125 Years of History

Wohlsen Construction Company
Written by Robert Hoshowsky

Coming to the United States at just sixteen, Herman Wohlsen would leave a permanent mark on central Pennsylvania. Over a decade later, in 1890, the young carpenter’s business had grown into the Wohlsen Construction Company, founded on the principles of integrity, respect for all customers, efficient service and an unparalleled commitment to detail.
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Taking on a wide range of new construction, historic restoration work and major renovation and addition projects, Wohlsen proudly serves customers throughout the Mid-Atlantic states. The provision of exceptional service and quality continues to earn the company numerous repeat clients and new business.

Continuing its commitment to time-tested quality, Wohlsen Construction also has its eye on the future. The company’s skill sets include green (LEED®) building, and it has been taking on a range of historic preservation projects. Over thirty staff have achieved professional green credentials, and Wohlsen has two LEED certified office locations in Lancaster and Harrisburg. Wohlsen Construction has the capabilities, highly-trained employees, and over a century of expertise, to handle all construction jobs. The company tackles all types of projects from senior living, healthcare, commercial/industrial and public schools to military facilities, recreation centers, cultural/religious centers and exacting historic preservation.

“Many years ago, one of Herman Wohlsen’s buildings was the first Woolworth’s store in the country, in Lancaster,” says Mike Funck, the company’s senior vice president. The six-storey building “even had a green roof on it, so it was ahead of its time as far as green approaches go.”

Starting with Wohlsen Construction just over two decades ago as a project engineer, Funck became senior vice president two years ago and has seen the company’s growth and steady development. Wohlsen Construction now employs approximately 300 staff. The company continues to build on the reputation of its founder as it celebrates 125 successful years in business, commemorating the event with a special logo and creating a number of events to recognize employees.

The company does not work within a particular dollar range, although projects typically average between $5 million and $70 million. The average project comes in around the $10 million range. Working on a mix of large and smaller projects at the same time – it has its own small projects group – the company has fostered long-term relationships with subcontractors within numerous marketplaces. These relationships enable it to not only service the requirements of all clients but deliver “the best product at the best price.”

To better meet the needs of all customers, Wohlsen has six full-service offices located in four states. The company’s latest office opened in Media, PA. Adding to its presence in Pennsylvania, the new office stands as a testament to Wohlsen’s ongoing commitment to serve its many clients.

Wohlsen’s services are diverse, and it assists clients from project inception to completion. The company offers preconstruction planning and consulting, cost estimating, site analysis, commissioning, project management, HVAC analysis, post-construction services, electronic project archives, warranties, operations/maintenance manuals, post-project reviews, one-year walkthrough meetings, and much more.

Although highly experienced in both design and build, the company made a decision to partner with architects and engineers instead of having design capabilities in-house. “They may have more expertise in a particular design field, and a better understanding of certain projects, such as senior care facilities versus higher education,” comments Funck.

Wohlsen not only assists with construction management services to ensure jobs meet expectations and cost overruns are minimized through proper scheduling. The company coordinates the entire project through its experienced managers who oversee craftsmen and specialty subcontractors – many who have had successful relationships with Wohlsen for decades. It also employs technologies such as building information modeling (BIM). This advanced software generates and manages an extensive array of physical/functional characteristics of places. It is growing in popularity and is used by the company to steer projects through planning, estimating, and construction management.

Wohlsen Construction is widely known for its work when it comes to preserving the past through historic restoration. Unlike present-day construction techniques, the preservation of historic structures requires an in-depth knowledge of the architecture, design, structural elements, colors, paints, wall coverings, and other materials used well over a century ago.

Among the company’s many historical projects is the Pennsylvania State Capitol for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The capitol building, completed in 1906, is the seat of government for the state of Pennsylvania and is located in downtown Harrisburg. Originally built at a cost of $13 million – unfurnished, the magnificent structure boasts stained-glass, Renaissance designs, and influences from Victorian, Roman, and Greek eras. The centerpiece of the capital is its enormous 272-foot tall dome, inspired by Michelangelo’s design for Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica.

“Wohlsen redid the dome of the capital, took Lady Liberty off the top and had it re-gilded, and renovated most of the entire facility,” says Funck, “and that was done historically.

