tell young architects all the time to listen to the people who are going to build your buildings because you’ll learn a lot. They’ll often know how to build what we envision.”

He acknowledges that his firm’s success is dependent on the success of the trades. “Hopefully, the trades feel the same way,” Manfredi adds. “We recognize in Boston that the talent resides in the union trades. I think we’re really fortunate to have a lot of innovation in the trades here.”

Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager, says that Elkus Manfredi has made a huge impact in and around Boston with its collection of projects. He notes that the firm’s designs are both aesthetically striking and rooted in practical function. “It’s an honor for us to work on its buildings.”

As with virtually everything else, the pandemic has been disruptive for Manfredi’s firm. He says that he and his colleagues have discovered that they can be surprisingly productive using technology and working remotely. That’s been a revelation, but Manfredi longs for a return to in-person collaboration. He hopes there is a way to combine some of the technology breakthroughs that have emerged with the industry’s best collaborative practices and reinvent the architectural design process.

There are new buildings to build and new stories to tell in the post-pandemic world. Perhaps there are new ways to join together and tell these three-dimensional stories.