Coffee Chat with Joe Harrison, Sr Construction Manager

As part of our Coffee Chat series, a Capstone employee will be interviewed each month and featured in our monthly newsletter, The Erudite. For the December issue, the editors of The Erudite sat down with Joe Harrison.

Joe joined Capstone in 1994 and throughout his tenure at Capstone has led the construction management divisions of the company and has overseen and been a part of over 34,000 beds of student housing. Throughout his career, Joe has traveled the country constantly broadening and sharing his experience and knowledge of student housing construction. Joe has been a fixture and valued leader within the Capstone Companies for nearly 3 decades. At the end of the year, Joe will be retiring from Capstone. We hope you will join us in wishing Joe happiness and fulfillment in his retirement and best wishes ahead as he spends more time with his family and revisits past hobbies.

Joe Harrison – Sr. Construction Manager

Virginia Tech, 1973; 1975

Bachelor of Science in Building Construction

Masters of Business Administration

Where are you from originally? 
I grew up in Salem, VA

Did you live on-campus?Yes

What was your dorm like? It was an older building, basically cinder block construction and VCT floors, radiator steam heat and no A/C, with a gang bathroom down the hall. Our rooms were not very big. I was in the VT Corp of Cadets so our room was pretty spartan especially my RAT (Freshman) year. We weren’t allowed to have stereos, tv’s, etc. We had a bunk bed, sink, two desks and two wardrobes. Our room were inspected everyday as Freshman. We were allowed very few “civilian” clothes besides our uniforms. The dining was separate from the building and we had a full formation of the Corp and then marched to breakfast and dinner every day. We wore uniforms every day, including to class. During my freshman year, the military dorms were in the upper quad, and we had to march going to class as well. That eventually phased out, because over time there were more civilian students than there were military students – we were great targets for snowballs in the winter!

What made you choose Virginia Tech? I grew up 45 minutes from Virginia Tech, so since the beginning of high school was a VT fan. I applied to University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and Roanoke College and got accepted at all of them, but I had been working summers in construction and thought I wanted to be an architect, so I decided to start in the architecture program at Virginia Tech. I did okay in that program, but the architecture program was a little strange because the students did a lot of lab work. You really got a lot more interaction and feedback from your professors at night than you ever did during the day at class. The architecture lab building was in the lower quad but since I was in the Corp, I had to get special permission to go to the lab at night. The end of my freshman year I talked to a few architecture firms in Roanoke about working for them, and they recommended I take drafting classes working on building details first, before they would consider hiring me. At the time, the architecture school didn’t have those programs but the building construction program did. I went and talked to the building construction department and realized I fit in a lot better there than I did in the architecture school. In construction teachings you worried about what things cost, but in architecture school, cost was no object. So, after my freshman year I switched to building construction. Then, each summer I worked in construction after that.

Did you work during college? Yes. What job did you have? During the academic year I pumped gas and during the summers I worked construction on weekdays as a laborer / carpenter and on weekends I worked at the local airport working the radio for planes flying in and out of Blacksburg, VA. I was also in the pilot training program at Virginia Tech. Did you get your pilot’s license? I did. When I got out of school and the military, I flew a little bit, but flying is expensive, especially when you are a newlywed and getting setup.

Favorite class from college? Land Planning & Design – In a summer class after my junior year we were given an actual plot of land in Richmond, VA and had to design and develop a mixed-use development with house plans, a commercial strip center and elementary school.  We actually made a budget proforma for the development, so we had to do some estimating, understand the local codes, etc. Then at the end they evaluated and picked a winner. We probably pulled two or three all-nighters the week before it was due. The developer who owned the land judged the projects and I won $800 for having the best project.

Is there a podcast that you are you listening to right now or book that you are reading? Movie / binge watch tv show? I love war movies old or new, sci-fi and adventure movies. I mainly watch sports on TV, and also crime/cop shows. My favorite movie is Midway (1976) or Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970).