“The original didn’t use wallcovering but almost a burlap-type product on the walls which was painted. So we actually brought in people who replicated that work.” Over twenty-three months, the company was responsible for a wide variety of additions and renovations. Waterproofing repairs were made to the fountain on the east side of the building. Among other repairs, the company was also entrusted with repairing existing structural steel and installing new structural steel framing and substrates; installing roof insulation; installing a new fibreglass walk around the perimeter of the roof; restoring, repairing, and replacing 320 window components; cutting, demolishing, and removing the existing ceramic tile gutter system and substrates.

Together with architect Perfido/Weiskopf/Graves/Nobel, the company received the Award of Excellence – National Associated Builders and Contractors for its magnificent work on the 80,000 square-foot structure. There were a number of challenges in the historic project. Workers were active from seven at night until seven the next morning to ensure the operations of the Capitol were uninterrupted.

Other projects, such as the renovation of the historic Nemours Mansion and Gardens, saw the company responsible for restoring or upgrading many aspects of the thirty-acre site: the roof; electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems; fire detection and suppression systems; and the foundation which was waterproofed. It also installed ADA compliant ramping and carefully cataloged, removed, restored and then reinstalled all materials from the historic garden, including stonework, fountains and statues.

The restoration, carried out for the Nemours Foundation, took nearly two years, and saw Wohlsen win the Construction Excellence Award – Delaware Contractors Association and the Award of Merit – Delaware Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors.

Wohlsen has earned the respect and business of numerous clients over the years. One of them is the acclaimed Franklin & Marshall College, which itself has a history of academic excellence going back almost 230 years. Among the Wohlsen Construction’s projects for the college are the Bonchek College House, the Brooks College House, the Japanese Garden, Klehr Center for Jewish Life, New College House, and Weis College House.

The Bonchek College House saw the construction of a one-storey addition to the South Ben Franklin Residential Hall, located on the college campus. The addition sports a library, meeting room, granite terrace walls, custom-fabricated fireplace and bench and seminar room. The job also saw a number of sustainable building features including a green roof system, energy recovery unit and a vegetated roof that allowed for decreased storm water run-off.

Where some construction companies take on green projects as an afterthought or as a token effort, Wohlsen has demonstrated its genuine commitment to environmental initiatives since the early 2000s. With staff possessing professional green credentials, the company continues to lead the way with green initiatives, even in its own LEED Silver operations in Lancaster. In environmental and sustainable business practices, the company does everything possible to benefit the planet. It participates in recycling at all of its offices; has a sustainability committee and mandatory sustainability training for all staff with monthly sustainability reporting; has solar panels on the roof; and purchases 100% Energy Star rated equipment.

“If one of our construction projects is LEED or not, we collect recycling on job sites,” states Funck. “Waste doesn’t go into landfills if we can recycle or reclaim things. We do everything possible to make sure material doesn’t go into a landfill. It helps the environment and it helps us too because it is less expensive to go to a recycling facility than it is to go to a landfill.”

Wohlsen takes on approximately four to five LEED projects per year and has seen a rise in LEED projects, of various levels, in recent years. Even if a project does not involve LEED, training of superintendents and staff in the aspects of green construction helps them to understand what to look for, even down to adhesives containing non-volatile components as opposed to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – the chemicals and fumes that can be harmful to health. By having staff properly trained, the company can ensure all projects are LEED – or green – from start to finish.

The company has seen considerable growth recently in senior housing, continuing care, retirement facilities, assisted living and independent housing. “Almost half our business right now is in that sector – driven by population demographics and where things are heading with the baby boomers,” comments Funck. The business is also seeing a rise in other healthcare projects.

Keeping not only customers and staff satisfied, Wohlsen also has numerous close ties with contractors and suppliers and has created a web-based plan room for them to submit qualifications, bid on projects and review documents on-screen without wasting paper.

“As technology increases and we are getting further away from paper for documents, we – have been getting away from paper for about ten to fifteen years – are trying to provide things electronically, through the website, through invitations and also have a link to the document electronically that the subcontractors and suppliers can use.”

Averaging seven to ten percent growth per year, Wohlsen Construction projects that 2015 will see its largest income to date, about $330 million, with growth expected to continue over the next five years. The company anticipates a rise in hospitality projects in the coming years as it penetrates further into current and new markets.

“Senior care, healthcare and education are our primary markets,” says Funck, “but I would say developing a brand within those markets, and focusing on them, has given us a lot of opportunity, and those markets are all pretty close-knit too. If you do a good job at one place, word gets around, so we really strive to create what we call raving fans who help grow our business and make sure our clients are more than satisfied.”

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