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Right-sizing, why did I not have this in my vocabulary before ’07?  Makes sense. We are constructors of buildings and handle the civil management of projects, but the bottom line is that we are service providers. Just like architects, engineers, lawyers, bankers or accountants, all service providers of different sorts.

We need to be adjusting( or at least thinking about) our overhead and other needs such as office space and selling space, if you are retailer, routinely. Constantly thinking about expanding or contracting to “right-size”.

The last three years everybody has been downsizing in the “right size” process but going the other way is equally profitable. In the last 2 months, we have hired two more office team members. Getting ready slowly as the economy heals.

Seems our retail customers are working smarter and as are our office building customers. Getting more out of less.  Some of the retailers are combining the Internet and their stores more effectively. Someone orders on the Internet and it is shipped from a store. Someone does not like their order from the Internet, they returned to the store. The stores provides a retail environment and a distribution center. Be more efficient and right sizing, a double win for the company  and a win for the customer.

Maybe I can be more disciplined in the future:

  • I promise to watch our G&A more closely which is profit spent on something else
  • I am going to try to be quicker with the decision, than I have in the past, to upsize or downsize (a common problem among contractors)

We see many good opportunities in what we have learned. What are your thoughts?


Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

As I see it, the need for large store platforms is diminishing, for a while at least. The retail community is starting to think outside the box.

When the economy was booming and credit was easy to obtain, consumers were buying goods at a record pace. Retailers began building bigger and bigger box stores to meet the demand. Now that the economy has cooled and credit has tightened, people aren’t buying as much. Fewer goods are required to satisfy the decreased demand, and suddenly these stores don’t need that extra space. Most of the new box stores we are building today are 15 to 20 percent smaller than five years ago.

But what about all the old locations that companies have abandoned? There are nearly 9,000 box stores ranging in size from 15,000 to 50,000 square feet sitting empty in the United States. What should we do with all this space? There are several possibilities:

Adaptive reuse. Take a building and modify it into something different from its original intended purpose. A prime example can be found in North Carolina, where the old American Tobacco Company has been transformed into condos and office space.

Backfilling. Bring in new stores to take over empty space in malls and other shopping centers. Be creative. There is no reason why an old department store can’t find a new retail life.

Rightsizing. Turn a single store into multiple units. Take a 50,000 square foot box and divide it into two 25,000 square foot stores (or three 16,000 square foot entities). Both Walmart and Target announced recently that they are looking to open smaller 20,000 footprint stores in urban areas

The buildings are there, waiting to be used. We just need to effectively redevelop and remodel them for the good of the communities.



Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

Did you know that in the U.S., only one new enclosed mall has opened in the last 4 years? In that same time, it has been estimated that nearly 500 of the 2,000+ malls in our country have closed. That translates to a lot of property and structures available for immediate use. But who wants to buy mall space nobody is frequenting? That’s where a growing trend comes into play.

Renovation and adaptive re-use of malls and other commercial properties is on the rise. Many of these properties are strategically located but need to be oriented in another direction. The focus is on taking existing assets and making them stronger by redeveloping them or retrofitting them for a use different from the original intent.

According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Simon Properties has earmarked its entire $200 million-plus construction budget this year for renovation and redevelopment rather than new building. Others are taking a similar path by changing vacant properties for completely new uses. From my involvement, I see this movement continuing, at least in the short and mid term future.

Another trend we see is, where weather permits, the concept of opening enclosed spaces to the outdoors. It’s “de-malling” the mall, so to speak. That doesn’t mean the existing structures have to be torn down. We are just finding new ways to use these older properties.

The bonus? Adapting existing structures for new use is about as green as it gets. We’re not disturbing any untouched land and we’re cutting back on suburban sprawl. It’s a win-win.



Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

We were asked recently to help one of our customers with a damaged concrete sidewalk. Sounds simple enough, but it wasn’t just any sidewalk. This one was elevated and it was absolutely necessary for this office facility that the sidewalk remain navigable for the tenants through out the repair process.

In years past, if someone wanted to change the appearance of a concrete surface or repair it, we would have had to cut out the entire floor and replace it, incurring great expense along the away. But new technology called micro-topping has made it significantly easier and less cost prohibitive to make such alterations. That’s the route we chose for this project.

The troweled-on, cementitious topping is paper-thin, yet bonds to most any substrate, from concrete and asphalt to wood. Because it is not confined to the color limitations of chemical stains, micro-topping allows for bright designs to be placed into an existing floor of a different color.

Even if the world is not your canvas, your floor can be.



Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

I’m sure you’ve heard the industry’s excitement about LEED certified construction. Once considered more ideology than practicality, we’re realizing that green building can actually be more cost effective than traditional methods. The trend is catching on, and it’s not just private companies who’ve embraced sustainability. In 2006, government agencies began requiring all new buildings meet certain LEED certification thresholds. This translates to a huge emerging market for our industry.

But what about major cities, where construction is land-locked? Retrofitting and remodeling become essential since structures are already standing. The prime example? New York City.

The Hearst Tower, home to publishing company Hearst Corporation, shows the trend in action. Completed in 2006, it became the first occupied commercial building in NYC to achieve a LEED “Gold Rating.”

Norman Foster of Foster + Partners designed the Tower to be constructed over and around an existing 6-story building. The new entry plaza houses the entire shell of that base, which was erected in 1928. Truly a marriage of old and new, the Tower was constructed from recycled steel, and uses 26 percent less energy than conventional NYC buildings.