Before working at Capstone, what was the most unusual or interesting job you’ve ever had? I was the senior manager for a Contractor managing the construction of Kodak Imagination! pavilion and Germany and Italy pavilions at EPCOT at Disney World. True to Disney’s design creativity – the project featured new technologies and design that had never been implemented before. The Kodak Imagination! pavilion was designed with a huge glass pyramid. The design team didn’t want any visible bolts for the space crane that was to hold up the glass pyramid — which had never been done before. The pavilion also had a big pond / pool that had an upside down waterfall created by pressurized water that was brought up the side of the pond. In the plaza there were shooting water streams that would jump from pot to pot — that hadn’t been done before.

What do you do in your free time?  I spend most of my time watching my grandkids play travel baseball, softball and basketball and I also manage to do a little fishing with my son. When I retire, I hope to pick my woodworking back up and hopefully travel again when COVID is over and pick my photography skills back up. I have a half dozen projects that I have been trying to finish for 20 years, like an antiqued wood ice box that I am refinishing.

What’s something most people don’t know about you? I marched with VT Regimental Band “Highty Tighties” in Nixon’s inaugural parade. The Band wears the white Presidential citation ribbon and shoulder chord still to this day. What instrument did you play in the band? I played saxophone freshman – junior year and snare drum my senior year. In the military band we always tried to have a full row of drums and a full row of sousaphone.  For the Inauguration parade I was asked to play the sousaphone because I was big enough to carry it for the parade and I was a RAT. So, I learned to play 2 songs on the sousaphone — it was kind of a month crash course on how to play the sousaphone.

Further, After I graduated from Virginia Tech I enlisted in the Army on active duty; I was hoping to be a helicopter pilot. But of the 12 of us that finished the pilot training program in college, only 1 of us got to fly an actual helicopter and that was after 6 years. So, after my 2 years I had the option to leave the Army and go into the Amy Reserves. So, I served in the Reserves for 7 years until I was honorably discharged. In the Army I was a Commissioned Officer and I was a Captain in the Reserves.

It sounds like you and your wife, Carla, traveled around a good bit before settling in Birmingham, is that right?

Yes. My first job out of college was with a company out of Pennsylvania and I was in their executive development program, I was there for 3 years, transitioning from construction to engineering management to computer modeling. After that I moved onto a development company based in Iowa that developed shopping centers and malls – I primarily worked in South Dakota and Colorado during that time. After some time with that developer, I was assigned my job down in Florida where we worked on the Disney job that was previously discussed. Once the Disney job was completed I ended up moving on to another company that was actually based here in Birmingham, AL. Carla and I eventually moved to Birmingham and I worked for that company for 17 years before joining Capstone. Now, after 26 years at Capstone, I am looking forward to retiring at the end of 2020.

What do you enjoy most about working on college campuses? I have always enjoyed the challenges of taking a project from conception to reality and working with a different group of people on each project. I also enjoy seeing the students and families and their excitement of moving into either new or renovated facilities.

What has been your most rewarding project? I was the construction manager on our South Campus Commons project at the University of Maryland in College Park for all 4 phases of that development – a 10-year project. Because of the length of the project, we developed long-term relationships with the contractor, Whiting-Turner, and the University administration.  Most recently, I was also the construction manager on the new Woodlawn Commons project at the University of Chicago. While we had a lot of challenges due to a changed construction site that caused us to be under the gun to get the design and construction going it was great because we had a team that worked together really well. Our Contractor, Turner Construction did a really good job of moving the schedule and keeping things on-track.  They were very proactive and when we found issues – we would find solutions. It was a qualified group and good group to work with. I also enjoyed working with several of the key players on the University side. They were good about getting timely decisions when we needed them to keep the project on-schedule.

Finally, as you are retiring at the end of the year, is there anything that you would like to add or relay to our college and university partners as they endeavor on new student housing projects for their campuses? I’d just like to thank all our university partners and team members for the opportunity to work with them to develop and build some wonderful housing and dining projects.