See all the women featured in our 2019 Women in Construction series here.
With a penchant for problem-solving and assembling things, Kara Lewandowski stared down two career choices as a kid: engineer or professional baker. “My dad looked me in the eye and said, ‘Kara — you can always bake as a hobby,'" she joked, "And that is an excellent point."
Lewandowski’s graduation from North Carolina State University’s civil engineering program in 2007 coincided with the Great Recession slump, and after a relatively slow stint as a field engineer for Hensel Phelps, she headed to a region where there’d be no shortage of work. In 2010, New Orleans was clawing back from the damage left by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
As virtual construction coordinator at local firm Woodward Design+Build, Lewandowski contributed to structural engineering design coordination for one of the largest and most complex projects in city history, the Southeast Louisiana Veteran’s Health Care System Replacement Medical Center. The nine-building, 27-acre facility was designed to be practically hurricane-proof with essential infrastructure on upper levels, an independent power station, blast loading and more.
"She knew how to keep the train on the tracks with the skill and self-confidence of someone with far more experience.”
Central Division President
“The first floor was considered a throwaway floor,” Lewandowski explained, “so if they got another flood, all utilities and systems could be shut off to the first floor and the remainder of the campus would still function.” The emergency department on level two is accessible by a ramp that doubles as a boat dock while a 1,200-foot-long concourse on the fourth level provides pedestrian access to all buildings in the event of a flood.
The Department of Veterans Affairs tapped the joint venture of Clark Construction Group and McCarthy Building Co. to manage construction of the $1 billion hospital, which broke ground in June 2010 and opened in November 2016. Just three months in, Lewandowski was promoted to oversee mechanical, electrical and plumbing coordination as BIM manager for the full project, working closely with the design team, owner and medical equipment vendors to evaluate and redesign spaces as needed.
Keeping the train on the tracks
Lewandowski’s sensitivity to constantly evolving stakeholder relationships and ability to adapt to the many moving parts and pieces of an immensely complex project subsequently brought her to McCarthy’s attention, Central Division President John Buescher told Construction Dive.
Assistant project manager at McCarthy since 2015, she quickly proved that she knew how to “keep the train on the tracks,” he said, “with the skill and self-confidence of someone with far more experience.”
But Lewandowski is frequently characterized as humble. “She lets her performance speak for itself and that just makes her an approachable, reliable resource for other people in the region,” said Mike Stapf, vice president of design integration.
Lewandowski’s expertise and willingness to impart it in ways that serve the organization made her an obvious choice for a McCarthy team focused on improving operations by boosting its virtual design and construction (VDC) capabilities. In helping to set out a roadmap for a “BIM-enabled workforce,” Lewandowski defined some important distinctions between the roles of an office-based VDC team versus a field group, recognizing that an effective program “is really a marriage of both,” Stapf said.
Her job was essentially to tell the executive team how to be better, he added, but she did so in a way that inspired them and made them excited about the changes that could take place. McCarthy has since quadrupled the size of its VDC team, Stapf said, implementing the program on a growing number of projects.
Creating the Partnership for Women
It's no surprise that Lewandowski was asked by McCarthy leadership to play a role in developing the Partnership for Women program, which aims to support, retain and develop women at the company while targeting broader diversity goals.
Director Erin Valentine knew her to be the kind of thoughtful contributor that could help “peel away perception and get to those technical things that we can do that are going to be impactful.” In McCarthy’s Central Region, the program takes the form of periodic conference calls and in-person trainings on topics like emotional intelligence, conflict negotiation and building a professional network.
Bringing perspective from the field, Lewandowski also nudged the group to create some structure to the time between meetings, according to Valentine.
“What happens the rest of the year, and how do we help people feel that they’re not alone — that they have somebody they can talk to? … That was a gap that [Kara] helped us to identify and implement some process around,” she said.
Lewandowski also brings her experiences as a working mother to the field, emphasizing that open and honest communication with her team is key to juggling family and jobsite responsibilities. “One will jump ahead of the other at any given time,” she said, but tapping into a support network (and reciprocating when possible) makes it entirely doable. Lewandowski also has the bonus of working alongside her husband, a senior project manager at the company, who keeps a foot in both worlds and can help pick up the slack when one or the other becomes more demanding.
Bringing up a young child, Lewandowski is also attentive to the needs of those around her on her current jobsite — a roughly $100 million expansion to the Oklahoma Heart Hospital in Oklahoma City.
“Working around so many people who aren’t all aware of you and their hearts and minds are with their family having surgery — it brings a whole new aspect to the job,” she said. “Is it obvious where they’re supposed to go in order to be safe? Is there more that we can do to mitigate any impact?”
McCarthy has completed the two-story parking garage and central energy plant and topped out the 6-story tower, which will open doors in July 2020.
A jungle gym, not a ladder
Citing an analogy from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book "Lean In," Lewandowski describes her career trajectory as more of a jungle gym than a ladder.
Moving from heavy highway co-ops in college to design coordination to management of commercial projects today, she’s recognized as a well-rounded contributor across McCarthy.
Lewandowski encourages young construction professionals not to be afraid of lateral moves to encounter the “amazing avenues and niches” across the business and find one they’re passionate about — because after all, she said, “construction is not a nine-to-five."
And it’s a tough industry to boot. “There are challenges and hurdles that you have to overcome every day," Buescher said. "[Kara’s] attitude and the way she’s positive in the face of those challenges and adversity — it’s pretty infectious and it’s pretty important.”