Sustainable features include:

  • Rainwater collection on the roof to replace water lost in air conditioning system and reduce sewer deposits
  • A 2-story “Icefall” in the atrium area uses chilled collected rainwater to cool the vast area in summer and humidify in winter
  • Coated glass to reduce solar radiation and cooling load
  • Sensor-controlled artificial light based on amount of natural light available
  • Walls coated with low vapor paints
  • Low toxicity furniture, furnishings and carpeting constructed from sustainable or recycled materials
  • Concrete surfaces treated with low toxicity sealants

I think the words of Old Blue Eyes sum it up perfectly: “I’ll make a brand new start of it, in old New York; If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” If Foster + Partners can make LEED Gold happen in midtown Manhattan, we can do it anywhere.



Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

HVAC (Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning) systems have evolved and gotten better with technology.  Matching system requirements with the need and with quality will always trump the bells and whistles. Over the years I have worked with a number of HVAC subcontractors and a few thoughts come to mind that might be useful:

Depending on the application and occupancy, a higher SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating) for equipment is preferable most of the time. A higher the SEER means more expensive equipment, but the lower operating cost is a win for energy and your occupants.

When selecting the right HVAC system, keep in mind the occupancy type vs. the long-term cost of maintenance. Chilled water/boiler systems will require preventive maintenance for a chiller, cooling tower, boiler, heat exchanger, etc to a greater extent than a DX (direct expansion) unitary system. A DX split or packaged system will be a handful of components that are readily available and replaced at a minimal cost.

Most of the HVAC system cost is in the equipment and control system. Both are important to system sustainability. Duct systems normally require little maintenance if quality materials, closure systems, sealants and higher “R” value insulation are used. Providing the correct type of air distribution is just as vital as selecting the equipment and will maximize coverage, eliminate the draft effect on occupants as well as air noise transmitted from the device due to a high velocity (fpm) of air.


There’s a big debate over whether to use programmable thermostats or fully automated systems. Most projects perform well with proper zoning and programmable thermostats as opposed to extensive control systems that require increased up front cost and service for the life of the system.

Each control system has a place in the “right choice column.” A commercial building operating from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. will have different needs than an institutional building or medical facility. The challenge with a fully automated system is it’s almost always proprietary in nature and can only be serviced by the brand vender, leaving the building owner with no other option for value shopping. A stand-alone zoned system with programmable thermostats is fairly user-friendly and can be serviced by any commercial company. This dramatically reduces long-term replacement and/or maintenance cost for the end user.

To me, when it is all said and done, you need a cost-efficient system that will deliver the performance and can be maintained without having to go to the banker every time a failure happens.



Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

We recently completed a major expansion for a customer relationship in Charlotte, NC. A regular shopper at the store sent me this note: “You guys were invisible. Every week during the project I would shop there and things just seemed to change. I never noticed who was doing the changing.”

I didn’t expect such a nice unsolicited note. This job was the 800-pound gorilla of all projects. It covered 130,000 square feet and none of the four walls were square with each other. We expanded in three directions, with tight site conditions on two sides. Relocation of utilities had to take place, the store had to stay open and the adjoining tenants had to remain satisfied.

The store remained open seven days a week and their sales actually increased during this time. (We were thrilled since it’s every contractor’s nightmare to be blamed for a decline of revenue.)

Our project manager offered these takeaways for success:

• Take a holistic approach from design to construction. Promote clear and constant communications with everyone involved.

• Be aggressive and detailed with scheduling. Retrofits and open-store remodels will take much more hands-on work to be successful.

• Work hand-in-glove with the municipality and constantly be thinking when working through inevitable challenges.

• Create temporary offices and customer service areas to foster good customer relationships.

• Make use of 2nd or 3rd shifts when performing demolition as to not disturb the adjoining business or tenants. Surrounding tenants can shut you down with complaints in a second flat.

• Be aware of security needs. Add an additional guard at key times to keep the project moving rather than bottleneck construction to one door at a time.

• Make it look like you aren’t there. Be invisible to customers and surrounding businesses.

• Maintain routine communications whether you’re sharing the good, the bad or the ugly.

• Take total ownership in the process. Never be afraid to admit a mistake.

• Make extra efforts to keep everything clean during the process. You’ll produce a better quality product and ensure project safety.


Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

Several years ago, we worked with a non-profit community organization to construct their new headquarters and campus. Their chair was the second-generation head of a very large family business and a successful company with offices in about 30 countries. As were finishing up a design meeting, he shared some wise words: “We only have one chance to get it right the first time.” That thought has stayed with me and is the way we try to do our jobs.

Recently, I asked Robbie Cather in our office to share his thoughts on pre-planning for a successful renovation or expansion project. Here are the takeaways:

· Take your whole team to visit the space. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a visit is worth a million.

· Get access to original drawings if you can. Unforeseen conditions can be a big problem, and having those blueprints is the first step to getting a complete picture of what’s there.

· Carefully consider reusing existing building components if you can, including structural elements for maximum benefit.

· Have some flexibility to capture value. Creative reuse and recycling can integrate your brand using what’s there. Save some money and time in the process.

· Ensure you have an adequate plan for existing utilities including depths, locations, sizes and electrical loads. These should be evaluated for adequacy at the beginning of any project. Don’t assume where the pipe is; try and verify.

· Make the initial site survey precise. Misses result in unpredicted costs on the backend. Be thorough – involve the design team, and do your research. The drawings have to be accurate to put together good, complete pricing.

· Don’t sacrifice on the roof. Take advantage of budget surplus to plan for the future and install a new roof. Older roofs, even if still within their lifetime, will take abuse during the renovation. After they are stitched back together, they will never perform the same. In our experience, roofs are typically 10% of the cost and cause 90% of the problems.

· No matter how thorough you are, there will always be issues that come up unexpectedly. Have resources in reserve to deal with them.


Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.